What do you think when you make errors in Greek?
“I sound like a toddler”.
“Oh no, that was so unintelligible”.
Then you blush. Or beat yourself up.
Many learners think this way when learning a language.
I thought this way.
So, here’s my story. And what I’ve learned from it.
When I was a student, I spent a year in France. I loved everything about it. The country, the people, the language, the food, the places I’ve visited.
At some point, self-consciousness kicked in. I remember that instead of focusing on my success of finally speaking French, I was focusing all my energy on avoiding the errors.
At all costs.
Instead of focusing on how I loved speaking French (yes, my “Greek accent - conjugated wrong - using a completely different word than the one I wanted - French”) I was focusing on exactly that: the wrong conjugations, my inevitable Greek accent and the mispronunciation of words which changed the whole meaning.
As a result, I avoided expressing myself in French, out of my fear of making errors.
A cat’s point of view
I wasn’t aware that what I was doing wasn't really helping me speak more and better French, until I read this quote in a class about errors in language learning.
The teacher handed everyone this quote by Philippe Geluck’s “Le Chat” comic character:
"On dit qu'on apprend avec ses erreurs, mais à mon avis c'est une erreur. Et si je me trompe, au moins j'aurai appris quelque chose." (We say we learn from our errors, but in my opinion, this is an error. And if I’m mistaken, at least I would have learned something.)
“Le Chat” had said it all.
But why do we feel so bad about errors?
Naturally, as adults, we communicate elaborately in our first language(s). Our vocabulary often reflects our education and status.
Which means that going back to the basics in another language can affect our self esteem.
It requires patience and persistence to keep going. It’s not easy.
When I make a mistake, I tend to blush and avoid eye contact.
You might get frustrated to the point you get agitated.
You might start self-blaming.
Or you might barely react.
But, in some cases, learners feel so bad they eventually stop learning the language all together.
Do you see yourself in any of the above?
Looking at these reactions from the outside, it suddenly seems like too much.
Yet, these are all feelings you can’t easily control.
“Just get over it” doesn’t work.
“Stop feeling anxious” doesn’t work.
“Start speaking” doesn’t work either.
So what does?
The reason #1 why we make errors
The majority of our errors when we learn a language is because of language transfer from our first language to our second. Yes, from the one we’re so good at.
In other words, we transfer the structure of our first language to the language we learn.
We attempt to use our known patterns (syntax, grammar, vocabulary, expressions etc) to the language we learn and by doing so we apply what we know to a language that works differently.
If I got a dollar each time I got confused with “listen” and “hear” - which is only one word, “ακούω” in Greek.
Once, I was talking to a doctor’s secretary on the phone.
The connection wasn’t the best so I quickly asked her “Can you listen to me?”
What I simply meant - the poor me - was the much politer and accurate “Can you hear me?”
My face changed all the tones of red the same moment I uttered the word “listen”.
And I think you can guess how the phone call went.
How can someone feel better about their errors when they might confuse people and create misunderstandings?
It won’t happen overnight.
But realizing how language transfer works might make you more conscious about the reason behind your mistake.
I might blush again if I make an error in English. But I’ll quickly think “I say this because this is how I'm used to say it in Greek”. It’s OK. It’s really OK.
The reason #2 we make errors
Research on errors in language learning also points out how being tired, stressed out, even sleep deprived (any parents of young kids out there?) can actually trigger language errors.
The other day I couldn’t remember the word for “transfer”.
This is the “proof of payment” when we use the public transit in Toronto. It’s just a little piece of paper I’ve been using for 5 years now and I couldn’t remember its name.
I just wanted to tell the driver “May I have a transfer, please?”
But all I was getting in my head was “ticket”.
In the brief moment it takes to get on a bus and ask this 6 word question to the driver, I experienced a “my mind went totally blank-and the driver will think I can’t speak a word of English-but I do know the word-so why can’t I just say it!” kind of moment.
Yet, I was very tired, with a toddler not sleeping so well the last few nights.
There are numerous studies making the connection between memory function and sleep so again, no, there’s no stupidity involved, just a good reason why my mind went blank.
Plus, here’s the language transfer again: In Athens, we use paper tickets in public transit. It made sense.
Anytime you experience stress, fatigue, feelings of anger, overwhelm and anxiety, such errors can happen.
Have you found that when you speak with a friend at a cozy café, words come easier?
And then, what happens when you try to resolve a stressful situation?
Again, such strong feelings will probably trigger errors as the brain functions change with stress.
So what can you do?
Let’s accept the fact that you will make errors. Everyone does.
Realizing where the errors come from and why you tend to make more of them in some cases, is a reminder of your humanity.
Really. You’re not a robot with a malfunction.
You’re a real person, a learner who makes errors the same way everyone does.
So take notice of your errors, take a deep breath and start making a plan about how to deal with them.
In the next blog post I’ll share with you a list with the most common errors Greek learners make during the Beginner-Intermediate levels, along with some ideas about how to avoid them and better support your overall learning.
Thank you for learning with me,