Making mistakes: it’s OK!

All too often I come across students who are scared of speaking English. A good number of people I’ve tutored over the years have requested lessons with me because they want to focus specifically on speaking. A common complaint? ‘Every time I open my mouth, I make a mistake. I know all the grammar rules, but I still make mistakes!’

There’s no shortcut to fix this: the answer lies in practice, be that practice that focuses on accuracy (those pesky grammar mistakes!), or practice that focuses on fluency. I also think that there’s a lot to be said for increasing a learner’s confidence. It’s OK to make mistakes. In fact, it’s fun! While learning Russian, I embarrassed myself a lot, but failure is really part of the process. Once you’ve made a ridiculous mistake (and had it pointed out to you), you are significantly less likely to make that mistake again. Here are some of my most memorable Russian errors – laugh away!

  1. The time I wrote an advertisement for a honeymoon package (a class assignment) and targeted the whole piece at ‘you and your special grandad’. It turns out that when you’re learning to write cursive, it is quite easy to confuse ‘d’ with ‘v’. Devushka = girl/girlfriend. Dedushka = grandad.
  2. The moment where I had to play the word ‘diarrhoea’ to win a game of Scrabble – and I couldn’t even spell it correctly! The Russian word for diarrhoea is ponos, but the rules of word stress dictate that the first ‘o’ is pronounced more like an ‘a’. Silly stress.
  3. The lesson with some adult learners when I told them that I had wet myself ‘a little bit’. I had meant to reassure them that one of the students had been running late, but I had let her into the building. It turns out that a small mispronunciation transforms ‘I let her in’ into ‘I let a little out’.
  4. The bus journey through the Swiss Alps when I needed to ask a nauseous young Russian boy if he had any travel sickness medication with him. I learned that the Russian word for medicine isn’t narkotiki, and if you ask an eight year-old if he has any narkotiki,  he will get a bit confused.
  5. The chat with a wayward Russian teen whose may have seen another child’s arm being broken: ‘Don’t worry, you can tell me what happened. I promise that there won’t be a vystuplenie.’ Vystuplenie means appearance or performance; I should have said nakazanye, meaning ‘punishment’. And I had been reading Dostoevsky at the time, too.

Finally, an honourable mention for the best German language mistake I’ve made so far: in my first assessed oral presentation, I informed the examiners that Hitler had indeed been the Käse of the Third Reich. Brings a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘Big Cheese’…

Although most of these mistakes left me red-faced (thanks, Russian speakers), but even more determined to get it right next time. Other than sharing examples of my own embarrassment, I really don’t know how to reassure students that mistakes are not only OK – they’re helpful! Do you have any ideas?