Fear of failure is an innate feature of being human. Even when we’ve put in the time and effort to learn something thoroughly, many of us still get nervous and sometimes clam up when it’s time to put our new skill to the test.
This is a particularly common phenomenon when it comes to speaking a new language. No matter how much we’ve studied, or how well we know the grammar and vocabulary, we’re still scared to actually speak the language aloud. What if we make a mistake? What if we embarrass ourselves?
Well, that’s good. Researchers have found that if we make mistakes, we’ll learn from them and are less likely to make them the next time around. Bottom line: making mistakes is the best way to learn a language because it’s the best way to learn, period.
The Science Behind Learning From Our Mistakes
Several scientific studies have looked into what happens in our brains when we make mistakes. One of these studies, from researchers at Michigan State University, tested college students to see how they react to errors, but did so based on their “mindset.”
To put it simply, participants were asked to rank a number of statements and then categorized them into two groups: growth-minded individuals and fixed-minded individuals. Growth-minded individuals tend to believe intelligence can develop through effort and think of mistakes as learning opportunities. Fixed-minded individuals are more inclined to believe intelligence cannot be changed, and if you make mistakes, you simply lack ability.
The students had to complete a computer task, clicking the odd one out in a chain of letters, and their brain activity was recorded throughout. When the participants with a growth mindset made mistakes, the researchers found brain activity connected to awareness of and attention to those mistakes. These individuals also showed more accuracy in the task after making mistakes, suggesting that they learned from them.
On the flip side, when the fixed-minded participants made mistakes, there was less brain activity related to attention to mistakes, and these individuals showed less accuracy after making mistakes than the growth-minded ones.
There are two key takeaways from this study. First is that if you pay attention to your mistakes, you can learn from them and reduce your chances of making additional mistakes. Second, you have to approach new challenges with the right attitude. As cliché as it may sound, believing in your ability to learn from mistakes and get better really does affect your accuracy going forward.
Real-World Practice Makes Perfect
In addition to the scientific research, there are also plenty of practical and anecdotal reasons to embrace mistakes when learning a new language.
Practicing your new language in real-world situations is extremely important in gaining the confidence to speak it. But on the way to that level of confidence, you’ll probably make some mistakes. And that’s a good thing!
Think about the last time you made an embarrassing mistake. Now, think about whether you’ll ever make that same mistake again. The answer is probably a resounding “No!” Embarrassment is a powerful memory tool, especially if the mistakes were awkward.
There’s a lot to be said for checking your ego at the door, going out there and just giving it your best shot. You can’t get better at speaking a language unless you try, and practicing with a native or fluent speaker who can give you real-time feedback is one of the best ways to improve.
So get out there and speak! Make mistakes, learn from them and try, try again. It’ll only make you better.