Language Immersion and Confidently Making Mistakes

We've all been told how important it is to learn from mistakes.

When it comes to learning a second language, I think there is nothing more important. Language learning is a long-term process in which you not only learn a great deal of information but also hone your communication skills to apply them properly.

While a lot about a language can be learned from sitting and reading books on grammar or memorizing lists of vocabulary, ultimately, your language ability to communicate determines you ability in a language. This means that at some point all language learners have to get out there and practice, which, of course, results in many mistakes being made.

Nothing can be more beneficial to a language learner than time spent immersed in their target language. At the same time nothing can be more anxiety inducing. For years I studied Spanish, but I was never able to develop advanced proficiency. I knew the grammar front to back, but my speaking was always weak. I was ashamed of my accent and afraid Spanish-speaking friends would get tired of my slow, labored speech. I was never able to get over this feeling, and needless to say, I've forgotten a lot of my Spanish.

To attain advanced proficiency, one must conquer the psychological barriers that prevent from investing in and using a foreign language. Studying the language in an immersion environment can force you to do so. In the 'real world' you depend on your language for your everyday needs, so immersing yourself can force you to adopt a more positive language learning mindset. That said, it's not easy to do so.

Anyone who has studied a language abroad can attest to the humbling experience of applying skills learned in an American classroom to the streets of a foreign land. It turns out that just like in English, people around the world don't talk like books. And the dialogues and listenings you've practiced always seem to fall short of real, spontaneous conversation. Immersion can make even the most experienced language learners feel like beginners.

I think this is especially true for Arabic students in the United States. While there are some excellent Arabic language programs at various American universities, they, in general, fall short of preparing students to actively apply the language in a real world environment.

There are many reasons for this, ranging from a lacking curriculum, poor instruction, the inherent difficulty of the language and students' motivations. I will tackle these in more detail in the future, but for now, suffice it to say that Arabic language instruction in America is seriously lacking. I'd say that in most cases, students with three years of Arabic from an American university are unable to communicate in the many basic situations that comprise daily life in the Arab world.

How does it feel to have studied a language for so long and then be utterly unprepared for daily communication? It feels terrible. It's a deflating, isolating and frustrating experience. All of those hours spent in class suddenly seem worthless. Your inability to communicate makes you feel like even more of a stranger in a foreign land and can lead to uncomfortable, irritating and even dangerous situations.

No experience improves your language skills better than immersion and the discomfort that goes along with it. This is especially true with Arabic. "No pain, no gain", right?

In a real word setting, you know instantly whether what you've said is correct. When you think you asked the grocer for a kilo of carrots and you end up with 3 kilos of potatoes, you know you've made a mistake. When you think you asked your house manager for his keys but you really asked for his pants*, his confused look lets you know something is wrong. These experiences are what polish your skills. Only by stumbling can you uncover and grasp the nuances of a foreign language.

Mistakes do come at a price. On a test, you get a bad grade, which hurts, but not too much. In the real world, mistakes can cause anything from embarrassment to serious harm. You can end up on the wrong side of town*, make a fool out of yourself in front of new friends or neighbors*, or end up getting a facial at the salon instead of a shave*. Or you can get the wrong kind of medication and end up in the emergency room.

Language learners  will always make mistakes in immersion environments. And we have to keep making mistakes. In fact, students should push themselves to communicate in challenging situations, and do so repeatedly.

The key is to make mistakes with confidence. To do this you have to first accept that you will make mistakes, and welcome them. No one is a perfect speaker, even in their native language, so perfection is a false ideal. Accuracy matters to a point, but fluency is often more important.

Second, you have to focus on the positives. As we've said, making mistakes is part of fine-tuning your language abilities. So don't think about the consequence of a mispronunciation or misuse of vocabulary, think about what you will learn.

Additionally, we often gravely overestimate the costs of our mistakes. If you use the wrong word and embarrass you self, locals may laugh at you, but more than that they'll appreciate the effort you're making to learn their language and culture.

Lastly, set manageable goals. One week, set out to learn all of the vegetables in the market. The next, try to master the different ways of greeting people. Take regular account of your growth in the language, not only what your learning but your confidence as well.

Be proud of the mistakes you make because the show the steps you're taking towards mastery of your language.

And besides, moments of complete language failure are very memorable and often turn into the best stories to entertain friends and family back home.

*These are all mistakes I've made while learning Arabic in Morocco.