• Irena Kolbuszewska

How to Deal with the Fear of Making Mistakes?

Updated: Dec 11, 2021


How to deal with the fear of making mistakes?

This post is divided into the following parts:

1. Introduction – why are we afraid of making mistakes?

2. Why is it necessary to experiment, allow yourself to make mistakes or even fail from time to time

3. Safe ways to experiment with a language

4. Conclusion

You will also find a short vocabulary section at the end of this post for words or expressions marked in italics.

The fear of making mistakes is a common thread among language learners. Students often ask themselves: “What will happen if I make a mistake?”. Typical, sometimes subconscious, answers include: “It will be a disaster”, “I will look or sound stupid”, “People will look down on me or make fun of me”. The underlying perception is that the only way to look “intelligent enough” is not to make any mistakes at all, which couldn’t be further from the truth. It is further enhanced by a mistaken belief that if I know the theory (I have learned some grammar or vocabulary items) I should be able to use it in practice right away. I find it very interesting that such a perception persists when it comes to language learning, while, for example, nobody expects a carpenter apprentice to produce a perfect table at their first attempt.

The same holds true for every single activity, be it amateur or professional. A world-class climber, David Lama, once wrote: “In climbing in particular, failure is a part of the process... Falling off and unsuccessful tries are an integral part of what eventually leads to success.” Obviously, it doesn’t only apply to carpentry or mountain climbing. This rule is perfectly described in a more general way by Bryant McGill: “A person who makes few mistakes, makes little progress”.

You will not improve your language skills if you don’t try to experiment with phrases, grammar and vocabulary items, pronunciation, listening, reading, writing, speaking etc. However, it’s not enough just to experiment. It’s necessary to carefully examine the results of it and see what you have learned in order not to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. Otherwise, you will not know what works and what doesn’t, you will not “feel” your target language. You can’t learn anything in any other way than actually practising it.

There are however circumstances, when you may not want to take risks. In some situations, they outweigh by far the potential benefits. If you really feel you don’t have enough tools (skills) to handle a 1-hour podcast and you end up confused and discouraged, it’s better to listen to a 15-minute recording. If you have an important interview and you really want that dream job, it might be better for you to play it safe and stick to the language items you are already familiar with (although it’s not always like that). If people make fun of your linguistic attempts either don’t take it too personally or find other conversation partners. Find yourself a safe environment, a friendly group of people who will listen to you, give you constructive feedback and in this way help you improve your skills and become more confident.

In short, it is important to experiment with the target language and make mistakes along the way. However, it is also equally important to pay attention to how you do it and in what circumstances. This is a recipe that has been tested by millions of successful foreign language learners. This is also a recipe that each of us tested in our childhood as we acquired our mother tongue. It works!

Vocabulary


It is a common thread – this is a similar situation that appears in many different stories.

People will look down on me – people will look at me and think at the same time that they are better than me.


The underlying perception – the underlying perception is that it is better not to make mistakes at all. This is how people think but it’s not evident when observing their behaviour.

It couldn’t be further from the truth – it’s not true at all.

It is further enhanced – in this case the feeling or perception is even stronger, more intense.

Something persists – it’s always there, it doesn’t disappear, it doesn’t change. For example, some stereotypes can persist for a long time.

I have learned – this is used in American and Canadian English. In British and probably Irish English too, you would rather say “I have learnt”.

A carpenter apprentice – someone who is learning how to work with wood or wood-based products, for example, make furniture.

It holds true for something – it is true, it is valid when it comes to something (or it could refer to someone as well, eg. It holds true for both you and me).

They outweigh by far the potential benefits – when risks outweigh potential benefits, it means that these benefits are much smaller than the risks you need to take. By far – a lot, significantly, definitely.

To play it safe – to avoid risks. A recipe – in this case a recipe for success is a set of actions you need to perform to be able to succeed in something.

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