What do you think when you make errors in Greek?
“I’m so stupid”.
“Jeez. I’m like a baby”.
“People will think I’m an imbecile, I mean, look at me, I sounded so unintelligible!”
Yet, many of us think this way about ourselves when we learn a language and make errors.
I thought this way. And I have to tell you, it only added to my embarrassment. It made me feel awkward. And, even worse, it fed my perfectionism.
Instead of focusing on my success (“Yes! I finally speak the language!”) I was focusing all my energy on the infamous “error avoidance”.
At all costs.
In the long run, “error avoidance” is like a black hole. You get lost in it. No time, no space, just you and the errors.
Sounds pretty dim, right? It’s called black for a reason - no kidding.
So, yeah, I got myself in a black hole.
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 - I mean, I’m Greek. It’s normal. What did I expect, an Italian accent? (That would’ve been weird.)
As a result, I avoided expressing myself in French, out of my fear for making errors.
A cat’s point of view
I wasn’t aware that what I was doing wasn't really helping, until I took a class about errors in language learning.
The teacher handed everyone this quote by Philippe Geluck’s famous “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” definitely nailed it.
But why do we get so stuck in our errors?
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 seriously affect our self esteem.
It requires patience and persistence to keep going and avoid -what else?- the black hole. It requires some training, too.
It’s not easy.
Feeling embarrassed when making errors - not just in language learning - can be pretty obvious.
I tend to blush and avoid eye contact. Some people get frustrated to the point they get agitated or even appear offended. Others start self-blaming and they punish themselves for making this horrible, abominable mistake of … adding a wrong ending to a word.
Some people barely react. Sometimes, they stop learning the language all together.
Do you see yourself in any of the above?
Looking at these reactions from the outside, they suddenly seem like too much.
Still, we just feel this way and it’s not always easy to control. “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. Yep, 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 one word “ακούω” in Greek!
I remember, once, I was talking to a doctor’s secretary on the phone. You know how busy they are. (Especially if you’re a secretary. Life can’t get busier, right?).
The connection wasn’t the best so I quickly asked her “Can you listen to me?” What I 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”.
Oh, and how about the phone call? Yeah, it didn’t go that well.
How can someone feel better about their errors when they might confuse people and create misunderstandings?
Well, I don’t ask you to feel better, at least not overnight.
Because there’s this important element here - language transfer - which clears up so many things for you once you take this important knowledge into account.
Next time you make an error, take notice. Was it because this is the way you‘d say this in your language?
If yes (most likely yes) then keep taking notice. Each realization of your errors will gradually help you feel there’s this actual, normal, common reason why you made it.
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.
You know what? I rarely feel bad about my errors anymore. I mean the language ones. (Definitely the languages ones.)
The reason #2 we make errors
Research on errors in language learning states many reasons coming right after language transfer.
Let’s talk about how being tired, stressed out, even sleep deprived (any parents of young kids out there?) can actually trigger language errors, shall we?
Talking about transfers. The irony. The other day I couldn’t remember the word for “transfer” (the proof of payment when you’re using the public transit in Toronto). It’s this silly little piece of paper I’ve been using for 5 years now and I just couldn’t remember its name.
All I was getting in my head was “ticket”.
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 I just say it!” kind of moment.
I agree. Saying “transfer” is easier than that.
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, hello language transfer again! In Athens, we use paper tickets in public transit. Makes sense?
The same result you might get with stress, fatigue, feelings of anger, overwhelm and anxiety.
Have you found that when speaking in Greek with a friend at a cozy café words come easier than trying to resolve a stressful situation, such as taking the wrong bus to somewhere or dealing with a rude person in the street?
Again, such strong feelings will probably trigger errors as the brain functions change with stress.
So what’s a learner to do?
Start with accepting the fact that you will make errors. (Thanks, language transfer.)
Realizing where the errors come from and why we tend to make more of them in some cases, is a reminder of our humanity. Really. You’re not a robot with a malfunction.
You’re a real person, with your unique point of view, expectations, fears, stresses, interests, and you learn how to speak a new language.
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. And some ideas about how to avoid them and better support your overall learning.
(A hint. “I’m so stupid” is not one of them.)
Till next time.
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