Do your Mistakes Matter in Language Learning? A "Written Homework" Perspective

You know, language learners, how we bloggers always bang on about “things don’t have to be perfect” and “start speaking even if you will make mistakes”? You’ve heard all this, right? You’ve heard it and nodded and seen how it makes sense. You believe that you will be able to get over yourself.

But here’s the thing:

When it comes to really putting your skills on the line and “showing your workings” to another person, are you still holding back?


Take this example from one of my German students. We had spent a little time reading a news article and discussing the themes in it. In terms of core skills, this guy is a red hot reader! He is not only happy and confident about picking up any book from Harry Potter to Dune in German, but will also approach it with the positive mindset of someone who enjoys understanding every single word. We’ve also worked so much on speaking skills over the year and made excellent progress. But there’s one thing on my list, one left to cover: The Writing skill needs a push.

Why Do I Prompt My Students to Write?

You can tell me that pushing ahead on writing skill is just not what an adult learner needs in 2014, but I’d just direct you to what I wrote in Fluency Made Achievable: There are four key components to building up expertise and confidence in the language you’re trying to acquire: listening, reading, speaking and writing. You can't skip out on one of those four without feeling the consequences at some point. Even if you are not planning to enter into a German story competition any time soon, pushing your writing skill has a million advantages for your language learning journey. For example, your composition and structuring skills transfer straight to the spoken word. An experienced writer doesn’t need language exchanges, their confidence will come naturally when they open their mouth. For introverted learners, getting into writing also has huge advantages since you’ll become comfortable AND GOOD at using your target language correctly, before ever entering that “risk period” where someone else sees you. And believe it or not, being a great speller means being a great reader and speaker of your target language.

To speak a language well, it helps to understand how spelling and pronunciation work together. (Tweet this here)

If a tree falls in the forest…

Writing can be very introverted, it’s an exercise you do at home, typing away on your computer or scribbling into a notebook. No one else needs to see what you write. And there's why this is so difficult: Because your writing isn't for others to see, it becomes pretty easy to just not do it. What you need is accountability.

You know what it’s like with New Year’s resolutions: No one will ever know you’re doing it unless you actually tell them. Your foreign language writing is the same thing. If you don’t find someone that actually expects you to write, it becomes too easy to avoid doing this work altogether. You start realizing that mistakes are really, really visible when you write. On the one hand, language learners subscribe to the philosophy that making mistakes is part of learning. But on the other hand, showing those mistakes to people as a “written fact” is the hardest thing in the world.

Which leads me back to my wonderful student. I set him an exercise two weeks ago: Summarize each paragraph of our text in simple words, just one sentence picking up the key points. Yesterday I got an email saying:

I must admit that I am just not getting it done right now. I have tried to work on it a couple of times this week, but have only a few sentences to show for it. I feel like I’m still learning, but just not making progress on this part.

Those are the words of somebody who’s judging himself pretty harshly. My reaction? “A few sentences? That’s AWESOME!! All credit to you for trying, and we totally have something to work with now for the lesson.” Do I care if he’s sending me a perfect summary of the text? No! Do I treat this like a school exam, grading him on a scale of A to F for “failure”? No! From the point of view of your language tutor, let me tell you that all I want you to do is try your best. Or even your semi-best. Just sit down and do the thing, open up, be vulnerable and let’s work on this together.

No matter if you do work with a tutor or not, here are a few tips on embracing mistakes in your writing:

  • Stop apologising to anyone about how “little” work you do, and start embracing that any exercise done means you become vulnerable. Most likely you're not perfect. You will spell things wrong and (if I'm your teacher) I will still LOVE it, because that's how I can know which bits you spell wrong. We tutors are largely a kind bunch. We appreciate the fact that you have made a commitment to study a foreign language.
  • Converseley, if you ever hear a person in a "teaching position" tell you that you're never going to get it, consider FIRING THEM.
  • Go somewhere specific to do your writing: not in the office, not at the computer, not where you usually type all your Facebook posts. Here are a few more tips on why that is going to help.
  • Work with word order formulas. Here are a few German ones you can use, but if you are studying other languages please ensure that the word order you’re working with is actually correct:

1) Subject + verb + object

2) time + verb + subject + object

3) Subject + verb to say "says" or "expresses", subject + verb (indirect speech) + object

  • Use a little bit of lesson time or email time to type in your foreign language. This can be done right from day 1, and it's one of the easiest way to bridge the gap when you don't have a native speaker to practice with.

The Language Writing Challenge

In conclusion, writing is difficult. It may well be the core skill that takes the most time, makes your mistakes super visible and has the most potential to embarrass you. And now we've put that out into the open, it's time to get over it! Try one of the steps above, or even start by copying textbook language into your notebook, but it's a fact of language learning that writing will always be there. It's part of a healthy language habit!

I've tried my best to address all of the reasons why you would avoid writing in your language practice above. Got any others? Write me a comment and see if you can change my mind!

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