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Now, we all make mistakes. Sometimes, we make embarrassing mistakes. I’m no stranger to this myself. To paraphrase the Red Queen, why, sometimes I make as many as six embarrassing mistakes before breakfast! And when you’re learning something, you simply can’t help but screw it up. That, as we all know, is how we learn.
Learning languages is the perfect activity for setting yourself up to make horribly embarrassing mistakes. Unlike guitar or painting or golf, language learning is not a skill you can meaningfully practice all by your lonesome, making your mistakes in the privacy of your own home, where no one will ever laugh at you for them. Speaking a new language is a dance that requires at least one partner – ideally, a partner who is much better than you, and who can – nay, who will – bear witness to your linguistic fumblings. Sure, we’d all love to have a friend around who can help us speak fearlessly, but they’re not always going to be there. More often than not, our language partner will be a complete stranger.
The comic above is taken verbatim from my personal experience. It’s not the first time I’ve confused words, and it won’t be the last. Anyone who’s been betrayed by a false friend knows the feeling (“embarazada” in Spanish means pregnant? ¡Dios mío!). However, perhaps more frustrating and humiliating than any humorous slip of the tongue is when native speakers just don’t understand you. They simply stare at you quizzically and keep saying, “huh?” as you stumble to repeat yourself, becoming less and less verbose with each go-around. It’s torture.
It may be conducive to the learning process, but deep-cutting, red-faced embarrassment is not the kind of state we enjoy being in that often. We actively avoid such misery, as well we should. The question is, how can we manage our embarrassment so that it is conductive, rather than counter-productive, to the learning process?
First and perhaps most importantly, just power through it. You see in the second panel of the comic above, how confident and reassured our hero looks? He feels good about his German because he’s ignorant of the silly mistake he’s making. And he’s not wrong. Even if we do know we’re biffing it, as we often do, it’s important to grit your teeth, put on a smile and just grind through the sentence until you’ve said or done what you need to say or do. Nothing in life lasts, least of all embarrassment. It’s critical you power through your mistakes. This too shall pass.
Second, don’t forget to laugh it off. Nobody can laugh at you if you laugh at yourself first! Remember that it’s funny to make mistakes, and that the fact that it’s funny doesn’t mean anything about you personally. How you react is entirely in your hands – you can either get upset about it and make it more awkward for everyone involved, or you can find it hilarious and let it roll off your back. You don’t have anything to prove to anyone! Just enjoy it as part of the learning process.
Finally, slow down and start again. Often times embarrassing mistakes come from trying to speak too fast or not thinking through what you’re going to say. If I’m speaking to a stranger, I often try to fool them into thinking that I’m totally fluent, because I want them to think better of me. To do that, I speak quickly, slur my words and mumble. This is a mistake. Speak deliberately. Choose your words carefully. Don’t overthink it, but don’t underthink it either. It’ll safeguard you against further mistakes, and you’ll have the added bonus of looking like someone who takes their language learning seriously, and wants to improve.
And that is the critical takeaway from all of this: we are more impressed by seeing someone try than by seeing them succeed. It’s inspiring to meet someone who is working hard on something. It makes us want to do better as well, and that’s what most people are thinking when they meet you, learning their language. They know from their own attempts that language learning is tough, and they probably wish they could do the same (they can, of course, but that’s a topic for another time). If you can laugh off your mistakes, power through embarrassment and try, try, try again, you’ll be on the road to language success.