And a bonus!
The Eleventh (and final) Secret of Learning Italian
Secret no. 11 is a good place to end our series on langauge learning strategies: DON’T BE AFRAID OF MAKING MISTAKES.
You may have heard that making mistakes is “bad”. In the 1950’s, Behaviourist learning theorists (if you’ve heard of Pavlov and his salivating dogs, that’s what Behaviourism is) maintained that learning was the result of a process of action + reward/punishment which eventually led to the creation of correct (or wrong) habits. So, for example, if your child does something wrong, and you reward him with an ice-cream, he will repeat his bad behaviour, but if you punish him he will be less likely to do so. Conversely, rewarding correct behaviour will “reinforce” the action and thus result in learning. This would be more or less most people’s idea of how to train a dog, but many of us would believe that children (and language-learners) are more complex, because aspects such as motivation are also present.
Behaviourists would advise correcting mistakes immediately, so as to avoid the creation of “bad habits”. In fact, the whole idea of “free” speaking practice would have been suspect, because of the danger that other students in the class would inadvertently learn bad habits from mistakes made by their fellows. Only “controlled” speech would have been acceptable, and any mistakes corrected immediately.
Things have moved on a bit since the 1950’s, first with the notion that language learning was not simply learned behaviour, but actually the result of an innate mechanism in the human brain which was programmed to acquire language (Chomsky). Subsequent approaches to language teaching and learning emphasised that “communicative” methodologies were the best way to stimulate language acquisition. Communicative situations, by definition, are less controlled, so the “danger” of making mistakes no longer seems like such a threat.
In fact, researchers looking at how children learn their first language have identified that children go through stages of using “wrong” grammar, which are consistent with their age and developmental level. Chilren’s grammar, and the mistakes which are associated with it, is an example of a “meta stage” in the development of our knowledge of a language. Mistakes then, rather than being something to be avoided at all cost, are simply a natural result of the fact that your “current” knowledge of the language is still at an intermediate stage on the learning curve.
From a practical point of view, it can also be argued that learners who are reluctant to make mistakes don’t take risks with the language, and so are less likely to be involved in conversations and situations which “push the envelope” of their knowledge and as a consequence result in their language capabilities (NOT just the knowledge of grammar, don’t forget!) improving.
Conclusion? Get out there and make mistakes! Get used to the idea that you’ll never be perfect, and the chances of approaching perfection become greater. Counter-intuitive, but true!
(My goodness! You’ve reached the end of the series. Never mind! Here’s another article you might be interested in…)