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Embrace your mistakes when learning a new language

Updated: Mar 5

Why can’t we all just speak the same language? 


What a wonderful world it would be…or would it?


I think we could agree that despite the benefits of everyone being able to understand and communicate with each other, a global language would have its obvious drawbacks. Most importantly, the loss of language diversity, and the culture and identity so closely tied to it.


Plus…gone would be those funny, awkward moments when you mistranslate, use a word with a racy double entendre, smile and nod when spoken to, only to realize you’d been asked a question. And what about those hapless attempts at a little humor in the language you’re learning? When you’re the only one laughing? Or when the listener is laughing and you didn’t say anything funny?


Which brings me to my point…the beauty of learning a second language often emerges in these unexpected moments, even the blunders, and allowing yourself to embrace them and let the “mistakes” fly. Those mistakes are proof that you care enough to make the effort.


It’s daunting. It requires letting your guard down and putting yourself out there without waiting until you’ve mastered a language. Stepping out of that ol’ comfort zone we’re all comfortably nestled in. Taking the opportunity to break the ice with a native speaker can lead to a new acquaintance and even foster a friendship.


I’m in a position to weigh in on this, having learned Spanish as a second language. And blunder I did, with abandon. As a university student in Granada, Spain, I may or may not have mistaken the word “caña” (draft beer) with “coño” (not draft beer). For months, I was under the impression that I’d been breezily throwing around “Who cares?” by saying “¿Quién cuida?” (“Who takes care of?”) until a native Spanish friend politely corrected me. It once took me ten minutes to place a three syllable order (té con miel - tea with honey) for an annoyed bartender to finally catch on.


I could go on.


The point is…proficiency just doesn’t happen without these mishaps. You have to get your mouth around the vowels, consonants, syllables, and hear yourself speak. You may find yourself settling for words you don’t exactly mean in place of an elusive expression you haven’t learned yet. Be deliberate about learning vocabulary and that will happen less and less. Surely you’ve been in the position of hearing a non-native English speaker struggle to make themselves understood and chances are you managed to understand them. Even if their execution or word choice wasn’t perfect. 


So, un consejo: try out the language you are learning any chance you get. Your little mistakes can be endearing and disarming! They're an inevitable and valuable part of the process. On the rare, unlikely occasion you experience a reaction like my grumpy-pants bartender, shake it off and make the choice to laugh at it. You'll grow a thick skin and build resilience...and the rewards will outweigh the uneasiness. Besides being a powerful exercise for your brain, I hope you’ll find that it opens a beautiful pathway for connecting with people.

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게스트
3월 08일

I Love this post!!

It reminded me of a quote I saw this afternoon when visiting our campus’s archives- “If you're not willing to learn, no one can help you.

If you're determined to learn no one can stop you.”

That says it all.. and all the ‘messy mistakes’ are just the entertaining process of learning to communicate with another person!

You can’t learn a language(well) in isolation!

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게스트
3월 07일

Yes! The hardest part is taking a chance to be vulnerable and make those mistakes! Laughing through it is part of the fun. When I was volunteering in Ecuador the folks I worked with were just happy with my efforts and we got through it together!

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게스트
3월 06일

Well-spoken, and right on point! It gives me the push to try and speak in the native language in a foreign country. Thanks for your personal perspective. TP

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게스트
3월 06일

I have always thought that languages are especially difficult to learn. But I love the perspective you shared, especially when you said, “Those mistakes are proof that you care enough to make the effort.” Because it’s true, people will recognize and appreciate the effort that someone is taking to communicate outside their comfort zone.

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게스트
3월 06일

I completely agree. For most of my life, I avoided traveling to non-English-speaking countries. I thought I wouldn’t be able to get around, wouldn’t be able to order off a menu, and most importantly, not be able to speak and make friends with the people who live there. Finally, I started learning French and Spanish so I could visit the places I wanted to see. It turns out I should’ve done it a long time ago. It’s easy to get by knowing some of the language and bumbling my way through. People are happy to help and appreciate that you try to learn their language.

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