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How to stop worrying about mistakes when you speak English

Updated: Aug 16, 2021


Two styles of correction from teachers I learn Mandarin Chinese and I take lessons online with two different teachers. One teacher allows me to talk and express myself without stopping me when I make a mistake. She gives me time and space to think. She never interrupts my speaking flow to give me feedback or corrections. The other teacher is completely different. Every time I make a mistake, she stops me. She stops me even when I am reading something aloud for the first time, or giving a summary of a story I have read. Both of these skills are difficult when you are reading Chinese characters and there is a very heavy cognitive load for me, so it’s not surprising there are mistakes! After a while, I become frustrated as I am never able to say what I want and I don’t feel that I am being given time and space to think. Luckily, I am an experienced language learner and teacher so I know that my mistakes are just part of being a student. I also understand that culturally, the second teacher is doing what is considered to be right within Chinese culture. But I can imagine the damaging effect these constant corrections would have on a younger or less experienced person. Being constantly interrupted and corrected can lead to feeling inadequate or useless.


Mistakes are bad and should be avoided - a false and limiting belief Because of experiences like this, many language learners form a belief that mistakes are bad and should be avoided, even if this means not speaking. Some language learners think that mistakes are something to be ashamed of. Over time, this can develop into an unhealthy obsession with making mistakes, which in turn leads to inhibition when speaking or using the language. Anxious language learners who obsess over their mistakes may believe that the mistakes show other people that they cannot speak English well enough. They try desperately to be as accurate as possible, but this causes even more tension and frustration because there is an interesting paradox when it comes to mistakes Vs communication:


The more you focus on your mistakes, the less accurate your speaking becomes


In other words, focusing on mistakes is counter-productive. It does not lead to greater accuracy, and it contributes to a significant drop in fluency too. For this reason, it is very important that you learn to ‘let go’ of your mistakes and instead train yourself to focus on your message. This is what I call having a Communication Mindset instead of a Mistake Mindset.


A Mistake Mindset looks like this:

  • a CPE student who tried to use as much ‘advanced grammar’ but only succeeded in sounding more hesitant as they needed so much time to think

  • a business English student who was terrified of making mistakes in their presentations and who sounded unnatural and robotic because they spoke so carefully

  • an IELTS student who had been taught that mistakes are terrible and who could therefore never finish what they wanted to say


All of these students benefited from developing a Communication Mindset.


How to develop a Communication Mindset A Communication Mindset is actually quite simple! All you need to do is to focus on your ideas rather than your mistakes. Put your attention into expressing yourself instead of criticising yourself. The truth is that people are interested in your ideas. They don’t care about grammar (really, they don’t). Yes, in a speaking exam accuracy is important, but it is only one part of the marking criteria. And in my experience, exam students actually make fewer mistakes when they are concentrating on their ideas because their deeper mind is free to find the right structure at the right time.


So try it. Next time you feel anxious about making mistakes, gently move your attention to your ideas instead. Keep your attention there. Trust your deeper mind to find the right language when you need it. Read more about this topic.

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