Why You Need to Make Mistakes to Learn a Language
Making Language Mistakes Can be Painful
I’ve been living in Brazil for over a year now, and I still feel the sting of embarrassment when I forget how to say, “It was nice to meet you.” in Portuguese. I regularly try to tell stories to my friends and find that no one understood. There’s real shame when you tell a joke and no one gets it.
I find myself apologizing to strangers (“I’m sorry, I’m still learning!”) or thanking them for their patience. I often joke that I lose about 30 IQ points in Portuguese and that Estou engraçado em inglês—prometo! (“I’m funny in English—I promise!”)
When we learn a language, we’re constantly confronted by how much we don’t know. The discomfort of making mistakes is, I think, one of the reasons so many students give up learning a language: they want to be perfect from day one.
That desire to be perfect doesn’t help us. There are lots of factors that make great language learners, but it turns out a big one is the willingness to make mistakes. There’s a bunch of research on this: mistakes actually make us smarter.
But only certain kinds of mistakes. Others can hold you back from learning successfully.
In this article, I’ll explain which is which: the language mistakes you should make that will supercharge your learning, and the ones you should avoid at all costs.
5 Language Mistakes You Absolutely Should Make
1. Grammar Mistakes
Grammar mistakes are good.
Well, first, you make grammar mistakes when you’re using a language—when you’re speaking or writing. Making grammar mistakes is a sign that you’re actually practicing. That practice will ultimately lead to better language use and, eventually, fewer grammatical errors.
Second, there’s evidence to show that we internalize learning better when we get it wrong the first time. So mistakes actually make learning more efficient.
Finally, remember that the point of learning a language is to communicate. If you can communicate with someone in a second language, you’re winning—even if you’re making a bunch of mistakes. Don’t worry so much about grammar. It will come with time.
2. Speaking Poorly
No matter which language you are learning—from learning your mother tongue as a baby to speaking a second, third, or fourth language—you will begin speaking poorly. We all start at the beginning.
The key is to keep practicing.
Practice will give you the self-confidence to communicate better and more naturally without so many pauses or searching for words.
Imagine you’re a scientist. When scientists make mistakes, they often learn something new and useful. That’s why science writer Adam Frank says that mistakes are “the essence of scientific heroism“.
So speak poorly: use the wrong words, have bad pronunciation, use the wrong tones. But keep speaking. That’s how you’ll learn and get better.
3. Have an Accent
Depending on the language you are learning, the accent of your native language may cause you to pronounce certain words in a way that is quite different from native speakers.
But that’s okay. Your accent says a lot about your history, your culture, and your roots. Why speak like a Parisian if you were never born or raised in Paris? Sure, you want people to understand you. But you don’t need to “lose” your accent.
Work on your pronunciation so that you can speak clearly, but don’t spend much time worrying about your accent. Spoiler alert: everyone has an accent.
4. Feel Silly in Front of Strangers
In my experience, you will feel at least a bit silly roughly 90% of the time you are speaking another language. That’s just how it works.
But the truth is that no one is judging you. Everyone knows that learning a language is difficult. You are much more likely to arouse empathy than judgment.
Lean into that feeling of discomfort. It’s good. It shows you’re getting outside your comfort zone and that’s how you grow.
And if you’re really bothered by feeling silly in front of strangers, you can just take your language practice online. Apps like HelloTalk, HelloPal, and Tandem can help you find a virtual conversation partner.
And the best thing about language exchange? You get to speak half in your native tongue. So you get to feel silly half the time, and then it’s your partner’s turn to feel silly. It balances out!
5. Find the Wrong Study Methods
Testing out and experimenting with different study methods will help you find one that actually is a great fit for your needs and goals.
We’re all different. A method that works for hundreds of other people may not be the best one for you. You will only find out what works best for you through trial and error.
If you’re looking for a method that focuses on organic, fast, and targeted learning, try the Pimsleur method. You may find that it is exactly what you were looking for. You can get your Free 7-Day Trial with unlimited access to all levels in the language of your choice.
5 Worst Language Mistakes You Can Make
1. Not Making a Plan
You won’t accomplish your language goals if you don’t have a direction or plan. As a language teacher, I’ve consistently seen that the students that are the most successful are those who have developed a language learning strategy.
2. Avoiding Conversation
I can’t emphasize enough the importance of practicing your language. Listening, reading, and writing are all great. But it’s very important to actually speak it with others, too.
You will only get good at speaking a language by actually speaking it.
Don’t be afraid to communicate. If in-person conversations are a bit intimidating, try online conversations. (Our tips for a successful online language exchange may be useful to you).
3. Doing Boring Activities
When you get too attached to grammar exercises, vocabulary lists, or language books, your study can get boring. What happens then? Your attention may drift and, eventually, you may spend less actual time learning the language.
The secret to learning a language is to find activities you love to do. These are things you would enjoy doing even if you don’t really understand the language.
You can make anything a language activity: watching TV shows on Netflix (with subtitles in the language you’re learning), listening to podcasts, watching TV, listening to music, cooking, or even video games.
4. Relying on a Teacher
It’s true that a good language class or tutor can greatly improve learning performance, but that doesn’t mean you should rely on your teacher to learn a language.
“Learning” is an active verb—it’s you who does the learning. And ultimately, it’s you who will become fluent or not.
Don’t be a passive language learner and don’t over-rely on your language classes or tutor. Doing so will really limit your success.
5. Not Giving Yourself Enough Time
Learning a language takes time. According to the US Foreign Service Institute, it can take up to 750 hours to achieve fluency in languages that are similar to English like Danish and Dutch. It can take much longer for languages that are very dissimilar to English—Japanese can take up to 2,200 hours of study and practice.
If you really focus, it’s realistic to learn a language in a year. But to do that, you’ll have to engage with your language for at least an hour a day.
That seems like a lot of time—and it is—but part of the reason that learning a language is so rewarding. You have to invest in it.
So give yourself enough time. Build sufficient time for language learning into your plan and schedule.
Learn to Love your Language Mistakes
If you truly want to speak a new language, accept that you’ll make language mistakes. Lots of them. Thinking you have to be perfect is one of the myths that actually can get in the way of your learning.
Remember that your mistakes show you’re growing. When we see our mistakes as signs of progress, learning becomes an achievement rather than a burden. And we become kinder to ourselves, which helps us persevere.
Real growth is not possible without effort, some discomfort, some sweat, and perhaps even some tears.
So lean into them. Rather than avoid mistakes, actively try to make them. And then notice how much your language improves.
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