You’re attending a class or studying French by yourself. Testing yourself. Making one mistake. Two mistakes. Too many mistakes. Frustration keeps building up.
You start beating yourself up. "I should know this!", "I knew that!" You feel discouraged, disappointed in yourself.
You feel like you’re not good enough, not smart enough, not fast enough to get it RIGHT. Maybe like your parents made you feel. Or a teacher at school. Or laughters from classmates.
Everyone KNOWS making mistakes is essential to learn.
And yet, you can’t BELIEVE it if you don’t free yourself from what people from your past considered WRONG.
And you might end up depriving yourself of the joy of learning French, giving up to avoid bad feelings.
How to start shifting your mindset about mistakes?
There is no progress without trial and error. But here I won’t dwell on how beneficial mistakes can be or why they are essential in learning any skill.
Understanding that mistakes are the greatest teachers doesn’t make them easier to deal with. I’s about progressively improving your relationship with mistakes than you will learn how to make the most out of them.
What’s wrong with mistakes? 5 steps to challenge your assumptions
- Identify the root cause of your reluctance to make mistakes. Is it fear of failure, perfectionism? Or maybe it’s because you hate sounding stupid, or that you want to look like you are in control of the situation? For example, let’s say it is about sounding stupid.
Write your thoughts associated with the issue: “I want to show how smart I am,” “I want to sound as smart as I do in English,” “I shouldn’t ask this question because I should know,” “I will just figure it out by myself”...
List rational alternative thoughts: “There are no stupid questions,” “If I don’t ask, it will hinder my progress,” “I’m not supposed to know everything,” “Sounding smart is just my ego wanting to show off”...
Think about the pros and cons of both your thoughts and the alternative thoughts.
Pick a more realistic or helpful way to view the situation. It doesn’t mean you will let go of all your initial thoughts but at least you will put them into a new perspective and have a deeper understanding of how they can harm your progress.
Who’s right to be wrong with?
While practicing your French is essential, it might turn out to be a disaster with the wrong person—and that goes beyond harsh, unsolicited corrections. If the person also lacks the time or the effort to understand you, a frustrating « Je ne comprends rien » could easily deter you from speaking in the wild.
What’s more, interacting with strangers is not the best way to take risks and get high-quality feedback. For your regular practice, choose a partner whom you trust and with whom you are comfortable making mistakes.
Someone who is patient and non-judgemental, encouraging and kind. Someone you feel safe with.
It takes humility to put yourself out there, even in the most supportive of environments. If you find a trustworthy teacher or language partner, forget about "sounding stupid." Ask and receive help: you will be all the richer for it.
Too right to be true
Maybe you don’t make that many mistakes—because you are constantly keeping yourself in check. You choose the easy path by avoiding more challenging grammatical structures. But they won’t get easier if you don’t practice them. Oversimplifying your grammar will not serve your growth. Rather, it will prevent you from enriching your French.
If you have learned a new structure, you will need several repetitions to make it stick. There is always a gap between understanding something in theory and using it confidently in practice. The only way to improve is to take the plunge and learn from your mistakes. Every attempt will make you stronger.
The right kind of mistakes
Not all types of mistakes are beneficial. Talking carelessly without being proactive will not serve your progress. When crafting your sentence, don’t spare any effort: Find the best way to express your thought. Aim for correctness while accepting that mistakes will occur. Do your best with what you know. If you hesitate, give your best guess and you might strike it lucky with a “near miss.”
According to a study by Dr. Nicole Anderson published in the journal Memory: "Mistakes that are a 'near miss' can help a person learn the information better than if no errors were made at all… These types of errors can serve as stepping stones to remembering the right answer. But if the error made is a wild guess and out in left field, then a person does not learn the correct information as easily."
Make it right: The power of self-correction
I always give my clients the opportunity to self-correct. More often than not, they already know the answer. Simply pointing out the mistake is enough to trigger that aha moment. The magic is when, with practice, they start to spontaneously self-correct. This shows the internalization of the process: a clear sign of progress.
You can practice self-correction when you write as well. After writing a text in French, take a break; walk around for 5 minutes. Then, go back with a fresh mind and re-read your text. Underline any mistakes you notice and try to make them right. You will still need someone to review your text afterwards but the exercise will make you more aware of your habitual mistakes and each correction will reinforce your memory.
Get it right: Learning from your mistakes
Be clear about whether a concept is not sticking because of a lack of memorization or a lack of understanding. You will have a hard time memorizing something you don’t understand.
Why did you make that mistake? Did you confuse two words with similar pronunciations? Did you get your conjugation wrong? Or is your sentence grammatically correct but unnatural in French?
Mistakes that are not understood and acted upon are lost. Uncorrected, repeated mistakes fossilize and might take longer to fix. Others just take longer than usual to process, for various reasons: confusion with another word, interference with a word in your native tongue or another language you know—and sometimes for no logical reason at all. All you can do is understand the mistake, review a rule if necessary and get enough repetitions (I recommend using flashcards) to make it stick.
I don’t think we can ever become totally comfortable with making mistakes, at least in unpredictable situations. But I know that in a safe environment, we can progressively develop a more playful approach. Your mistakes will teach you what nothing else will. In fact they are precious gifts—as long as you decide to unwrap them.