Embrace your mistakes: why failure matters when you're learning Spanish

Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.

-Albert Einstein

When you first start learning and speaking Spanish, you might feel like you're messing up left and right. Noun agreement, conjugations, vocabulary -- there's a lot to keep straight. Memories from your time in school might make you think that mistakes are something to be avoided at all costs.

You're not alone if you have some anxiety about speaking in Spanish. Fear of making mistakes is especially common in second language acquisition (SLA). After all, no one likes to look or feel foolish, and past experiences might make you think that a perfect outcome is more important than the thought process that got you there. However, research shows that this perfectionism, especially in SLA, can stifle a student's learning potential; additionally, the attitude that mistakes are objectively bad or unhelpful correlates with both a fear of failure and with higher levels of procrastination. Unfortunately, this all-or-nothing mindset is neither realistic nor productive: it prevents you from being able to take advantage of and learn from your experience.

In real life, learning a new skill like speaking Spanish is a process of trial and error. Even in your native language, when you learn a new vocabulary word, you might misspell it or use it in an inappropriate context at first. What happens after that, though? You receive feedback, gain a better understanding of the information, and try again. Language learning, just like math or science, is a process that involves a lot of problem solving. If you're too afraid of making a mistake to even try, though, you'll never receive that feedback!

There's one more important benefit to mistakes: they actually help you retain information down the road. Multiple studies on SLA agree that students learning a foreign language actually create their own mental framework for the language. Since mistakes provide the opportunity for feedback and self-correction, they allow you to understand not just what the correct answer is, but why it's the correct answer. The next time you're presented with a similar phrase or sentence, you'll be able to apply the rules that you refined by making the original mistake. Because of this, some education experts believe that students actually learn the material better if they have a few failures.

What does this mean for you as a Spanish student? It means you should start taking some risks with your speaking! Try out new words or phrases that are uncomfortable. If you're successful, great! If not, take a moment to assess what false understanding might have led you to the mistake. Embrace your failure, then try again! Remember, the goal isn't perfection, it's practice, so go out there, start talking, and mess up a little!