Essentially everyone who has ever started a language exchange with someone else has been asked to “correct all of my mistakes!” or “tell me every time I get something wrong!” You’ve probably said it to your partners yourself.
As useful and necessary as it is to receive language feedback from native speakers you shouldn’t actually stop to fix every mistake every time.
It will eat up all of your time.
Language learning is a rough business for most people. It almost always takes a long time and our pronunciation and grammatical mistakes are going to number in the thousands over the months and most likely years we spend attaining proficiency in our chosen tongues.
You only have so much time on your hands – both as a learner or as a teacher – and you really need to use it wisely.
Correcting every mistake your partners or learners make is going to slow down their progress – and your own – in the long run. Focusing on every tiny detail doesn’t help improve communication, it actually hinders it.
The most important aspect of language is communication! Otherwise what’s the point?
We need to be able to ask for things, explain things to one another, entertain each other and enrich one another’s lives. Yes, grammar will improve our ability to do this and shouldn’t be overlooked, but the nexus of language learning is our ability to understand others and be understood ourselves.
A new learner with a limited proficiency in their target language is going to mess up every third or fourth word, use the wrong tenses, conjugate incorrectly, use the wrong gender, butcher the pronunciation or get tripped up by a false friend more often than you’re going to want to count.
If you’re exchanging languages, there’s a good chance you’re doing the same.
If you have an hour to exchange languages on Skype with your friend, hopefully learning new words, discussing common interests or simply creating a bond, you don’t want to be stopping for corrections every fifteen seconds. In the long run you’re shooting each other in the foot by interrupting the flow of the conversation.
Regardless of what they ask for, constant corrections can become discouraging.
We all know by now that making mistakes is how you learn. We make oodles of mistakes when learning new languages and this is a good thing- it shows that we’re trying and gives us the opportunity to learn. Unfortunately, as much as we hate to admit it, messing up time and time again in a short period – and having it pointed out to us – can become frustrating.
Frustration leads to fear, fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate and hate leads to creating an evil galactic empire bereft of multilingualism. Or so I’m told.
But seriously, being stopped and told you were wrong about something is fine sometimes, it is after all, kind of the point of a language exchange, right? It’s important not to go overboard though and constantly halt the conversation to correct small pronunciation errors or other little things that don’t ultimately hinder your understanding of your partner.
Language learning should be empowering. It’s difficult enough for most of us to open our mouths and speak without being held back by fear of mistakes.
It’s easy to become derailed.
I can’t say how many times I’ve been in a language exchange with a native speaker in one of the languages I’m studying and either stopped to correct one of their English errors or had one of my own pointed out only to then end up on a totally different tangent that ended up consuming far more time than was necessary or wise.
Maybe I just talk too much.
If we’re talking about our favorite movies and suddenly a major pronunciation mistake rears its ugly head, it’s fine to take some time to stop and discuss it but it’s important to keep moving forward with the discussion and try hard to not lose sight of our original topic – a phenomenon that happens all too often when we’re really engaged with each other.
Sometimes going off on a tangent can be interesting and lead to other meaningful discussions and the like, but in general I feel it’s easier to keep a partner with a limited proficiency on one topic at a time. If you find yourself becoming derailed by mistakes, try worrying about the little things less.
I know – it’s hard for the perfectionists and prescriptivists among you!
It might to start to frustrate you.
It doesn’t matter how patient a person you are. You’d have to be a saint not to start feeling a little off-put when you have to stop and correct every little mistake. You begin to run the risk of becoming frustrated yourself, a sentiment that could take its toll on your exchange.
If you’re in a language exchange maybe you’re not getting enough time to work on your own target language, or maybe you feel like you’re bashing your head against a brick wall. Don’t let this happen.
Sometimes it’s best to just relax, let things go.
Small mistakes are not always worth your time!
You have to make your own judgement calls when it comes to correcting small mistakes. You need to assess for yourself quickly whether the mistake your partner made is worth interrupting the flow of conversation to address. Did it significantly hamper your ability to understand them? Did they take a lot of time to struggle through it? Do they appear uncertain?
It could just be a simple error. When you’re learning a new language you forget things, you slip up the pronunciation, you conjugate it incorrectly. It happens all the time! There’s a very good chance that your partner simply made a slip-of-the-tongue and is in fact aware and can self correct. We make mistakes in our native languages all the time, things happen.
Instead of attacking each and every error you find, try focusing on recurring mistakes and mistakes that significantly interfere with the flow and comprehensibility of the conversation you’re having.
One way that you can do this is to take notes! If you encounter a small pronunciation error but can otherwise understand your partner, say nothing and let them continue. Take note of that mistake quickly in a small journal or on your computer/device and keep your ears open for future instances of the same mistake. If it comes back, say something, if not, it’s probably not worth your time.
Another tactic you can use to combat the urge to jump on your friends’ mistakes is to intentionally set them up for a repeat performance of their potential mistake. This gives you a second opportunity to gauge for yourself whether this was a “legitimate” slip up or something that may need mentioning. This continues the conversation seamlessly and makes the speaker less likely to be nervous about his or her error prior to your correction.
A simple thing that you can say to illicit the potential mistake is “I’m sorry, I missed that, could you repeat what you just said?” Or some other paraphrasal of this. Not only does this help you make a correction judgement call, it also reaffirms to your partner that you’re interested in what they have to say and keeps you actively engaged.
At the end of the day you have to make the judgement call yourself as to whether or not your language exchange partner’s mistakes are all worth mentioning or not. If my own experiences with countless language partners are any indicator though, the answer to this question is generally going to be “no”.
They will ask you to correct them, and you should, but sometimes it’s best to let the little things go and press on. Learning a language to any sort of working proficiency or higher is quite the feat and there’s a lot to learn, so instead of focusing on the nitty-gritty try focusing on the big picture – successful communication and raw, human interaction.
What do you think? Leave a comment!
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