I’ve learnt so much from my mistakes I think I’ll make some more…

I’m not sure who said this originally, but I remember seeing it years ago, on a postcard stuck to my parents’ fridge. It’s a joke of course (the whole thing about making mistakes is that we don’t plan to make them!) but then, like all good jokes, I think there’s also a universal truth behind it.

It’s widely believed, and widely spouted in educational literature, that putting ourselves into situations where we take risks and inevitably make mistakes can lead to learning. We could go even further (and possibly make a mistake by doing so:-) ) and suggest that making mistakes is actually central to learning. If we don’t make mistakes are we actually learning anything at all?

How does this apply specifically to language learning? Here’s an example where I learnt something in Spanish.

Many years ago I was sitting on the Santiago metro with my young son next to me in a pushchair. Opposite me was a man (a native speaker of Chilean Spanish) who had a baby who seemed roughly the same age as mine. I took a risk and started speaking to him even though I didn’t feel very confident about the accuracy of the words I was using. The short exchange which followed provided a safe framework (or scaffold) in which I could experiment with the Spanish word for ‘crawl’.

Me: y cuantos meses tiene el tuyo?  (and how many months old is yours?)

Man: nueve (nine)

 Me: y gatilla? (and does he ‘pull the trigger?’)

 Man: Gatea? Gatea. Si (crawl? He crawls. Yeah.)

Despite me pronouncing the word incorrectly, the man understood what I’d meant, reformulated the inaccuracy and continued with the conversation. It was a moment of learning for me that happened as a direct result of me making a mistake.

In our new Facebook live curriculum based sessions we have two teachers working together to provide language clarification and language practice activities for students at different grades of ‘English for Palestine’. Of course the students can’t take risks orally (as in my example) because they only have the option of writing comments. But in fact the opportunities for learning from their mistakes in these sessions may be even greater than if they were taking place face to face. There are three reasons for this in my opinion.

Firstly, when things are written down there is a permanent and clear record of what’s been produced . This means that it may be easier for the two teachers to notice learner language, and they therefore have opportunities to provide personalised feedback on the comments and orally reformulate what the students have written. Secondly, there are lots of other teachers participating in the sessions too, (as observers or for their own professional development), and these teachers can provide written reformulations on what the students write. Thirdly, because these reformulations provided by the teachers are written there is more potential for the students to notice them and consequently learn from them.

Here’s an example of this from Sahar and Lauren’s session last Saturday morning. They were doing a really nice personalised practice activity where Sahar wrote ‘What is your favourite hobby’ on her mini-whiteboard, and then invited the students to write their answers. You can see what happened in the comments on the right. It’s great that Sahar and Lauren had created a learning environment where Luay felt brave enough to make a mistake, and I hope that he felt encouraged and supported by the response that I gave him and could learn from it.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all language learners around the world went to their classes with the attitude of ‘I’ve learnt so much from my mistakes I think I’ll make some more‘? Wouldn’t it be wonderful too if all language teachers did their very best to create a learning environment where this attitude could thrive. I’d love to read your views on this in the comments below.

6 thoughts on “I’ve learnt so much from my mistakes I think I’ll make some more…

  1. Committing mistakes is what makes us human being!
    Mistakes are always inevitable especially if you learn a foreign language . Learning a language may sometimes seem scary because we don’t want to commit mistakes either because we don’t want to be wrong or be laughed at by other people or classmates ! but actually committing mistakes is such a bright moment that will lead us to our proficiency .
    One day , I was talking to a very good friend of mine ( she is a native speaker of English ) and we were chatting about different kinds of recipes , and while we were doing this , I mispronounced the word “ recipe” as I don’t use it a lot in my own context .So ,I pronounced it ending with /p/ sound instead if / i: / , and immediately she corrected me so kindly by saying : “ Oh , you mean Donuts recipe “ and she stressed / i: / sound at the end . In fact , it stuck to my mind forever now !
    As a teacher , I think making mistakes is an amazing golden gate . In fact , it’s a shiny bright gate because it opens up the horizon in front of the teacher’s eyes to put their finger on the Ss needs and help them to improve by doing a kind of correction , scaffolding or reformulation to their mistakes . Also , it is such a gate that the students can pass through to move from valuable failure to bright success where they can notice different aspects of the language and never forget them .
    Making mistake is a wonderful opportunity for improvement , and it’s the best way to learn and be fluent ! So I would say to all the students around the world : committing mistakes is not scary anymore ! it is your vehicle towards you language proficiency .
    And to all teachers : “ Please , welcome mistakes . They are part of how human being’s brains work “

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    1. Thanks for your lovely comment Haneen! Your idea of a mistake being a golden gate is great. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if teachers and learners everywhere went into class with this attitude. Your story about how your friend reformulated what you said with the word ‘recipe’ reminds us that this kind of recasting is something that is a natural part of communication in order to help conversations go smoothly. It’s not something that you need to be a teacher to do. You just need to be a human being!

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  2. Maybe we should change the word- mistake sounds too negative. We could remove the “mis” and call it a “take. ” When people make a film, they call each piece of film a take- “take 1/ take 2/ take 3 etc”. That’s exactly what we’re doing when we learn a language.

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    1. That’s brilliant Louise. I love the idea of a ‘take’ rather than a ‘mistake’ . As you say, much more positive and process oriented. I also love it because it’s another way which shows the connections between acting and learning a language. You should do a conference talk about this idea.

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  3. Hello,It’s not "me making a mistake" but "my making a mistake" …. no worries … we all make mistakes !!!Thanks.Dee

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