Thursday, June 28, 2012

making mistakes is bad or good?

A comment on Steve's blog says:
The essence of learning is making mistakes, that's HOW you learn to do it right!

I have to say, I don't agree with this. We learn to do it right by doing it right, not by doing it wrong. When you do something wrong, it means you haven't learned how to do it right yet.

Is it impossible for someone to do something right without doing it wrong first? No, I don't think so. Getting it wrong is not a prerequisite for getting it right.

You can make mistakes forever, but that won't lead to learning how to do it right. Listen to long time immigrants who make the same mistakes again and again.  There's a term for it, called fossilization.

So how do you learn to speak a foreign language correctly? More than likely, by paying attention to how native speakers speak. You focus on good examples and use those as your model. If you do make a mistake, just ignore it. Your mistakes won't help you improve.

Why do people make mistakes in a second language? They make mistakes when they don't have the proper framework built up in their head and they try to output language. Basically, they are speaking too early (or too much). You can say what you know how to say without making any mistakes. When you go into unknown territory, that is where you make mistakes.

Mistakes by themselves are not bad, but when you keep repeating the same mistakes, it develops a pattern in your head which, to you, starts to sound OK. This is the only danger of making mistakes (besides being laughed at).

If you follow a "practice output" approach, be sure to only use correct language. Practicing output should not be done by making up the language yourself as you go. Do not practice free conversation unless you can and are good at controlling the conversation. Otherwise you'll be asked questions that you can't answer correctly and you'll start making up language to try to express yourself.

Don't make the mistake of making excuses that sound like the one in the quote above.


  1. I think that when you're a kid and you say something wrong either your parents are going to correct you or other kids are going to make fun of you until you change it. As an adult people are less willing to correct you and they'll just silently judge you. It's like when you have a piece of food stuck in your teeth and no one says anything because they don't want to embarrass you. A kid would point that out immediately if another kid had food in his teeth. Kids are vicious.

  2. Hi Keith,
    I'm sympathetic to this argument. I think that people over-estimate the teaching power of mistakes, and under-estimate the power of practicing with "correct form". I notice this attitude in business as well as in language learning.

    On the other hand, I wonder whether avoiding mistakes might be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. I find that, without attempting output, a lot of the input that I'm exposed to doesn't stick. There's the danger of picking up bad habits, but it might be worth the tradeoff if it significantly improves retention of words and structures.

    I mentioned this blog post on my own blog for English learners, by the way:

  3. When you learn to ride a bike, every time you fall over, turn the wrong way, press the pedal backwards, etc you are making mistakes...It is the mistakes that you make that enable you to correct what you do. Without noticing the mistakes you make, there is no chance you will improve beyond the level you achieved without noticing.

  4. I have to agree with the essence of what Steve says.

    It's impossible to get it all right all the time when you are learning a language. Mistakes are inevitable. When you think making a mistake is a good thing, then you can push yourself to express your thoughts in less confident ways and experiment whether with what works.

    On the other hand, if you are careful and you hold back because you don't want to make mistakes, you can't push your limits and you stagnate.

    When you say something odd and people don't understand, then you know there's something in there that needs to be corrected, so you try again until you get it right and over time, you DO develop a better sense of what's correct. And this is part of the fun, playing with the language and testing its limits.

    As for smaller mistakes, then it's a matter of paying attention. Most of the time, the other person's reply will contain the right form and it's up to you to pick it up and rephrase yourself correctly. You can also encourage people to correct you. If you think getting your point across is good enough, then you simply won't progress.

  5. Making mistakes while learning a language is completely normal and it help you learn from them. I invite you to a great site to learn a variety of languages for free. Please take a minute and visit


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