There are a lot of opinions on dealing with mistakes in language learning, these are just a few ideas from a personal perspective.Mistakes are both difficulty to deal with and fairly straightforward at the same time.The problem is that they are so habit-formed that they are difficult to eradicate effectively  in one fell swoop.Mistakes become so firmly-rooted and difficult to eradicate as our brains become used to hearing them and eventually they sound right – it is then difficult to ‘persuade’ ourselves that what we are saying or doing is, in fact wrong.It takes both awareness of the mistake or error (there is a difference between the two which we discuss at a later date) and some sort of trigger mechanism that makes the realisation meaningful to the learner.There is also the fact that mistakes are a necessary part of any learning process, so there is a positive side to mistakes as well, although if we had a clear choice to do things without making mistakes – very few of us would choose to make mistakes.Mistakes must also be dealt with positively, but in a way that creates meaning with the learner. That said, especially in the comparatively low-risk world of language learning, it is quite easily for the brain to deal with correction and transform mistakes and it is also fairly easy to model correct forms, intonations etc.This is where it is important to rely on modeling native speakers and it doesn’t come that easy – there is a wide gap between knowing how to do things right and actually being able to do it right and this takes practice as language learning is a very memory intensive task – the listening memory being one of the hardest and longest to develop.It is important, when training, to understand the objectives you are working on – if you are trying to encourage fluidity, for example, then it is absolutely futile to pull a learner up on each mistake they make as this will have a counter-productive result and effectively block the flow of language and even damage confidence.Two of the ‘methods’ I use is peer correction and mirroring – the resources that we have available in the training room, in terms of peer correction is often greatly under-estimated, so too is the positive impact that this can have on learners. Very often learners say, “it is of no use being in a group learning with other French learners for example as they make the same mistakes as me!”Whoah, hold on! What did you say? They make the same mistakes as you?Wow, what a bonus, you can hear them making the mistakes, but you can’t hear your own – that is great!Mirroring is done by repeating back to the learner the mistake and helping them to self-correct, but this needs to be handled delicately as there is no point in patronising them, this will not create a good, nor positive, effect.Mirroring should also be handled with parsimony – used only for systematic mistakes that need to be ironed out and not employed for long periods.One of the important points too is to get the agreement of the learner beforehand of what will be corrected, how it will be corrected and when it will be corrected and involve everybody in a positive way.It is also a good idea to brief the learners on good feedback techniques – both giving and receiving feedback and creating an atmosphere where positive feedback is encouraged and sought out:

  1. Find someone supportive beforehand and ask them to give feedback on specific points.
  2. Tell them what you expect from them.
  3. When giving feedback try to be as constructive as possible
  4. Talk about perceptions and not as truths (I feel that, I saw, I heard etc. not You are, You were etc. It is only what YOU think.
  5. Always start with and end with a positive statement
  6. Do not start disagreeing with the feedback, if you want people to give feedback again that is. Accept what is said, but ask for specifics and paraphrase and use active listening techniques.
  7. Suggest alternatives or ways of correcting certain aspects (perhaps you could etc.)
  8. Always be gracious and thank the person who gave you feedback.
Mistakes don’t go away overnight and there are so many aspects to mistakes in language learning – word order, grammar, intonation etc. that we need to be clear from both the facilitator’s side and that of the learner what we are working on correcting as there is no hope of correcting everything.
Mistakes are part of the learning process and it is important how they are dealt with by a trainer, but the way that they are reacted on by the learner is even more important – the most effective form of eradicating mistakes being self-correction, which takes time to develop, but is the most long-lasting and robust.

2 Comments

  1. Thomas

    Interesting analysis! Let me share a couple of my thoughts as well. If one thinks of language learning as an endless process (which in all reality it is) and takes a proficiency approach to language learning, one could argue that there are no mistakes. Learners are simply at different levels of proficiency. So perhaps the first step would be to not call them mistakes (they are simply learning steps that we take).The motivational impact error correction has in world language learning is much bigger then we like to admit. For many learners speaking a second language is not natural and focusing on mistakes will only lower their levels of motivation to continue to learn a new language.

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  2. Chris

    Thomas, couldn’t agree more! However, the use of the word mistakes is purely semantic and just helps us to lable a phenomena that some would find difficult to digest if referred to as necessary learning steps, which I totally agree they are.I agree also that the effects on motivation and confidence of the way that mistakes or errors are dealt with is sometimes, frankly quite counter productive.The focus should be shifted from the mere fact that mistakes are being made as to how we can capitalise and build on this learning step in a positive and constructive way.

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