by Marc Anderson

The Value of Mistakes in ESL Learning – Stories from Students Around the World

Woman reading inside a huge book

 Would you like me to give you a formula for success?

It’s quite simple, really.

Double your rate of failure.

– Thomas Watson, founder of IBM –

As the new semester begins, I thought it might be interesting to ask my ESL adult students to assess their English skills. Most of the students were returning students in an online English course. They were to reflect on ways that helped their oral language skills improve since they first began studying English and share at least one of these ways with the class. I thought it might be helpful for each student to introduce themselves to the class and then explain what that one way was so others might be able to benefit, too. Their suggestions were so interesting that I wanted to share a few of these with you. These are their formulas for success in speaking English and not worrying about others judging their language or being fearful themselves that they might make English language mistakes.

1.     It all begins with your attitude. Accept the fact that you will make mistakes and learn from them.– J. Yao (China)

I think that the most important step in being able to comfortably converse in English as an ESL student is to change your mindset and accept the fact that you will make mistakes. Certainly those of us who are not naturally born in an English-speaking country are not expected to know and understand all the English grammar, vocabulary, and spelling like that of a natural born citizen. And certainly there is an element of the unknown like in new things or in things that you are not necessarily as competent in. But using English as a non-native speaker is an area that you should not feel frightened about or think others will judge you.  I have found quite the opposite, in fact. There are other things far more important that saying the correct word or using accurate grammar and the appropriate tense. What you have to say counts for something. Do you have good eye contact?  Are you a good listener? Do you have enthusiasm when you speak? All of these aspects add to your ability to be an effective communicator. You might be thinking that if you don’t talk much or even not at all, then you won’t be judged and you won’t make mistakes. But how are you going to learn to speak English?  That seems counterproductive. The more you speak, the more opportunity you have to develop your English skills, and then the more you will feel comfortable in speaking and the better you will get. Believe me. I’ve been there. Think of it this way. If someone is going to judge you on your English ability alone, then their opinion doesn’t really matter. There is so much more to your English ability than speaking. There is so much more to your skills than some errors. Change your attitude and you will be sure to change the rate you will learn English. I know. Remember – I’ve been there. Look at me now. There was a time a few years ago, that I was shy and I could not speak in the informal conversation groups, but now…you can’t shut me up. ATTITUDE makes a difference. Learn from your mistakes and be thankful that you are moving forward in your English language speaking ability.

possible and impossible

2.     Be proactive. Join activities and get involved!– S. Hussein (Syria)

What can I say? I decided to be proactive. I needed to learn English to perform better on my job so I kept reminding myself that there was a very important motivator to become a strong English language speaker. I didn’t speak much English until I make up my mind to be proactive. I looked in the local paper and on community bulletin boards and even at the local universities, and I chose to join a few activities that allowed me to meet people and to use English. Since I like sports, I joined a pick-up basketball team of international students – I figured they would be speaking English, a newspaper staff at a community college that published a bilingual paper every week, and I signed up for a computer class taught by a visiting professor from England.  Then it began to snowball. Several of the basketball players asked me to join their International Club, the newspaper staff asked me to also be on the staff for the literary magazine and the English professor wanted to know if I would lead a study group in computer science (in English). I could see that by being proactive, I had many wonderful opportunities to apply my English conversational skills which led to even more opportunities. Somehow that year, I felt that my English was a tool to communicate and learn, and it did not matter anymore if I made any mistakes in speaking or writing…it did not matter if I had to ask questions about understanding something or the best way to use a word, etc. I have stayed very involved in many campus and community activities.  I have gained lots of friends, have a better understanding of the English-speaking culture, and have increased confidence. Can you imagine what I felt like when the computer teacher asked me to lead a study group?  Sure, I know computer skills, but to lead a weekly group using English was something I thought I wasn’t even capable of doing. But, do you know what? That group of students helped me and we learned together. It was an unbelievable experience. So why am I enrolled in this English class? Well, there is no limit to learning… I still have some areas to brush up on with my English speaking, writing and reading skills…but I have made great strides.

friends sitting on a ledge

3.     Find English-speaking friend(s) and converse in English!– L. Martinez (Ecuador)

When my family moved from Ecuador to Europe, my parents enrolled my sisters and me in international schools where there were about 50% of the students from foreign countries and 50% of the students from English-speaking countries. It was there that I made my first American friend who helped me with understanding English and various customs about America. Looking back on this time in Europe, I can honestly say that the one thing that helped me with my English speaking skills was to be in an environment where you needed to use English all day long. Being exposed (bombarded J ) with English for about 8 hours a day, 5 days a week made a huge difference for me. First off, I developed pretty good listening skills. Then I needed to respond in English and to participate in various learning activities in English. My friend would help me out if I had questions.  We hung around a lot on the weekends, so I began to use more and more English. Now speaking English is quite easy for me and I thank my friend Freddy for helping me when I needed it the most. My advice is to find English-speaking friends. It could be someone from an English-speaking country or just anyone who wants to speak English in a conversational casual setting, book discussion groups, etc. The more exposure to English speakers, the better your English will become. Hey, if it happened to me, it can happen to you. I am sure of it.

friends talking on street

4.     Continue to study in a way that you enjoy.– D. Vang (Laos)

Moving to Canada with my family from Laos was very difficult for me. I had to leave behind my homeland for a country that I did not understand. I did not know any English, nor had I experienced any of the customary cultural activities. So there was a lot to learn. But, I found ways that I could learn English that I liked. My grandmother would take me to the library where my sister and I could check out children’s books, books on tapes, videos and even CDs. All of these helped me with understanding English. My mother who worked in a small grocery store had several customers who helped mentor our family in getting acclimated to living in Canada. The teachers at school were extremely helpful in differentiating instruction on my level and helping me acquire skills so I can successfully attend college now, take an online English class, and even get a job where I use English all day long. There are lots of ways to learn English, and sometimes I wish that I had more time in the day, but I now know that the library, audio visual materials, mentors, schooling and teachers, online courses and the world of work all help me to learn English. These are all experiences that I enjoy, and so my English skills have gotten a lot stronger each day. Take it from someone who knew no English at all, I am now majoring in English literature and History. And I am on the debate team capable of debating with other college students throughout Canada.

railway station - travelling

5.     Practice – Practice – Practice!– A. Nkrumah (Ghana)

I guess if I had to pick one thing that helped me the most in speaking English despite having some mistakes and initially thinking that someone (a stranger, friend, teacher, community person) would judge my language ability in some way, it would be to practice. You can practice in many ways. You can practice by yourself or with others. You can practice mentally and rehearse different scenarios or you can practice orally with a partner or with a tape recorder. You can write things down and read them over and over again, or you can just say them from an outline or even speak spontaneously. You can spend time imitating radio announcers and news reporters, you can repeat lyrics of poems or songs, and you can recite commercials. I practice all of the time from when I get up in the morning, on the bus to school and work, in the classroom and in my cubicle at work, and in the evening. I find that rehearsing what I want or need to say ahead of time helps me the most. It is not that I have to have everything written down, just some key words in my head and a direction of what I will say.  Then it is easier for me to speak. If the phone rings at home, I want to be the first to get it. When the doorbell rings, I answer the door. I enjoy doing errands and using English at the laundry, bookstore, library, bank, gas station, grocery store and in restaurants. I volunteer to lead projects at school and I ask to be placed on committees at work. And I have joined some civic groups in town. My day is full and it is filled with opportunities to practice, practice and practice!  To me, this is what has helped the most. If I goof up, I tell myself that that is okay because I have been practicing and trying my best. I tell myself that I will get it the next time. And I think of how far I have come. I make fewer and fewer mistakes, and I tell myself that not everyone can speak 2 languages. Many people give up. And I tell myself that I can do it. It just takes time and effort. And when I feel that someone might be making a judgment in how I look or act or speak or dress, I don’t really care too much. Because to me, the most important thing about life is not to care what others think about you, it is to care about doing your best and using your life to its fullest. And I feel by practicing all of the time…maybe using flashcards or audio tapes, writing things down and reviewing them, asking for help, taking an online English class, enrolling in enrichment programs, I have done all that I can think of to continually practice, practice, practice English. Obviously I don’t practice mistakes and I don’t practice judging others, so I don’t let those things bother me at all. Speaking English…yes, I can do that now with more confidence and at a higher level, mostly because of P-R-A-C-T-I-C-E!

Young Businessman Thinking and Wondering While Writing a Paper

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The first class session was about to end and I could see the class as individuals in their shared quest to learn English. It was reaffirming to me that there is not one way to learn English and that mistakes are really just a part of learning. And when it came time to evaluate or assess my students on their contributions in class, what really mattered? Did it matter that a wrong word was used or an incorrect grammar tense? Did it matter that a student had trouble with retrieving a word he/she wanted to use or an idiom used inappropriately? Of course not. What mattered is that each student confidently expressed how they have improved in English and that they shared their viewpoints so others could learn, too. That is a much broader and more valuable picture of learning and communicating than being concerned with mistakes or judgments. Do you know what? I can’t wait until the next class and what the students will teach me.

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What is your formula for success in speaking English?  Do you have any comments about the article and the students’ remarks? Please share them with me. I can’t wait to see what you will also teach me.

About the author:

Marc Anderson is the co-founder and CEO of TalktoCanada. Since founding the company in 2006, he has grown it to over 25 staff with operations in 50 countries. Marc spends his time outside of TalktoCanada travelling, playing with his son and working on new business projects.