Language Learning 101: Make Mistakes, Then Correct Them. (Tip #5)

Did you ever think about how much courage it takes for our children to learn a new language?

A lot!

If you yourself have studied a second language, you know that awkward stage—the one where you keep mispronouncing words, struggling with conjugations, and mishearing your conversation partner. I remember that stage well myself, and I also remember the relief when I finally got through it!

It takes a great deal of determination—and indeed, hope—to soldier on through the beginning stages of language learning.

So when I am working with students, I like to emphasize the value of courage in language learning—especially the courage to make mistakes.

After all, linguistic researchers generally agree that making mistakes has an important role in language learning. When a child makes mistakes in his reading, writing, or speaking of a foreign language, that means that he is challenging his own language abilities, and ultimately, growing in his communicative skills.

But there’s an important caveat: as much as possible, mistakes should be corrected, so that they don’t become erroneous patterns in the brain.

After all, our brain assimilates that which we practice, and so if we repeatedly use incorrect conjugations, for example, those patterns will become ingrained.

As a parent, you can support your learner in making—and correcting—mistakes in two key ways:

  1. Encourage your child to take risks with the language that he or she is learning. If she is studying Spanish, why not help her find a Spanish-speaking pen pal to write to? It will surely be more difficult to write a letter than to complete a workbook page, but it will also be much more rewarding. In that case, a site like ePals may be valuable (with close parental supervision, of course). 
  2. Help your child find the right resources to correct his or her mistakes. Aside from workbook answer keys, help your child find ways to correct his/her own practice. The games available on a website like and the learning units of the U.S. military’s GLOSS site can provide real-time feedback on mistakes, for example. When you are evaluating other resources, be sure that they provide thorough answer keys and enough practice questions to allow for repeated “loops” of practice—students should have many opportunities to practice the same vocabulary and grammar concepts. 

While this is all more challenging if your child is learning a language that you yourself are unfamiliar with (Klingon, maybe?), it is certainly not impossible, and is worth the effort!

What have you done to encourage your child in taking risks and making (good) mistakes while learning a new language? 

[Image provided by Flickr user jridegwayphotography and used under a Creative Commons license]