“You learn from your mistakes” – while this is true for life generally, it is even more important when learning new languages. In our society, however, mistakes are not appreciated for the lessons that they teach us. Learning in small groups can help to reduce your fears and inhibitions.

At school, we often try to disguise and hide our ignorance, in order to appear intelligent, rather than to ask stupid questions. Who wants to be laughed at? But it should be the other way around: learners should not be afraid to make mistakes – indeed, they should be praised for it.

In didactics and teaching methodology, error analysis and error classification, as well as error therapy and prevention are all essential. Any errors in language production, whether in orthography, grammar, syntax (sentence theory) or phonetics (pronunciation theory), are part of learning. They are painfully familiar to every learner and may be a source of embarrassment.

In German, if someone forms the past of “kommen” as “kommte”, they are misapplying a rule; the learner probably doesn’t know that “kommen” is formed irregularly. Some errors, on the other hand, are caused by the influence of a foreign language. Known as transfer errors, these occur when a learner applies the structure of a different language to the one they are learning. If someone were to say, for example, “Zurück in Deutschland, habe ich studiert”, they have mixed up two languages, English and German. And while a sentence like “Ich habe den Bus vermisst” is grammatically correct, the English word “miss” should have been translated as “verpasst”. Furthermore, a learner who addresses a person with the sentence “Bist du Frau Müller?” is making a so-called pragmatic error. Here, the speaker is unaware that he or she is violating social conventions. Mistakes like these can considerably disrupt communication.

We used to presume that it was enough to compare two languages in order to anticipate possible learning difficulties. It was believed that applying certain rules and exercises would help learners avoid mistakes. In practice, however, this did not prove sufficient, and the same errors were still made time and time again. This is because these common mistakes are developmental and indicative of a particular stage of language learning. Teachers therefore need to think carefully about how they want to approach their students’ mistakes, so that they may avoid making them in the future.

False friends

Other common mistakes made by language learners include “false friends.” This is a term used to describe words that look or sound very similar in two languages but mean different things. The English verb “become” does not mean the same as “bekommen” in German, which translates as “to receive.” Similarly, the English word “gift” has nothing to do with the German “Gift”, which means “poison.”  Sometimes the direct translation is only partially incorrect: an “argument” can also be “das Argument” in German, but not when you’re referring to a disagreement between two people. These are only a few from a long list of examples.

About differences and similarities

Contrastive linguistics studies the differences and similarities between two or more languages. Initially, linguists believed that the more similar a foreign language is to one’s own mother tongue, the easier it is to learn, and vice versa: the more dissimilar, the more difficult. A Chinese woman wishing to learn German has to learn everything from scratch – the alphabet, the culture, and the language system – as there is hardly any common ground. A Dutchman learning German, on the other hand, will quickly be able to understand the language. However, while the Chinese woman is “unencumbered” by any previous experience of German, the Dutchman is more likely to stumble over misleading similarities between the two languages and make mistakes.

In addition to the learning difficulties that two similar languages can create, conscious efforts by the learners to avoid certain language structures must also be taken into account when teaching. Such strategies are used by learners when a structure or form is unknown: for example, if someone cannot remember the difference between the terms “possibility” and “opportunity” in English, they may always use the noun “chance.” This is not incorrect, of course, but not very precise. Thus, comparing two languages does not mean we can predict whether all learners will have the same difficulties. However, it can explain why learners make certain mistakes.

Your friend, the mistake

Our error culture is thus essential in teaching. Are mistakes considered fatal errors, or do you call your mistakes your friends?


True or false? Mistakes help us to learn.

Anyone who ventures into the foreign territory of an unknown language makes mistakes. Inevitably. And he or she should be allowed to make them. This does not mean repeating the same mistakes over and over again; rather, one should dare to make new, intelligent mistakes. Modern teaching methods, which are based on dialogue, force people to speak. Because we know that the fear of making mistakes is reduced in small groups of learners, inlingua’s lessons are held in small classes of three to a maximum of six people. In this way, our teacher can take each learner’s national and individual background into account. In some cultures, people don’t speak much out of politeness, in others, learners are afraid of making mistakes – our job is to encourage these “shy” or “fearful” learners to open up.