I remember having a class with a pretty (quite an) advanced student. The student used a word in our conversation that I absolutely did not know. I made an excuse that I had to use the restroom urgently. Actually, I left SKYPE and urgently “Googled” the word, and felt better that I now knew what my student was talking about. It was an outdated word, one that was hardly used in English anymore.


Nevertheless, I felt a little foolish for not knowing that word, especially because I was a teacher. But then I reasoned with myself. Just because I teach English doesn’t mean I know every single word, grammar rule or pronunciation in the English language. But I did know better how my students felt when they made mistakes.


When it comes to learning another language, all students learn at different rates. In a mixed language group (students at various stages in the learning process), there will always be some students who are just beginning and others who are more ahead. But what is the one thing all ESL students have in common? Mistakes.


Making mistakes is a fundamental part of every cognitive (involving the mind) process, whether solving a math problem, making important decisions, or trying to convey meaning in a foreign language,” says Luca Lampariello, a well known polyglot from Italy who speaks eight languages.


But some students are so upset by making a mistake, they won’t speak. They can understand, read and even write, but speaking torments them. This happens in all kinds of settings: in individual classes (like italki), in a group during a lesson, or in a language club outside the lesson. But often the fear of making mistakes is the greatest when a student begins to speak to native speakers of the student’s target language.


Here’s what you need to know about mistakes:



No one has ever learned a language or almost any new skill without making mistakes. Compare a language to a new job. Remember the mistakes you made while learning the ins and outs (details) of the new work required of you? It’s the same with learning a new language.


When you make a mistake, don’t say you’re sorry.



This only makes you feel like you did something wrong, something that will disappoint your teacher. Instead, say, “Oh, ok, thanks for telling me.” This will make you feel better about making mistakes. You’ll learn that a mistake in language learning is not the big deal you thought it was. It doesn’t reflect on your intelligence, personality, or your motivation to learn.


Don’t let the fear of mistakes paralyze you.



Your teacher should explain the meaning of mistakes and how he or she feels about them. If this doesn’t happen early in language learning, you’re likely to to be discouraged, says Luca Lampariello, resulting in:


● Speaking very little or not all.

● Limiting your conversation to a few sentences that you know well.

● Getting upset when you are corrected.

● Not learning from your mistakes but getting discouraged by them instead.


How to stay “cool” (calm) about your mistakes



1. Remind yourself again and again that mistakes are okay. Dare yourself, force yourself to speak, knowing that you will make mistakes.


2. If you're in a group lesson and you have a good teacher, see what happens to other students who make mistakes. One thing is to learn from their mistakes, the other is to observe that nothing terrible happens to them, hopefully, unless they have an insensitive teacher. And most teachers are sensitive to the feelings of their students when they make mistakes.


3. Remember that you don’t and shouldn’t apologize for mistakes. By not saying you’re sorry, you’ll realize that you haven’t done anything wrong.


4. Tell your teacher how you would like to be corrected. This usually comes out after the first lesson or two. Your teacher will often ask you how you want to be corrected. Don’t say it doesn’t matter. Here are the usual three ways of getting corrected and you can benefit from any of them, depending on how they work for you. Your teacher can:


● Correct you every time you make a mistake. This is good for some people but for others, it exhausts them and makes them leery (cautious) about speaking.


● Wait until you’re finished speaking and then correct you. This may be better than the first method for some people. However, some students feel overwhelmed by the number of mistakes they’ve made.


● As you speak—or at the end of your answer, statement or conversation—correct major mistakes and let the more minor ones slide by (ignore them) until another time. This is often the method I use with students because it’s a slower and easier process of handling mistakes for both the student and myself.


No one likes making mistakes and having them corrected. But it’s a necessary part of language learning. And remember, the worst mistakes you can make is trying not to make them.


Source: "The Art of Making Mistakes and How and Why Mistakes help You to Learn Languages”

Ilene Springer is a long-time italki tutor in English. She teaches intermediate, upper-intermediate and upper-level students, including advanced and proficient. She has been a writer for national magazines, such as Cosmopolitan and author of The Diary of an American Expatriate. Please visit her website at Chocolate.English.eu  


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