Do Mistakes Help You Learn Language such as Spanish?

Why Making Mistakes Matters When Learning a Second Language

We’ve all been there, trying to learn a language while fumbling with a Spanish language book. And if it wasn’t Spanish, it was another “easy” language. We’ve tried and failed at basic pronunciation and remembering phrases so many times it feels like failure and language learning are synonymous.

People make mistakes when learning. And when people learn a language, they make a lot more mistakes. But is it possible to experience a language program without making mistakes? Are mistakes necessary? Does making mistakes really help make you a better learner? The answer may surprise you.

What Is a Mistake?

This may seem like an obvious question to answer. A mistake is an error. And if you want to speak a language correctly, then you need to do it without making mistakes. Right? Not exactly. We tend to think of language in academic terms more than utility terms. What that means is that we often analyze a language as a subject, rather than something that is intended for use.

It seems like the academic experience only intensifies a fear of mistakes. Teachers often have to grade language as a skill. This is usually done through quizzes, tests, and projects that illustrate some understanding of the language. While we’re trying to figure out how to learn Spanish grammar for beginners, our teachers are taking off points left and right for all our errors.

Through school, we are trained to avoid mistakes and see them as a representation of failure, not a success. This is not beneficial for learning a language. Instead, we need to look at what mistakes are when it comes to learning a language: experience.

Making Mistakes Illustrates Successful Language Learning

It may seem counterintuitive, but making mistakes is an indicator of progress when it comes to language learners. What do we mean by this? If you are attempting to learn how to speak a language, then you will make mistakes. But, even though you’re making mistakes, you’re still learning because you’re using the language.

Much of language is intuitive and through practice. Think about riding a bike. You can study the mechanics of a bike, analyze it, talk about the theory of riding it, map out the physics mathematically, but none of that constitutes knowing how to ride a bike.

How do you learn to ride a bike? First, you watch. You see people riding and realize how it works. Then you attempt. And you fail. You fall a lot. Some people use training wheels, others get a good hard push and hope that their helmets will absorb the fall. Each attempt at the handlebars pushes you towards gaining that skill. The same is true with language.

Should You Try to Make Mistakes While Learning Language?

You should try to avoid mistakes. Learning how to ride a bike means understanding that you’ll fall along the say, and learning a language means the same. However, you wouldn’t intentionally try to fall on a bike. And you shouldn’t intentionally develop bad habits while learning a second language. The critical difference involves reflecting on your learning.

If you want to gain fluency, you need to avoid mistakes. But you don’t need to obsess over it. Instead, you should be actively learning to use the language correctly. If you find yourself making mistakes, there are strategies you can use to move past them.

One thing that doesn’t work is trying to force your mind to fix the mistake. It’s counterproductive and damaging to your self-esteem. Instead, continue learning your language, it could be that the mistake you’re making involves a much more complex understanding of the language you haven’t uncovered yet.

In time, as you continue to learn, you’ll develop the additional skills needed to avoid those mistakes. And while it’s always good to reflect, remember that overanalyzing can increase stress and ultimately damage your ability to learn and remember a foreign language.

Mistakes Can Be Unacceptable in Some Areas

Why do you want to be fluent in a second language? Do you want to be able to speak to locals while on vacation? Do you only want to learn more about the culture? Are you working in a foreign country and need the language for your job? Do you want to be able to write academically in that language? The level of language you need will dictate mistake tolerance.

If you are only learning a language for fun and to communicate at a simple level, then getting hung up on mistakes is counterproductive to your success. If you need the language for work or for academia, then correcting mistakes is vital. Remember that language as a tool has a variety of situations for use. Making mistakes is okay in most areas, but not all. The more high stress and professional environment you need to speak in, the less tolerance for mistakes there will be.

View Mistakes Differently

The hardest part about learning a language as an adult is our built-in desire to analyze. When you are young, you are more readily able to immerse yourself in an activity without the risk of embarrassment. If you’ve ever been around kids, you quickly realize that young children merely speak without caring about getting it right or wrong the first time. They learn along the way.

As adults, we want to be correct, and we want to do things right the first time. And so we have a natural desire to want to slow down an be perfect. This is problematic as we will most likely make mistakes even after we reach fluency.

Think back to the last time you blurted out something in English that was inaccurate. There are plenty of rules that are detailed and tricky that we don’t even think about when it comes to our language. And often, as native speakers, we still mess these up.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to speak your target language fluently without error. But you have to remain realistic. The most important part of fluency is communicating your ideas. Mistakes will weed themselves out.

One last note here, if you’re able to make mistakes while using a language, that means that you know enough of it to communicate in a way that allows mistakes to surface. This means you’re gaining fluency, and that’s great. Keep at it.

Mistakes Correct Themselves

Except for detailed grammatical rules in writing that need to be studied, the mistakes we make while interacting with others in a foreign language naturally correct themselves over time. The more exposure and influence you have with a language, the easier it will be for you to find your mistakes and correct them naturally.

A word of caution: don’t forget how challenging foreign language learning can be. Overcorrecting others’ mistakes can hurt their motivation to continue studying and learning a second language.

Ask people who are learning a second language how often they want to be corrected. Some people are vigilant about speaking correctly. They have a lot of confidence and don’t mind correction. Other learners are sensitive. And apply the same for yourself. Don’t be afraid to tell your language buddies, friends, or teachers how often you wish to be corrected. Maintaining high self-esteem is vital to keeping up your motivation so you can become fluent.

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