Language Learning,  Thriving

Making Mistakes, but Just Wanting to Move on

Dear Julia,

Since I’m both a language teacher and a language learner, I like to think of myself as a bit of an expert on the topic of language learning. While I might not know everything about the subject, having ongoing first-hand experience on both sides of the equation has helped me see things from different perspectives and to apply this to my interactions. One of the biggest things I’ve learned since embarking on my my journey is that, although it is my job to help my students (and my pleasure to help my friends) improve their English language skills, I don’t want to correct each and every error they make. Why, you may ask? Because I’m fully aware of what it’s like to know you’ve made a mistake but to want to move on anyways.

We’ve all been there!Nobody is perfect; we all make mistakes everyday—often in our native language! The difficulty with making mistakes when speaking a foreign language is that oftentimes the person you are speaking to will not know if you are aware of the mistake or not. Whether it’s a genuinely helpful friend or simply a nitpicky stranger, it’s common for others to jump in and correct you in these cases but this can often be frustrating as the language learner and I believe the interruption in the flow of conversation can do more harm than good.

Of course, I’ve had the overeager and overly critical stranger correct me from time to time (which I’ve mostly learned to ignore or avoid) but in most cases these corrections can come from well-intending people, which makes it difficult to address my annoyance. While some people may appreciate constant interruptions with suggestions on how to improve their grammar, word choice, and pronunciation I’ve learned that I’m often someone who is aware of my own mistakes and therefore typically someone who wants others to let it go and so we can all move on with the substance of the conversation.

This may come across as standoffish or overly self-confident but hear me out: Nobody want to be reprimanded for every small error they commit and people with strong language skills often want this even less. It can feel defeating to express your opinion quite eloquently, albeit making one mistake, and to have the person listening to you disregard everything you’ve said only to point out that your verb tense was wrong.

I know my Spanish is not perfect but something I’ve learned after living here in Spain for 4+ years is that if you want to have any sort of leverage in a conversation with a group of Spaniards, you have to just go for it! If you want your opinion to be heard before the next person cuts you off, you’ve got to spit something out, grammatically correct or not. If I’m able to get in a substantial bit of dialogue, there’s a good chance I’ve missed an opportunity to use the subjunctive mood or incorrectly assigned gender to a noun or two. Generally, I’ve already done a mental facepalm as I’ve heard my own mistakes and someone stopping the conversation to point this out to me is simply rubbing salt in the wound.

The worst part of all is that my mistakes are often basic (which is more frustrating than complex errors because I’ve been practicing the language for so long) but therefore I don’t imagine they should impede someone else’s ability to understand what I meant. While these errors would be important if I were taking an exam, I feel discouraged and patronized when others choose to respond only to the mistakes I’ve made and not to what I’ve actually said. Of course, other people may feel differently and there are certainly cases in which I DO appreciate the feedback. However, my personal experience has taught me that if I’m going to correct someone’s language use, it’s best to get their permission first.

As a language teacher, I know that students come to me with the expectation of getting feedback and so I’m less apprehensive about giving it (although I still tend to wait until they’ve committed a similar error twice before I interrupt them to mention it). However, when I’m speaking to friends in an everyday setting or at a language exchange I will either flat-out ask the person if they want me to correct them or I’ll work in ‘corrections’ in a less obvious way.

Even well-intended corrections can feel like personal attacks at times.Since I’m often aware of my own mistakes and don’t necessarily want more attention drawn to it (especially in group settings) I tend to give others the benefit of the doubt as well. Instead of saying something like “no, no, no- It’s ‘people ARE’, not ‘people is’!” I’ll instead demonstrate that I’ve listened to what they’ve said by agreeing or adding an alternative opinion in a way that allows me to repeat what they’ve said but with the correction. Thus, instead of hearing a direct response to their mistake, they hear someone who perhaps noticed the mistake but wants to move on with the discussion, too.

As we’ve talked about in the article about communicating with someone with limited English, the majority of language-learners (at both the beginning and advanced stages of the process) simply want to be able to communicate and constant correction can feel like their efforts are being put down. I don’t know about you, but I personally prefer much more if someone responds to what I’ve said in a way that acknowledges my message more than my errors and I believe this is a rather universal sentiment. Often, I know I’ve made the mistake but I simply wanted to move on because it was more important to me to be able to share my opinion and perspective on the topic.

When we listen to each other’s ideas more than each other’s grammar, we’re sure to communicate better.In my experience, this exchange of ideas across cultural borders that wouldn’t have been possible if one (or both) of the people hadn’t learned another language is the real beauty and the real purpose of language learning. Thus, we do both the other person and ourselves a favor when we allow each other to make mistakes but move on in the name of deeper, ongoing communication.

When you’re practicing a foreign language do you want to just move on from your mistakes or do you prefer to be corrected whenever possible? How do you feel both have an impact on the conversation?


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