Why making mistakes in your language lessons is good

Why making mistakes in your language lessons is good

Published: Dec 3, 2022 | By: Lucas Weaver

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Anytime you learn a new skill, it’s virtually impossible to be good at it on your first try.

Sometimes people seem like a “natural” at specific skills, but this is because they’ve already previously developed that skill in a different application. Now they’re just putting it to use in a new way.

Learning a new language

Research shows that learning an entirely new skill takes around 20 hours. Remember, here we’re talking about learning a skill, not mastering it completely.

Learning a new language works the same way.

Sometimes people sound like a natural when trying a new language. However, that’s usually because they have above-average vocal skills.

Suppose you have advanced vocal skills and can do things like imitations or singing. In that case, you can imitate the sounds you hear and repeat the words quite well, even without knowing much about the language.

This will give you an advantage over many of your classmates in language lessons because you will sound better speaking a new language more quickly.

However, this natural ability will only take you so far. You’ll still need to work to learn the language to speak it conversationally.

Making mistakes in your lessons

At the beginning of your language lessons, you will make many mistakes.

This is no reason to get discouraged. In fact, it’s actually great.

Children frequently make mistakes when learning their mother tongue. However, they improve over time because the mistakes help them realize which areas of the language they still need to work on.

One key advantage of the learning process as a child is that you don’t feel any shame or embarrassment when you make mistakes. There’s no judgment from your parents because they don’t expect you to know anything. And you don’t judge yourself because you don’t know any better.

Worry and judgment as an adult

However, when learning a language as an adult, this can be different and can actually hurt our learning efforts.

We pressure ourselves to learn quickly because we identify as “smart.”

We can also worry about what our peers or classmates think of us or fear that we’re not making progress fast enough.

None of this worry is particularly helpful.

The role of a language parent

The concept of a “language parent” has been popularized as a helpful tool when learning a language. The idea of a language parent is a person who is a native speaker of your target language and sets a good example for you to learn from without correcting your mistakes.

This language parent is supposed to give you a supportive environment to use your target language comfortably and productively.

This can certainly be helpful, but this shouldn’t be your primary way of learning a language because it goes against what we know about the neuroscience of learning.

What happens in your brain when you make a mistake

When you’re involved in a speaking session in your target language, you will inevitably run into a situation where you can’t find the right word, say the wrong word, or use the wrong tense, and your teacher corrects you.

When this happens, tiny little alarm bells go off in your brain like it’s saying, “Uh oh! We don’t know these words! We need to learn more.”

These alarm bells are the acetylcholine increasing in your brain, marking the areas of your brain that need change and improvement.

When you move to a foreign country, you’ll run into situations all the time that make you realize you don’t know enough words. These situations make you feel stressed, which is good and leads to increased learning.

Why is it good to make mistakes?

It’s great to make mistakes when learning a language because, as we said earlier, making mistakes activates more of the neural circuits required for the skills we’re trying to improve.

When neural networks are turned on, you become more focused and aware, making learning more accessible.

I’ve found it’s often helpful for students when I compare it with something they may already be familiar with, such as physical fitness.

Weight training compared to language learning.

The process of gaining strength and building muscle through weight training is straightforward.

When you’re in the gym, you need to lift heavier weights than you’re comfortable lifting until you reach the point of near failure.

In weight lifting, you’re physically tearing your muscles by stressing them. Your muscles then send a message through your nervous system to your brain saying, “Hey! We’re not strong enough to lift these weights! We need you to build more muscle tissue!”

Your brain then gets to work redirecting protein to the torn muscle tissue and activating protein synthesis to repair the muscles. In the process, it repairs your muscles to make them stronger than they were before.

Neuroplasticity in the brain

The same process occurs in your brain during and after language learning. When you make mistakes during your learning session, you send that same message to your brain “Hey! We can’t speak this language!”

Your brain reacts to that stimulus by strengthening the neural connections that were active during the learning session, improving your knowledge and skills for the next time you come back and try to use those neurons.

This is why you shouldn’t worry or feel self-conscious about making mistakes. Making mistakes is not only part of language learning, it’s one of the three most essential keys.

Therefore you should welcome making mistakes. They will show you where you still need to learn and which parts of your language skills to focus on.

When it comes to learning English, whether you’re learning English online or in a classroom, you need to be able to make mistakes and get corrections from your teacher.

Some English teachers focus too much on getting their students comfortable and confident with speaking too soon. This can be counterproductive because if you get used to speaking English correctly, it can be easier to fix in the future.

Comfort and confidence are undoubtedly essential aspects we focus heavily on in our courses. Still, they shouldn’t come at the expense of fluency.

The timing of corrections

At which point you receive corrections can depend on many things, like if you are learning and teaching yourself simultaneously.

For example, what if you are learning new words and you say them wrong, but you can’t correct them because you don’t even know they’re wrong?

In this case, having a teacher to correct your mistakes is essential.

However, suppose you don’t have a teacher. In that case, you can also make mistakes by putting yourself into situations requiring you to use words you don’t know. This is one of the reasons why immersion is such an effective way of language learning.

Suggestions for making mistakes and getting corrected

The most effective way to make mistakes and get corrections when trying to improve your language skills is by getting an experienced teacher.

Not only will they recognize your mistakes, but they’ll also be able to lead you into mistakes by giving you topics to speak about that will require the grammar you need to improve or asking questions that require more advanced vocabulary to answer.

You can also consider taking an intensive English course, as this will give you more chances to make mistakes under the guidance of your teacher.

Even better than a language parent is an experienced, native-speaking teacher who can not only give you an excellent example to follow but also correct you with clear feedback on how you can fix your mistakes.

Take your learning to the next level

To make the most of your language learning experience, consider taking an online language course from the Weaver School. Our courses were designed based on the latest neuroscience regarding adult language learning.

Our language teachers and courses specialize in creating an environment where you will be challenged and encouraged to make mistakes, accelerating your learning to get maximum results.

Whether you want to take online English courses or Thai classes online, create your free account and start down your path to fluency today.

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Lucas Weaver from the Weaver School

Lucas Weaver founded The Weaver School in 2016. He's passionate about using the latest learnings in neuroscience and education to create the best language learning experience possible for our students, so they can quickly build effective language learning habits that will last for years. Lucas is a graduate of Texas A&M University and after 7 years of living in the Netherlands, he is currently traveling through Southeast Asia while learning their languages along the way.

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