Three Reasons to Fail Often During Language Learning

Well, it’s probably not the best thing in the short term. But if you “fail forward”–that is, improve from the experience–then it’s one of the best things you can do to succeed in the long term.

My friend John from Leith Literary recently linked to a great article in the New York Times titled “Why Flunking Exams is Actually a Good Thing.” The article, summed up, says that failing a a pretest is beneficial and can help you retain information better than simply studying alone.

Why? It’s complicated, and we’ll go over some reasons in this article.

But the idea can be applied to language learning. So here are three reasons why you should be failing–often–in your language learning.

1. Failing is a reality check that you don’t understand the material.

The NY Times article discusses the trap we all fall into:

“We are duped by a misperception of ‘fluency,’ believing that because facts or formulas or arguments are easy to remember right now, they will remain that way tomorrow or the next day. This fluency illusion is so strong that, once we feel we have some topic or assignment down, we assume that further study won’t strengthen our memory of the material. We move on, forgetting that we forget.”

The “fluency” here isn’t the exact same as what we usually think of in terms of language fluency. It’s referring instead to our ability to recall information quickly. Of course, if you’ve spent any time at all learning languages, then you know how deceptive that initial “knowing” of information can be.

For example, you’ll learn a vocabulary word and completely know it. But then the next day you forget it. Then relearn it. Then forget it. You repeat this process until you finally really know the word. And this is why we have stuff like spaced repetition systems and my article on watching the same movies over and over. It takes repeated exposure to material to really acquire it.

But there are going to be times when you don’t even know what you don’t know. There are times when I’m going along thinking I’m making good progress, but then I take an online test or run through a Duolingo lesson and tank it. And I’m like, ah jeez, I guess I didn’t know that stuff as well as I thought. The test shattered my illusion of proficiency and let me know exactly what I didn’t know.

2. Embarrassment helps form memories.

When I’m embarrassed by a mistake, I tend not to make that mistake again.

In Germany, I told a German-speaking Italian olive vendor, “Heute ich habe Münzen.” (I was trying to say, “Today I have coins.”)

He knew me fairly well since he saw me every other day, so he gently corrected me: “Heute habe ich Münzen.” I had mixed up the word order due to not understanding a feature of German grammar.

After about eight seconds of interaction, I learned that grammatical rule well enough to never make that mistake again. The vendor was nice and even gentle in his correction, but my ears still burned red from being wrong. That sense of embarrassment did more for my learning than hours of grammatical instruction could.

So go out and talk to people and fail at it. Miserably. And listen to their corrections or take cues from their body language. Or take a test and bomb it and feel bad about it. Or go through old flashcards and see how many you’ve forgotten.

There are probably biological and evolutionary reasons for why embarrassment makes you remember better. I’m not a scientist, but it probably has something to do with your body releasing cortisol when you’re stressed. If you wander into a lion’s den by accident, your brain wants you to know not to ever do that again, so you commit that little bit of knowledge–“lion’s den here”–to memory. The same pathways are likely in action–“don’t feel stupid in front of these people”–with language learning.

3. Failing means you’re trying.

Want to know how to never make a mistake speaking a foreign language?

Never speak.

Okay, that’s silly, right? But that’s basically what many people do. They never go out and try because they’re not perfect in the language right now.

One of the reasons I went with my “language surfing” and “imperfect language” philosophies on my site is because I saw so many of my American colleagues and friends in Germany not trying to speak German because they were too afraid of making mistakes.

Admittedly, making mistakes is hard. It’s stressful and it can make you feel bad about yourself. And I understand how difficult it is putting yourself at the mercy of other people to be patient with you.

But if you’re not failing, you’re not trying. And if you’re not trying, then you’re never going to improve.

Fall off the bike. Then get on again.

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