the happy linguist

you will fail, a lot

The best language learners are those who are OK with making mistakes. If you’re a perfectionist, you may find it harder to reach fluency. Here’s why…

Over the years, I have taught a lot of people from all walks of life. I’ve taught people of all ages and of all sorts of educational backgrounds. What I have found is that everybody can learn to speak a language. However, I have also found that certain people learn languages more quickly than others, and it is always down to just one thing…a fear of failure.

Don't be scared of failure; it you haven't failed, you will never succeed

When you learn to speak a foreign language, you have to get used to one thing, failure. You will fail. You will fail every day.

The word “fail” comes from the Latin word “fallere” meaning “to disappoint”, “to lack” or even “to fall over”. Well, this is what I mean when I say, “You will fail”. You will make mistakes, you will trip over your words, you will pick the wrong word, you will forget words, you will say the wrong thing, and you will feel disappointed with yourself a lot. However, this isn’t a bad thing.

When I learnt my first foreign language, French, I was extremely jealous of everybody who could speak fluently. I never dreamed I would reach their level of skill. I remember one time when I was in Spain with my friend. She had been living in Spain for six months when I arrived and a man shouted something to us in the street. All I heard was, “Blah blah blah.” I couldn’t understand a word he said. My friend shouted back to him and then she laughed. I pretended I knew what was going on so I laughed too, but really I was completely lost. I was so jealous of her and I thought, “I’m never going to be able to understand anything.”

A few weeks later, however, I was able to understand everything that was being said around me. It takes a while for your ear to tune itself into the language. Sometimes, you will get angry at yourself and annoyed that you can’t understand, but you shouldn’t. If you could understand a foreign language the first time you hear it, you’d be some sort of magician. The first few times you hear a foreign language, you probably won’t even pick up one word, but then as you listen to more and more, you’ll understand one word, then two words, then maybe four or five words, until you can understand whole sentences and paragraphs and entire conversations! But it takes time and is a gradual process.

You can speed up this process by listening to as much radio or watching as much TV as you can in the foreign language. Just getting used to the rhythm and intonation of the language is a useful thing to do. See how many words you can pick up. YouTube is a great website for this; you can watch the same video over and over, you can even slow it down. Watch it the first time and see if you can pick out just one word. Then, watch the same video again, then the next day, then a week later, and see if you can pick out more words each time.

Anyway, I’ve digressed a little; I was talking about failing and why it’s a good thing. You need to experience “failure” in speaking a foreign language in order to stop being scared of it. Here’s a simple exercise you can do, and one that I’ve done with lots of my students.

Think of a really simple sentence and write it down. Then, change one little bit so there is a mistake in it. You could try switching some words around, leaving a word out completely or putting a made up word in the middle. You should then say this sentence to somebody when you’re abroad and see what they say. Most of the time, they will still understand what you mean despite the mistake. Sometimes, the mistake might be so big it makes the meaning of the sentence hard to understand. But I bet that the person you’re speaking to will still try their hardest to understand what you want to say. I’ve done this with a lot of my students and they always tell me that the other person still understood them, or sometimes they even went out of their way to teach them the correct way to say something.

The reason I make my students do this, is so that they can see that, even if they make a mistake, most people are nice and will help them out. A mistake is not the end of the world. A mistake is a learning moment. It will be a bigger situation in your own head than it is for the other person, and oftentimes, you will make sure you never make that mistake again.

The worst thing that can happen when you make a mistake when speaking a foreign language is that you get a little bit embarrassed, but so what? The only time it might be an issue is if it’s a medical emergency, but other than that, you should always try and get your point across in the foreign language. It may take a few attempts but you will get better. So, go out and make mistakes and improve. Once you get over the fear of failure, fluency will be achieved a lot more quickly.