Making Mistakes: The Magic Bullet to Learn Languages Faster

(Update: I made some mistakes with my German in this post, which Manuel was nice enough to fix in the comments. I think it fits the theme of the article, though.)

As I’ve mentioned, I’m living in Germany and actively learning German. This morning, something happened to me that really hammered home an important point. In fact, this point is something that I always referred to as “the magic bullet” of learning a language faster and better.

Using a foreign language isn’t like taking a test, so don’t think in terms of passing or failing.

Let’s back up for a second. Yesterday, I was out at lunch with American friends at a Greek restaurant, and I wasn’t sure what to get for lunch. So I said to the waitress:

Letzte mal habe ich das Gyros gegessen, aber ich möchte etwas neu. Was empfehlen Sie?

Last time I ate the Gyros, but I would like something new. What do you recommend?

Not the most complicated sentences, but I said them confidently and the waitress understood me. (She recommended lamb skewers, by the way, which were awesome.)

My friends were all impressed, even my friend who speaks fluent German. I hadn’t tried to impress them, but their reaction was a nice little ego boost and validation that my hard work was paying off.

Fast forward to this morning. As I was walking to work, I passed a line of school busses that were parked along the curb. An old man pointed at the busses and said:

Sie sind die Busfahrer?

What I heard was, “You are the bus driver?” so I said no. But he had actually said, “They are the bus drivers?” He looked confused, and when I realized what was going on, I apologized for my “not very good German.” Yesterday, ego boost. Today, back to reality.

The reason for the mistake was because of only one word, which changed the meaning of the sentence: he said “die” rather than “das.”

Also, it was a weird question since there were no drivers around—only busses.

But you know the awesome thing? I’ll always know to listen for “die” or “das” in a sentence, as I know it can alter the meaning. So I learned something very useful about German on my stroll in to work this morning.

Okay, are you ready for the magic bullet of successful language learners? Here goes…

When you’re learning a foreign language, you have to embrace mistakes. Not just put up with them. Embrace them.

Reason #1: Making mistakes means you’re using the language

As the awesome blogger and polyglot Benny Lewis said in a TED talk he gave, “I aim to make at least a hundred mistakes a day, because then I know I’m getting somewhere.” If he’s made a hundred mistakes that day, then he knows he’s actually been out there using the language, getting practice, and getting better.

You know a way to have 100% accuracy? Never use the language. But how far is that going to get you?

Reason #2: Each mistake teaches you something

It’s human nature to be embarrassed when you mess up. When you screw up and catch yourself—whether in the act or afterward—you’ll fix it.

Putting something in your long-term memory is tricky and elusive. Our brains are constantly trying to figure out what to retain and what to purge. Usually, we use repetition and chronic exposure to signal to our brains that something is worth keeping. But a stressful reaction, such as embarrassment, is another way to signal our brains that something bears remembering.

If I’ve misused a word or screwed up some grammar and someone calls me out on it, I’ll get embarrassed. And when I’m embarrassed, I’ll know not to make that mistake again.

Reason #3: Embracing mistakes gives you permission to try

Too many people treat using a foreign-language like a test, or a piano recital. They want everything perfect before they start speaking, or listening, or reading for pleasure.

Just go ahead and forget that noise.

Get out there and talk to people, and listen to the radio, and read newspapers. You don’t have to be perfect or know every word to get some benefit.

When dealing with real-life communication, you don’t get a demerit for making a mistake and you don’t get a gold star for being perfect either. When you really take that to heart, it’s actually kind of liberating.

Nowadays when someone corrects me, I view it as a learning opportunity—a positive thing—rather than as something to be ashamed about.

Wrapping Up

With all of this, I’m not saying to be complacent and happy to be wrong. You’re supposed to fix your mistakes, sure. But make your mistakes today, fix those, make a whole new set of mistakes tomorrow, and then fix those. Repeat.

Eventually, you’ll be awesome.

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  • Manuel

    Some corrections by a random German guy (that really appreciates your texts):
    Letzte mal habe ich das Gyros gegessen, aber ich möchte etwas neu. Was empfehlen Sie?
    *LetzteS mal habe ich das Gyros gegessen, aber ich möchte etwas Neues (ausprobieren). Was empfehlen Sie?

    Sind Sie die Busfahrer?
    Sind Sie das Busfahrer? nope
    *Sind Sie DER Busfahrer? Yes :)

    • Ron G.

      Thank you! Luckily this was a couple years ago and I wouldn’t make the mistake with the Busfahrer anymore. But I *would* make a mistake with LetzteS…hahaha, adjectives give me the hardest time.

      • Manuel

        Sup Ron,
        to the first reply: You would indeed say “Die/Sie sind die Busfahrer?”

        And god, I can totally understand your problems with the adjectives.
        I’m working as German teacher in Ecuador right now (getting a fluent spanish *win*) and it really is hard shit to learn 😀

        • Ron G.

          Wow, teaching German in Ecuador. That sounds like an awesome adventure. Shout out to a fellow language lover! Respekt! :-) If you ever end up teaching in Florida let me know.

          • Manuel

            It is :)
            Danke. I will, even if it seems to be too fucking expensive to fly there. xD
            The only contact to Florida I have is when I watch “Dexter” 😀

    • Ron G.

      Wait, also, how would you say, “They are the bus drivers?” Because if I remember correctly, I think I figured out from context that this was what the guy was saying to me.