I have been at this whole language learning thing for a few years now, and while I like to celebrate my successes here with you on Eurolinguiste, I’ve had my own fair share of failures, too.
It’s important to spend time enjoying the times that you succeed. It’s a great way to stay motivated and keep moving forward.
But it’s equally important to take a look at the moments where you weren’t successful to see how you can use them to continue to grow.
Both successes and failures are incredibly useful language learning tools. And I might even dare to argue that failures are the better of the two.
While success may be great for motivation, failures are great for helping you better structure your learning, for isolating areas where you need to improve, and for learning more about yourself. Failures are also the stepping stones that lead you to success. There are a whole lot more of them, but they don’t have to be discouraging.
So to prove it, I’m going to lay it all out.
Today I’d like to share a few ways that I’ve personally failed at language learning and how I’ve used those failures to succeed later on down the road.
My Failures as a Language Learner
Little embarrassing mistakes made by trying to guess words that I don’t know or that I can’t remember.
French and English share a quite a few words. There are also a lot of false friends. And false friends can really get you into some awkward situations. But it gets worse. Because French and English have a lot of similar words, I sometimes use the entirely wrong word because it sounded like it should have been right in the flow of conversation (or I was distracted and just grabbed at the first word that came to me).
This happened one fine afternoon while Mini M was asking me about various words in French and English. I was trying to multitask (which I realize now I should have not been doing) while Mini M was pointing at various things in the kitchen, asking me what they were in both French and English. He pointed to a cup, so I told him “cup” and “une tasse”. He pointed to the drawer handle, so I said “handle” and “une poignée”. He pointed at a bottle and I responded “bottle” and “une bouteille”. He indicated the bottle cap, and so, I automatically replied “cap” and “une capote”. This continued on for a few minutes before I realized my mistake.
I had just told him that the lid to the bottle was a condom, not a cap. I was horrified, but the rest of my family had apparently found it hilarious. And, of course, they refrained from saying anything to me until I tried to correct my own error. For the record, a cap is a “un capuchon”.
What I learnt // When working on a language-related task, or when helping someone else with their own language learning, focus. If you divide your attention, you won’t progress as quickly and you’ll make more mistakes. Now when Mini M (or our whole family) and I play word games, I give him (them) all of my attention. It not only ensures that the experience is far more enjoyable for everyone, but it also frees up my concentration so that my brain makes the right connections and more firmly cements the right information in the right indexes for future reference.
Making up new words entirely.
M and I have a running joke that I like to call the eurodictionary. Because we are bilingual, we’re constantly code-switching which leads to numerous mistakes. Code-switching, for us, sometimes happens because we can’t think of a word in the language we were speaking at the time, so we automatically shift to the other. It sometimes happens for just one word in a sentence, but other times a sentence may start out entirely in French and end entirely in English because one word served as the hinge that swings us from one to the other.
When one of us can’t think of a word in either language, it doesn’t stop us in our tracks. Instead, we let whatever French-English hybrid that strikes us fly out of our mouths to either be embarrassed or amused when the other points out our latest “invention”.
What I learnt // Mistakes don’t matter as long as you’re understood. If you are feeling “crumpy” because the outlet doesn’t “marche”, it doesn’t matter as long as the person you’re conversing with knows what you meant to say.
Allowing mistakes to stop me from using a new language.
I would have to say that this is the longest running mistake I’ve ever made in language learning. When I really started this whole language learning thing, I was set on learning each language as completely as possible before stepping out from behind my desk to use it with someone else. I thought mistakes were the most horrible thing and I dreaded the idea of making them in front of someone else. Who knows what would happen if they pegged me as a non-native speaker? I surely thought it would be something pretty bad.
But the truth is, making mistakes in front of other people really isn’t as bad as you might think it is. Yeah, okay, it’s sometimes anywhere from moderately to extremely embarrassing (depending on the mistake), but it won’t kill you. “Dying of embarrassment” is a figurative expression, not a literal one.
What I learnt // The only way I’m going to learn a language as completely as possible (for myself), is by using it with other people. I can’t rely on textbooks and podcasts to teach me a language. That isn’t how it’s meant to be used. And I’ll never learn how to use it properly if I’m not using it with other people who speak the language. Mistakes aren’t the end of the world and they even offer you the opportunity to improve if you’re making them in front of someone who can and will correct you. So go make as many mistakes as you like. They’re fuel to feed your learning fire.
Bouncing around from resource to resource.
I used to be a language book hoarder. Okay, fine, yes, you caught me. I’m still a little bit of a language book hoarder, but there’s one really big difference between what I was doing before and what I’m doing now.
For one, I only buy new books that I know are going to work for me with absolute certainty. This usually means that I’ve tested them before putting money on the table or that I’ve used them for another language and I know that they fit my learning style.
Secondly, I now make a point of using every single resource that I buy. I don’t purchase new books to let them sit and gather dust on my shelves. Yes, they’re pretty. And yes, it feels like I’m moving forward whenever I go out and buy a new one, but that’s not technically the case until I start working through the book. So work through what you already have. You’ll then be better equipped to choose your next resource because you’ll have a better idea of what you’re missing and what you need to work on.
What I learnt // If you constantly change up the materials you’re using, you’re going to waste a lot of time repeating information you’ve already learnt. If you really want to keep moving forward with a language, you need to keep moving forward with the resources you have. Get further into them, work up to the more advanced sections in your books and podcasts. Stop trying to go out and find the “newest”, “shiniest” or “fastest” method and just use what you have. The only way you’re really going to learn new material faster is by going from Chapter 1 to Chapter 2 to Chapter 3. And if you don’t think the resource is right for you, there are still ways to make use of them.
Relying on external forces to teach me a language.
When I was in school, I thought that showing up to my language classes and doing my homework would be enough. I took five years of one language in school and in just over a year, I know far more Chinese than I ever knew of that previous language. Why? Because I held myself accountable when learning Chinese. I didn’t do the same in school. I thought it was my teacher’s job to teach me the language.
What I learnt // It is my responsibility to learn a language. I cannot expect a book, tutor, teacher, podcast, or app to do it for me. They are merely tools to help guide me and to offer the information that I need to keep me on my merry way. It is up to me to use those tools effectively to learn a language. I am responsible for 100% of my progress.
Not speaking the language but still expecting to be able to communicate.
There are tons of different reasons to learn a language and if your goal is only to read books in your target language or understand an opera, then that’s great. Those, however, are not my goals. Reading in my target language may be one small part of the greater whole for me, but a large part of the reason behind why I learn different languages is to be able to communicate with other people.
I want to learn to speak.
Despite that always having been part of my goals for language, however, I didn’t always work on that particular aspect. For some really odd reason, I thought that working through grammar books, listening to podcasts, and reading in my target language would magically gift me with the ability to fluently speak my target language.
I learnt the hard way, however, that this is no where near reality.
What I learnt // The only way to learn to speak a language is by speaking it. Speaking a language is so much more than memorizing vocabulary and grammar rules. It’s also building muscle memory, learning how to improvise, and figuring out how to deal with variation.
A book is a set of words that won’t change (unless you get an updated edition), a conversation is fluid. There is so much more that goes on and that can cause you to stumble if you’re trying to either 1) understand or 2) speak. So the only way to get better at understanding other speakers and to become a better speaker yourself is by speaking. As an introvert, I really didn’t want this to be the case, but it is and I’ve had to learn to deal with it because I really love learning languages that much.
Speaking of being an introvert…
Letting myself get in the way of my own language learning.
In the past, I often used my introverted personality serve as an excuse for why I didn’t do a variety of things – speaking my target languages included. I let myself get in the way of making real progress with my language learning.
Thankfully my desire to continue learning won out the war against whether I was securely within my comfort zone and I no longer let a little uncertainty get in the way of opportunities to practice my target languages (most of the time).
What I learnt // If you really want something, you need to be willing to make sacrifices to pursue it. At the end of the day you need to decide if improving your ability in your target language is worth being uncomfortable for a short period of time (whether this discomfort is caused by a hard grammar section in your book, a spontaneous conversation with a native speaker, or an opportunity to travel to get language practice in).
Forgetting things that I’ve learnt in other languages.
Sometimes things come up and you need to take a little break from your language learning. And other times, you have what seems like a million things going on and your brain is on overload. A situation arises where you need to use your target language, you open your mouth and it’s just gone. You feel like you’ve forgotten just about everything.
I can’t even begin to tell you how many times this has happened to me. At school it happened after every summer vacation, winter vacation and spring vacation. In university, around exam time. Now, when I’m tired or focused on something else entirely.
It happens. You simply just can’t remember everything.
What I learnt // Initially I grew frustrated whenever I had to spend time going over something that I had already “learnt”, but now I accept that it’s just all a part of the process. So what if I’ve seen that Chinese word 15 times already. It just hasn’t stuck yet. There are plenty of things I can do to work at making it my own. But the very first step is to be patient with myself. I’m not going to get anywhere by growing frustrated.
Deciding that I no longer want to continue learning a language that I spent a lot of time with.
Stepping away from Spanish and Arabic were both really hard decisions for me. I had spent hours, weeks, months, and years learning them. I spent money on books and classes and I felt that giving them up would be wasteful.
But they were no longer doing for me what Chinese or Croatian were. I had to make the decision to spend time with the languages that I loved and that I was interested in and to stop spending time on languages I didn’t enjoy learning any more.
That’s not to say that I won’t go back to those languages one day. Who knows? Perhaps I’ll fall in love with them all over again at some point and find the inspiration to pick them back up. For now, however, that’s not the case and I had to give them up so I could spend time doing more of the languages I love.
What I learnt // There are only so many hours in a day and they are much better spent on something that you enjoy than something that you feel obligated to do. A little bit of obligation is okay, but if you dread your language study time for weeks on end, it’s time do reevaluate your situation.
Before I close out, there’s just one more failure I’d like to discuss.
It’s really only the one type of failure that I’ll never allow myself.
And that’s to quit entirely.
That is the only failure that I am not okay making.
There are days where I may experience frustration. There will also be days where I think that I hate learning new languages or where I’m pretty sure I’m horrible at it. There are days where one hundred other things sound like way more fun than doing HSK practice tests and there are days where I just don’t want to hear one more word in this or that language.
For a while I wondered if that meant that I should quit, if I had exhausted my excitement and interest in language learning. That’s only normal. If you start to feel like you’re not cut out for something, it’s quite typical to wonder if you should continue to spend time on it.
But then I’ll learn something new about the culture my language belongs to or I’ll suddenly have a huge breakthrough in my learning and I laugh at the fact that I ever thought about quitting.
Knowing that I’ve thought myself silly for ever having considered giving language up helps me push through when I once more get frustrated. I now have the experience of knowing how it feels to come out on the other side and it keeps me working through it.
Quitting language learning entirely is the only failure I will never allow myself. All the rest are only hurdles and stepping stones to get me to the next level. They are like failed relationships. They help me grow and become a better learner and while I was mortified by them when I was experiencing them, I am incredibly grateful for them now.
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What about you? What are some of your language learning failures? How did you learn from them? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!