Oh, this is terrible! I haven’t written anything in two months. So many things have happened recently that I want to write about, including visiting castles and watching Easter parades, and I hope that I will be able to do it. I actually have a whole list of half-finished drafts on my page. Life and work got very busy recently but it is nearly the end of the school year and the exams have started so I will have more time soon.
Today I wanted to write a post for anyone who is learning a new language. One of the hardest things to do is to get over the initial fear of making mistakes. In my post about How to Be a Good Language Student, I outlined my tips when learning a new language. Tip number 6 was “Make Mistakes”. This is something that goes against everything we have learned as adults – that making mistakes is bad. It’s not and here’s why.
I follow a blogger and language hacker called Benny Lewis. His story is pretty inspiring and you can check him out on his website Fluent in 3 Months. He gave a TEDx talk outlining some of the tricks he uses to learn languages. Benny has managed to make an impressive career from his language learning. Some of his tips, such as studying a language for 8 hours a day, are not really applicable to those of us who have full time jobs and other commitments. However, one of them that can be put into practice is making mistakes. Benny aims to make 100 mistakes a day because then he knows he’s improving. Here’s the trick – when learning a language, you need to make mistakes. The only reason you’re not making mistakes is because you’re not pushing yourself past your comfort zone and therefore, you’re not improving.
When I first moved to Italy, I knew no Italian. I’d had three weeks to prepare everything and so I was able to learn a few words but nothing to be able to communicate effectively. For the first few months I was here, I spent as much time as possible studying Italian. I downloaded all the apps, stayed late at school to use the computers, and got books from some Italian teachers. I was also lucky enough to have an English friend who had moved to Naples at around the same time so we would have study sessions over Skype in the evening.
My interactions with the local Italians started off small. For example, I soon learned that the cashier at the supermarket will always ask you the same three questions:
“Do you have a loyalty card?”
“Do you want the stamps?”
“Do you want a bag?”
No. No. No.
The problems would arise when they threw in an extra question, perhaps about a special offer, and I would look like a rabbit caught in headlights. I would hurriedly apologise for not speaking Italian and run out of the shop.
This went on for a few months until my English friend came to see me. We went to a travel agency to book his bus ticket back to Naples and as soon as I walked in, I apologised to the man behind the counter for not speaking Italian and I asked him if he spoke English. This had become something of a routine for me over the past two months but I didn’t realise how detrimental it was to my own learning. The man behind the counter didn’t speak English and so I had to face the challenge in my broken Italian. It turned out, however, that I was more than capable of finding out bus times and buying a ticket. I just hadn’t forced myself to do it before. When we came out of the agency, my friend looked at me and said he was impressed with what I had achieved in such a short time. He also said something that really stuck with me – I needed to stop apologising for my Italian. It was true.
When you apologise for something before it even happens, it automatically puts you in a negative mindset. You’re worried about making mistakes. However, most Italians, especially those in my tiny town, are very appreciative when you speak in Italian, even if there are a few stumbling blocks along the way. They do their best to help you and understand what you want. Obviously, you will get some who are just rude (like the guy from Fastweb who hung up on me) but they really are the minority. This was the turning point for my Italian language journey. From that day I stopped apologising. I stopped asking people if they spoke English. I started forcing myself to use my Italian at every opportunity. And guess what? I improved! I know it just seems like common sense, but getting over the fear of making mistakes is one of the hardest things you’ll do as a language learner but it’s also the most rewarding thing you’ll do.
Remember, people, you’re speaking another language, a language that isn’t your mother tongue, and that’s pretty darn amazing. So go out, speak the language and above all, make mistakes. Happy learning!