One problem that I often encounter in the many places where I have taught is the fear students have of making mistakes. I cannot stress to them enough that making mistakes is both inevitable and very helpful as a learning tool. There are many reasons why students should not fear it, but rather try to embrace it.
First of all, the classroom is the best place for mistakes. It should be your safe zone. All of the students present in a classroom are in the same proverbial boat. They are all learning; therefore, no one should tease, criticize or ridicule one another for a simple error. It is your goal to learn, and there will be many things that you will struggle with along the way. If making a mistake prevents you from speaking up, you will miss the opportunity to practice, and it is only by practicing that you will improve. No one would expect a piano student to learn to play without practicing. It is unimaginable that simply by listening one could learn to play. In that same way, simply by listening to a language, one will never learn to speak.
Practicing, whether in the classroom or outside of it, is one of the best ways that a student can gain confidence in speaking. Once a student realizes that he got the question right, was able to answer on his own, or correctly say something in his target language, he is able to build confidence in himself. This will inevitably lead to his feeling more and more comfortable in speaking. It takes making that first step to speaking and responding to questions to reach that point. If he never takes that step, he will hold himself back.
It is outside the classroom where some students find the most fear of making a mistake when speaking. For some, it is a crippling fear, and it holds them back from even answering the simplest of questions. I will never forget my first experience speaking French with a Frenchman. My high school teacher invited some of the students from the French 4 class to the Festival International of Lafayette. I was very lucky to get the chance to go, do something cultural with my teacher, but also to speak with someone in French. I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of accomplishment realizing that I could make myself understood after just a few years of studying. I realized also how useful it was to speak another language. I was, amazingly so at that age, not at all worried about making mistakes, but rather amazed at being able to use something for which I had worked so hard.
There were of course times when my mistakes have caused great embarrassment. This can happen to any of us, and sometimes make us want to stop trying. Don’t let it stop you! On at least two occasions that I can recall, my mistake caused a friend to quite nearly fall out his chair laughing. Regardless of how embarrassing, those mistakes were undeniably memorable. In that way, I learned in one single instant the mistake that I made and remembered to never make it again. Fortunately, years later, I was able to laugh at myself and the mistake I made. I now can retell the story, and as a teacher, this has helped me to help my students. In telling my students about these experiences my students can see that everyone makes mistakes, that it is simply part of the learning process. I can also steer them away from making certain mistakes that may cause serious misunderstandings as well.
The learning process does not end with the classroom door. I might even say that the best learning happens outside of the classroom. It is there where students will encounter a variety of accents and speaking styles. It is a great opportunity to perfect their skills. Getting over their fear is only the first step. Once they do, the benefits are endless. There is no perfection in language, there is only room for continued improvement. So, go ahead, make mistakes!
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