If your goal is to learn a language without making any mistakes, I’ve got bad news for you: I couldn’t and I’ve never met anyone who could.
Since making mistakes are an inevitable part of this complex, tricky, and often magical process of learning to speak in a different tongue, what should our attitude be regarding mistakes?
I suggest the following approach:
People can’t laugh at you if you’re already laughing, because then they’re laughing with you.
My First Public Mistake in Chinese
Let me practice what I preach by telling you about a little blunder I made in my first couple of weeks in China. A friend and I were out buying some little “bǐng” 饼 things that came in spicy and non-spicy varieties. Because we didn’t like the spicy ones, we’d been saying a phrase we’d just learned:
- wǒ pà là 我怕辣 = I don’t like spicy food [I fear spicy]
But I got confused with those rhyming words when I decided to make my own sentence:
- wǒmen bú yào pà 我们不要怕 = We don’t want fear
The worker guy just kind of cocked his head at me. But my friend started laughing and said in English, “Ya, we don’t want any buns that are afraid to be eaten. Only the bravest ones for us!” I suddenly realized what I’d said, started laughing, and tried again to say what I meant.
My Achilles Heel
My most common mistake in Chinese is certainly worth laughing at. In a way like Chinese spoonerisms, I often switch around the syllables of two-syllable words. I’ve gone into a store and asked for “bees” (mìfēng 蜜蜂) when I wanted “honey” (fēngmì 蜂蜜) and inquired about someone’s “divorce” (líhūn 离婚) when I meant “wedding” (hūnlǐ 婚礼). After hearing a joke about someone with my problem, I refuse to call a “briefcase” anything but a “bāo” 包. I’m just too scared of not saying “píbāo” 皮包 (“briefcase”) and ending up saying “bāopí” 包皮 (“foreskin”).
Look on the Lighter Side
It goes without saying that cause for celebration will be significantly reduced the more frequently the same mistake occurs. For example, if nine out of ten times I say “bee” when I mean “honey,” it’s time to stop laughing and start looking for a cure. But in general, I think it’s good to learn to take ourselves, and especially our task of learning a language, a little less seriously. It’s going to be a dirty job, why not enjoy it?
What’s Your Story?
Now’s your chance to celebrate your own mistakes. Feel free to leave a little tale of your own language blunders in a comment so everyone can laugh with you.
See also the other posts in this series:
- Language Learning is Messy I
- Language Learning is Messy II: Talk a Lot
- Language Learning is Messy III: Learn What You Need
- Language Learning is Messy IV: Goals are Bad
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