The ‘Good Language Learner’: Making Mistakes

Sometimes I meet a student who doesn’t want to speak in class because they’re afraid they will make mistakes. I understand this, I did the same when I was learning Italian 20 years ago. It took me 3 months to start trying to speak the language, which was quite inconvenient, as I was living in Italy at the time! However, we know from research, that mistakes are not only natural, but when you’re learning a language, they are essential.

Joan Rubin published her research as far back as the 1970s entitled “What the ‘Good Language Learner’ Can Teach Us”. Among other things she emphasized the importance of learners’ attitudes towards mistakes. She found that successful language learners were more willing to take risks and make errors, viewing mistakes as opportunities for learning and improvement. Every researcher since has agreed.

Furthermore, studies have shown that making mistakes is an essential component of skill acquisition. Dr. Robert Bjork, an expert in cognitive psychology, coined the term “desirable difficulties” to describe the concept that introducing challenges and errors during learning can actually enhance long-term retention and learning outcomes.

Here’s why allowing yourself to make mistakes is so important:

1. Mistakes are Proof of Effort: Research has shown that making mistakes is a sign of active engagement with the language. It demonstrates your willingness to take risks and step outside your comfort zone, which is essential for language acquisition. It’s easy never to make a mistake if you only do the easy things, but then you won’t learn to do the difficult things.

2. Mistakes Lead to Learning: Each mistake you make provides valuable feedback. Studies have shown that errors can actually deepen your learning and help your memory. Embracing mistakes as learning opportunities is key language learning.

3. Mistakes Foster Resilience: Learning a language requires resilience—the ability to bounce back from setbacks and keep moving forward. Research suggests that embracing mistakes cultivates resilience by encouraging a willingness to persevere in the face of challenges.

4. Mistakes Build Confidence: Contrary to popular belief, making mistakes can actually boost your confidence. Research has shown that learners who are encouraged to take risks and make errors develop greater self-confidence in their language abilities over time.

5. Native Speakers Make Mistakes: If you watch native speakers speak spontaneously (not scripted speech like on television or in films), they often make mistakes. It’s natural. A mistake doesn’t stop them speaking, they just rephrase or self-correct and continue.

Keep learning, keep growing, and never be afraid to make mistakes along the way.