Language learning mistakes: are you taking advantage of them?

More important than erasing failure: learn from your mistakes.

When you try to become fluent in a new language, it’s inevitable that you’ll make many mistakes along the way. If you’re not making them, it means that you’re not exercising enough, or not challenging yourself enough to go into new, unfamiliar territory. But that doesn’t mean that just making lots of mistakes is going to help you become fluent. It all depends on what you do after you discover a mistake.

So how to deal with mistakes? Olle Linge from Hacking Chinese made a useful categorization of mistakes into 4 categories. This post is inspired by Olle’s, but I simplified the categories.

When you catch a mistake, the first step should be to determine what type of mistake it is:

  1. An careless mistake
  2. An isolated mistake
  3. A systemic mistake

Based on the type of mistake, you can then learn from it in specific ways.

Below, I’m giving 2 examples for each type of mistake: one related to language learning, one related to life in general. And then how to deal with them.

1. Careless mistakes: You know what’s right, but still made a mistake

Example: You called the wrong number. Instead of keying 8345 9645, you keyed 8344 9645.

Specific to language: Many English speakers with Mandarin as their first language may say ‘he’ when they are referring to a woman. It’s not that they don’t know the meaning of ‘she’ or that it should in fact be ‘she’, they may just not be as sensitive to the distinction, because they haven’t grown up with it.

What to do about it: Don’t punish yourself too harshly for careless mistakes! Everyone makes mistakes, and if you don’t make mistakes you are probably not doing very much at all. Take note of what went wrong, though, and try to be alert to it. Just knowing how things are supposed to be done is not enough. Over time, you should try to acquire the skill to using “he” and “she” appropriately every time!

2. An isolated mistake: You simply didn’t know what’s right.

Example: I once showed up for a canoe trip wearing jeans. Not recommendable, because they get heavy and cold when wet. I had to make the trip in my undies. No one told me this in advance, but I wouldn’t make the mistake more than once for sure!

Language example: When Dutch people refer to ‘industry’ in English, they often refer to ‘the manufacturing sector’. Because that’s what ‘industrie’, which almost sounds the same, means in Dutch.

What to do about it: Take note, literally! When learning a language, there is so much to learn. So once you spot or are pointed to this kind of mistake, take a note wherever appropriate, with your grammar or vocabulary notes. Also, make your native speaking friends comfortable to point out this kind of mistake. If you’re not being pointed to this kind of mistake, chances are you (1) don’t speak often enough and/or (2) people don’t correct you.

Olle also rightly points out that some of these mistakes may be so much beyond your existing level that you just want to forget about it until you have tackled the basics.

3. A systemic mistake: a structural cause that makes you make mistakes again and again

Example: The bank card fraud that recently hit POSB/DBS may seem like an isolated incident. But there is a structural cause: DBS is still using the magnetic strip as the only safety method for their bank cards – a technology that was invented by IBM in 1960. Had they switched to EMV chips, a technology available since 1998, then this skimming fraud could not have happened. And until DBS finally forks out the needed funds to upgrade its outdated technology, the skimming fraud can happen again.

Language example: If you don’t know that the French word “aller” (‘to go’) is an irregular verb, you’re going to use it incorrectly each time you inflect it.

What to do about it: A systemic mistake doesn’t always look like one. It could seem like an incident. This is where the help of an experienced language teacher or otherwise highly literate person in the language you are learning comes in handy. You don’t always need to have a teacher present to learn something, but this is where a good teacher can save you tons of time and frustration. They would be able to spot what bit of knowledge you are missing, so that you can fix the process and avoid making the mistake again.

The worst thing you can do about a systemic mistake, is pretending it’s an isolated mistake, or not a mistake at all. Take note, DBS!

About Guus Goorts

Guus has traveled widely and has lived in The Netherlands, Ghana, Belgium and Singapore. In descending order of fluency, he speaks Dutch, English, Mandarin, German and some rudiments of Spanish, French and Italian. Guus lives in Singapore with his wife and two young children. He settled in Singapore in early 2006 from his native country The Netherlands. After working in a job for corporate training, he founded Yago Languages, Singapore's guide to language learning.

  • Guus

    Thanks to one of you who e-mailed me to point out that I had written “an careless mistake”. I should have used “a” there. Ironically I made a careless mistake while writing about it!

  • Guus

    Another comment I got was about the word “systemic” (asking whether it should be systematic instead of systemic?).

    I intentionally used “systemic”. The words sometimes have an overlapping meaning. According to

    The adjective systematic means (1) carried out using step-by-step procedures, or (2) of, characterized, or constituting a system. It usually applies to carefully planned processes that unfold gradually. Systemic, which is narrower in definition, means systemwide or deeply engrained in the system. It usually applies to habits or processes that are difficult to reverse because they are built into the system.

    There is some gray area between the words. When in doubt, it’s usually safer to go with systematic, which is older and more broadly defined. (emphasis is mine)

    Systemic mistakes are mistakes that are deeply ingrained in your “system” for speaking / writing the language. There is an error in the system, which causes you to make mistakes every time. It needs to be rooted out to make sure the mistake doesn’t occur again.