Is the Fear of Making Mistakes Preventing You from Becoming Fluent?

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Lots of mistakes…

That’s what it can feel like sometimes.

If you’ve managed to make it through an introductory foreign language course, you’ve probably come to accept that you’re making mistakes when you try out your new language skills. Lots of mistakes.

It’s how you react to those mistakes that will determine your ultimate success.

There’s a famous hyper-polyglot by the name of Kató Lomb who was born in Hungary at the turn of the century. Over her lifetime she acquired professional proficiency in 16 languages and developed working proficiency in another 11. Her passion was fueled by an insatiable curiosity to decode and understand languages.

As a self-taught linguist, she focused on finding strategies to maximize her motivation to keep working at learning languages. Her personal strategy was to find books in the language she hoped to learn and to read them cover-to-cover (with a dictionary). The books that she chose, however, were not literary classics, but rather dime romance novels and murder mysteries. Why? Because these books are like mind candy – you always want to know if the hero saves the heroine and who the real murder was.

Apart from her preferred learning strategy, what’s most interesting about Kató Lomb, was her philosophy on language learning success.

Language learning success can be expressed as a fraction.

She describes the ability to succeed in language learning as a fraction. The numerator is the learner’s drive, or motivation. The goal is to maximize this motivation during the learning process. On the bottom of the fraction, in the denominator, are all of the fears and worries that language learners have about learning, detracting from their overall motivation.

This is where the fear of making mistakes belongs, in the denominator.

If the fear of making mistakes is more powerful (or greater) than your motivation to learn your second language, then you’re never going to become proficient. This inhibition, while a perfectly normal part of the learning process, can harm your learning in two distinct ways:

Missed opportunities. Each time you have the opportunity to go out into the community (or cyber community) and practice your new language skills, you should do so. The fear of making mistakes will hold you back from taking risks, which are critical to practice and master your new skills.

Limited use. Perhaps you do have the courage to use your language skills when the opportunities present themselves. You also need enough nerve to practice language that is less familiar to you. This means having conversations on unfamiliar topics and experimenting with new grammar forms. Be adventurous!
Remember that, as a learner, this your opportunity to blunder through as best you can.

Be of good courage and embrace the learning process!

Interested in reading more? Here are some more posts on language learning:
The Perfect Language Learner
What to Look for in Flashcard Apps
Delivery: Battling Your Inner Hamster