In Language Learning, Mistakes Are Not Bad

13 October 2020

English learners should not think that mistakes, or errors, are bad.

One American language expert advises that language learners should instead see errors as signs of progress. Alex Poole is a professor of English and interim department head of modern languages at Western Kentucky University. Poole recently spoke with VOA Learning English about errors and language learning.

One common problem is that English learners think too much about errors instead of communication. "The goal is to be able to communicate in practical terms. If you have an error, the only time you should worry about it is if it causes communication breakdown," Poole said.

Errors in speaking

Poole has some useful ideas about ways English learners can use errors. When you are speaking with a native English speaker, there are two kinds of things you can do to look for errors, Poole said.

The first is to look for misunderstanding or other signs of confusion. For example, perhaps a person gives an unusual response to something you said. You can then ask them directly what the problem is.

The second works if you know a native speaker well. You can ask them about the kinds of things that you say that could cause communication problems with other native speakers.

Errors in writing

When it comes to writing, Poole recommends thinking about errors in a different way. He suggests keeping a list of common errors. These might include mistakes with subject-verb agreement, prepositions or articles.

When English learners write something, Poole recommends that they think about the main ideas first. Then, he recommends thinking about how to put those ideas in order. Instead of thinking about grammar, he suggests you should think about the big picture of what you are writing about. After you write something, you can go back and use your list to look for errors.

In earlier education stories, we explored some ways that you can connect ideas. One of those ways is called concept mapping. You can read about it on our website,

A philosophy of errors

One of the big ideas that came from VOA's talk with Poole was the importance of being realistic. If you find out what is realistic, Poole said, you can create your own "philosophy of errors." In other words, you can decide how errors will play a part in your own learning process.

Poole described his philosophy of errors:

"My philosophy as a language learner has always been look... I'm going to monitor* my errors and mistakes, but I know that I'm never going to be perfect, and so that shouldn't bother me. But I should look for things which cause communication problems, and I just have to live with that. I can't say, ‘Ok, if I don't make it to this level, it's going to be a failure' ...There will be people who will react negatively – and this is one thing that learners have to be aware of. There are many native speakers of a language who you will be in touch with who will not be very nice, who, no matter what, will say ‘I can't understand you'.... But you can't let them be your guide."

Closing thoughts

You can read more about errors in Poole's new book. It is called Learning a Foreign Language - Understanding the Fundamentals of Linguistics. In the book, he also writes about long-term plans, progress and other issues in language learning.

I'm John Russell.

John Russell wrote this story for Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.

*Poole attributed the term "monitor" to the linguist Stephen Krashen.


Words in This Story

error n. an action or situation in which a language learner does not follow the general patterns or rules of a language

practical – adj. appropriate or suited for actual use; logical and reasonable in a particular situation

breakdown – n. a failure that prevents something from working properly; the failure of a relationship or of an effort to discuss something

response – n. something that is said or written as a reply to something

philosophy –n. a set of general ideas about how to do something

big picture -- n. everything that relates to or is involved in a situation or issue

monitor – v. : to watch, observe, listen to, or check (something) for a special purpose over a period of time

bother – v. to cause (someone) to feel troubled, worried, or concerned

negatively –adv. acting in a way to show a lack of agreement or displeasure