For those of you learning a second language, you most likely have experienced this deep satisfying feeling from shaping your thoughts into complex sentences. You likely felt proud and your confidence gradually grew. But this magical moment where you are finally understood by others is exactly where the big stagnation starts. This doesn’t happen to everyone but quite a lot of people will be hit with a plateau of learning growth; and for the most part it’s not even their own fault.
Spoiler alert: It all comes down to what might be the most underestimated factor in mastering a language — being corrected.
The time it takes for you to hit top speed on your language journey
There comes a point in language learning where you want to place all those textbooks back on the shelf (or under a table leg) and go out into the real world to finally speak your target language. You want to communicate, you want to interact with other speakers; and most importantly, you want to bring all your efforts to life.
Let me give you an analogy. What’s the difference between a fast and a super-fast car? It’s not the time at which both accelerate from 0 to 60 mph. Both cars could roughly accelerate to that speed at around the same time. No, it’s the speed at which the two cars would go from 60 to 125 mph or even faster from 125 to 180 mph when the engine must work the hardest. The same goes for language learning.
The first 70 percent in language learning is (relatively) easy. And by easy I do not mean that there is no struggle behind reaching this point. I mean that a lot of people will get to the 70 percent mark, or to a level at which they can express themselves sufficiently to be understood in everyday life. Many will reach this point within less than a year. It is only after this period, the last 30 percent, that the true work begins. Let’s call it the mastery stage of your second language acquisition. Getting through these 30 percent usually takes multiple years and quite understandably so. But here too often the language learner is left all by himself. By whom? By the native speakers.
Don’t be afraid to correct
As I mentioned, there’s only so long you can dwell on textbooks which consequently means you will go out there and you will make mistakes. It’s normal, it’s how we learn best. Or rather should I say, how we learn best in theory? My personal experiences have shown that natives hardly correct the aspiring language learner.
Maybe this be due to our noble fear of being impolite or because we feel that it is none of our concern or because we might think something along the lines of: “Oh this person is new to the language, he/she will get it right after some time.” No matter what the reason, it is poisonous (and ultimately a disservice to the learner). The learner, oblivious of the mistake, will continue to make the same error, which is then going to be habitually engraved to a point that it will almost be harder to correct the mistake when the time comes for someone to notice.
Coming from a multilingual society I see this every day. There are people that have been speaking a second language for more than a decade, while displaying perfect grammar and vocabulary, but still mispronounce letters (or a combination of letters) just as if they were starting out in the language. If these people had their mistakes pointed out early on from the start (and repeatedly so if needed), then many, if not all of them, would essentially be better speakers today.
Hazardous area: being understood can kill your progress
Allow me to elaborate this further. Being able to navigate through the Arabic language by now, I understand how terribly hard it is for Arabic speakers to learn this awfully illogical system that is the German language in comparison to their mother tongue. For instance the three articles, the different cases (that unlike in Arabic need to be pronounced), the obligatory “to be” in nominative sentences etc,...you name it. Even learners that possess an advanced level of the German language may fall prone to getting articles wrong or occasionally use the accusative case instead of the dative case.
Nonetheless, whether in bars, restaurants, on the street or even speaking to the authorities, these types of speakers learning German will be understood. But to a native German speaker, such errors will cause a massive ear-bleed. Although it sounds terrible, the addressee gets the message and won’t correct. Yet, when nobody corrects the learner, how is he or she supposed to improve? Moreover, even though many people will appreciate the learner’s effort, he or she will never be taken as seriously as a native speaker of the language, which in return plays a huge part in being assimilated into a community or even a country.
Duty as native speakers
Just imagine yourself sitting in a hot-air balloon wanting to fly but you don’t know how to loosen the weights. No matter how strong a flame you build up, the balloon won’t ascend until the weights are cut off. The same weights are pulling down the language learner, they are the learner’s mistakes. It is our task as experienced pilots to cut them away from his or her balloon so that he or she will fly.
In other words, it is the native speaker’s duty to correct. It enables the learner to grow so much faster and to get through those painful 30 percent a lot smoother. Having your mistakes corrected just sticks stronger in the brain than reading some rule in a textbook or even hearing someone say something in the correct way. Therefore, I persistently correct my students from the beginning no matter how annoying it may come across.
Put in the effort
So please, if someone makes a mistake, do them a favour and correct them. And in case you fear of coming across as impolite, tell them you only want to prevent them from repeating their mistake and help them improve for the long term. Tell them that you have their best interests at heart. They will recognize your warm intentions and appreciate it. Even someone who generally dislikes criticism will probably understand.
In the end of course, not every language learner wants to embark on this final and exhausting journey. Many are satisfied with the level of their language and have no problem staying at the 70 percent mark and that’s totally fine. But for those who do want to go all the way (and you can tell who do and who don’t) step up as a native speaker of the language and correct.
What is your take on this? Have you found yourself in similar a situation? Do you wish you were corrected more often? Do you think going past 70 percent mark is even worth it? I would be glad to hear what you think about this topic so feel free to discuss.
Hero image by Sharon Garcia on Unsplash