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Why you need to stop worrying about mistakes

I'm sure you agree with me that education is important. Lack of education denies people, in particular girls, the chance to improve themselves and the lives of their families. Education is a fundamental human right which everyone should have access to. However, education systems are a different thing! Our school teachers are some of the most influential people we ever meet, so when young people encounter teachers who are negative towards their students, there is a danger that this will have a damaging effect on the intellectual growth of that young person. Moreover, within an education system there will be a culture of expected behaviour which also influences the way we think and act as adults:


  • Does the education system place value on correctness or on effort?

  • Does the education system encourage or discourage experimentation?

  • Does the education system value creativity and the development of critical thinking or does it expect students to listen to the teacher and repeat the information?

All of these factors will affect how a child learns and how they then learn in later life. When it comes to language learning, my guess would be that many of us had sub-optimal learning experiences at school. For example, there are education systems where the emphasis is on reading and writing rather than speaking and communicating. There are others where students are punished for 'making a mistake'. This is bad practice in all learning, but in language learning, feeling safe enough to take risks contributes to language growth. Education systems that punish students for making mistake result in adults who are terrified of making mistakes when they speak in the foreign language.

As we all know, English is today's lingua franca. People across the world need to use English to communicate, whether that's for professional reasons, pleasure or to access education. In other words, being able to use English to a good standard is essential. Unfortunately, many people still carry the fear of making mistakes that developed while they were at school. If you had a teacher who punished you or laughed at you, or if your educational culture taught you that 'mistakes are bad', you are likely to feel uncomfortable at the thought of making mistakes. This is problem because it is impossible for you to speak English perfectly. It is possible for you to learn to speak English well and even, if you are prepared to work extremely hard, to reach near-native-speaker level. But perfection is an impossible target. This leads to a friction - you are terrified of mistakes, yet are inevitably going to make them.


To deal with this friction, you have two choices:

  • you continue with your mistake mindset and strive for perfection while obsessing over your mistakes

  • you accept that you will make mistakes and learn how to develop a communication mindset

Hopefully you've figured out that the second choice is the better one! But how to do this? How can you move from a mindset where you fear making mistakes to one where you accept them and focus on your message? Well, you could start with these three tips: Focus on your listener, not yourself If you think about it, worrying over mistakes is really all about you! When we worry about mistakes, our attention is on us rather than on our listener. In this sense, it's an ego game rather than a heart-centred expression of our selves.


So, when you're in a conversation, rather than worrying about what you're going to say next, focus on listening to the other person. Allow yourself to be truly present with them. When it is your turn to speak, focus on communicating your message rather than on the words and grammar. Doing this almost always results in an increase in fluency and accuracy! ALWAYS give yourself positive feedback (even after 'a disaster') I have read several times that the human brain is primed to pay more attention to problems than to things that are going well. While there may be evolutionary reasons for this (look! tiger! run!), this way of thinking is not always helpful for us now. After a presentation or exam, we tend to focus on the negatives rather than the positives; if we do something that we feel went very badly, we label it 'a disaster' or 'a catastrophe'.


It's important to look for the positives in everything we do, even if finding them seems very difficult. I encourage you to always look for something good in your English every time you speak or otherwise use it. Positive feedback to yourself is massively important in developing a strong, healthy mindset towards English. It's fine to acknowledge your weaknesses and vow to improve them, but you must also acknowledge your strengths.


Be selective about which mistakes to upgrade

Please be clear that I am not suggesting you ignore your mistakes at all times! Far from it. You need to be aware of them and take action to correct them. However, I encourage you to be selective about which mistakes to focus on. For example, you may wish to work on your pronunciation. That's fine, but how about narrowing that down to one or two key areas (stress placement and short vowels, for example) so that you can more easily improve? Or, if writing is important to you, you can choose to upgrade mistakes about one or two grammar areas rather than all of them. Having a focused, targeted approach will help you to improve quicker and will be easier to measure. Read more about this topic. Learn about my Mindset Reset Mini-Course which helps you get clearer on the three biggest problems that anxious language learners face.

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