Learning from mistakes

Thu Doan
By Thu Doan
Excedo blog in Learning reimagined Mar, 2019

It’s natural to fear failure. And making mistakes feels like failure. When we’re learning something new, it’s easy to be worried about the judgement of our teachers, managers, and peers, and nervous about seeming or sounding foolish. We want to be right. All the time.

But ironically I have found making mistakes is essential to effective learning. In fact, from my own experiences of learning second and third languages, making more mistakes and more often has been critical to learning faster and connecting with others.  Making mistakes can mean a colleague still talks to you and continues to exchange business ideas with you, despite your grammatical errors. Or making a mistake can mean sharing a memorable bonding laugh with a client after using a similar sounding word (with a very different meaning!).

The more mistakes I make in a new language, the more confident I feel to keep trying to communicate with others, to laugh at myself with others, and to ask questions when I didn’t understand the first time. It may not be intuitive to new language learners, but embracing mistakes works for language learning.  As Albert Einstein said, anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.

Excedo global language learning
Thu at a recent Excedo management meeting in Tokyo

The danger of perfection

Fear of failure is no basis on which to learn a new language: mistakes are a crucial part of the learning process.  The more mistakes you make, the more you will get used to the feeling and be able to realise and appreciate that you are learning.

When you aim for perfection, you end up trying to speak as little as possible to minimise the risk of doing something wrong. And as a result, you do not gain confidence to speak the language. And even more, you miss so many valuable chances to get feedback on how you can speak better.  Perfectionism is a tough and lonely path: it does not help your self-confidence, and it does not help you connect with others.

In the real world, people naturally want to connect, and want to find ways to communicate.  The perfection approach is a poor replication of the type of experience to expect in the real world. After all, to err is human, to forgive divine. And especially with the English language, most speakers are not only forgiving of small mistakes in speech or writing; in fact, a native English speaker tends to be impressed that they are talking with someone who has made the effort to learn their language. And given English is spoken between a greater number of non-native speakers, making mistakes is a natural norm and not an embarrassment for non-native English communicators. The traditional classroom model of instantly correcting mistakes is therefore unrealistic, ineffective, and damaging to learners’ confidence.

It's all about attitude

Combining a positive attitude towards mistakes with simulating real-life situations can be a powerful way of improving fluency and confidence for language learners. Language learning based upon real-life situations enables learners to achieve specific learning goals. For business learners, this could be using the target language to conduct a negotiation or securing agreement in a business meeting. The benefit of this approach is that language learners can immediately see the relevance of what they’re learning, and know that their success is judged on a meaningful business outcome rather than on mastering the grammar of the target language.

This isn’t an argument for letting standards slip. We should learn from mistakes, but we must remember the real goal of learning a language, which is to connect and communicate with others.  Making mistakes makes language learning more social and fun, once you get used to making a lot of them. It’s easy to forget the fact that learning should be fun.

Learning a new skill is all about attitude. Once one is comfortable to make more mistakes more often, one gains the confidence to admit that it is ok to not understand the first time, and the courage to receive feedback on your shortcomings – rather than being defeated by them.

Thu sharing her experiences as a language learner