This is what a Neurolanguage Coach could tell their coachees when hearing, “I’m afraid to make mistakes, so I don’t speak”; the familiar and crippling fear experienced by many foreign language students.
In fact, this is exactly what happened with my coachee Kate, a lower-intermediate French learner, who needed to improve her language skills for her work. We went from Kate’s fear of speaking and self-judgement to achieving her goal of being able to efficiently communicate in French with confidence while also improving her proficiency. Kate and I embarked on an amazing learning journey and I would like to share our experience with you.
Of course, Kate’s first reaction was “Wait.. what??? That’s not what I was taught in school, I’m not supposed to make mistakes or I’ll be punished!”.
Unfortunately, this mindset prevents many language learners from reaching one of the most rewarding and enriching experiences in life: the joy of speaking a foreign language and experiencing other cultures.
Why do mistakes get such a bad rap when they are a critical part of learning and development? They are often seen as something negative due to their association with failure, looking bad, silly, or incompetent, being humiliated or being judged.
In fact, we learn more from failure than success (Henry Ford).
Working with a Neurolanguage Coach’s unique approach can help language learners change a fixed-mindset into a growth-mindset. It can turn around their learning experience by removing their fear of making mistakes and encourage them to learn from them. As a result, they reach their goal faster and more efficiently thanks to a combination of insights about the learning brain and coaching principles.
This is how Kate and I worked together to help remove her fear of speaking French. I shared the following information with her:
From a neuroscience perspective:
- Understand why the power of mistakes is critical for brain growth
A Study by Psychologist Jason Moser shows that “the brain sparks and grows when we make a mistake, synapses in your brain fire even if we are not aware of it because it is a time of struggle; the brain is challenged and the challenge results in growth”.
- Be a winner, make your speaking routine a practice game – explore, learn from your mistakes and try again!
The key to success in learning is a combination of spaced and consistent practice and exploration without the fear of failure. This is what a study by researchers Dr Stafford (University of Sheffield) and Michael Dewar (NY) on nervous cell growth and games shows.
Surprisingly, the study suggests that the players who were the most inconsistent in their first performance had the best score later. This happened because they were exploring different options and learning from their mistakes instead of trying to be the best performant.
- How curiosity prepares the brain for better learning
A study by Charan Ranganath and cognitive neuroscientist Matthias Gruber from the University of California, Davis, suggests that 2 brain areas are involved in curiosity and memory: the hippocampus, critical for forming new memories and the midbrain, important structure in the brain’s wanting system. When our curiosity is piqued in learning, there is increased activity in both regions and communication between them. The midbrain releases dopamine, which gives us a high. The brain reward system seems to prepare the hippocampus for upcoming information.
As a Neurolanguage Coach, the sessions with Kate were made a “mistake friendly environment” where mistakes were seen as a natural part of learning. Questions helped stimulate Kate’s curiosity ahead of learning by asking her to explore, find patterns, make connections, reflect on mistakes and draw conclusions from her findings. This can turn perceived failure into a positive experience that satisfies the reward centers of the brain.
The results were that Kate’increased the efforts she put into her work, better memorization, overall confidence and renewed motivation ito push her learning further.
From a coaching perspective
“Working at your learning edge is messy”, says Coach Jeff Mitchell (Community sport advisor Auckland)
Yes, expect to make mistakes when you learn.
On the bright side, mistakes also provide valuable feedback regarding actions and strategies used and cause us to identify new, more effective ones.
Learning a foreign language is no exception and it means we have to work outside our comfort zone. It is a long process, sometimes life long and we have to shift our mindset to accommodate the joy of continuous learning.
The most important factor in benefiting from the mistakes we make is our attitude towards them.
Carol Dweck’s groundbreaking work on the importance of one’s mindset related to failure, stresses the difference between the limitation of a fixed-mindset (when failures are seen as a reflection of one’s intelligence and abilities) and the benefit of a growth-mindset (the belief that one’s performance can be improved and learning comes from failure).
Her very powerful statement “the power of “yet” clearly encapsulates what a growth-mindset means: “the student is on a learning curve that gives him/her a path into the future”.
…And that’s exactly the mindset my coachee Kate, who was paralysed by the fear of failure in speaking French, needed to shift to.
Kate and I had a conversation about adopting a growth mindset. That meant reflecting on and changing her current attitude and response towards mistakes, following a process for learning from them, using them a tool to improve her performance, welcoming challenges, enjoying effort and pushing her learning edge out to progress. In order to nurture this growth-mindset, as a Neurolanguage Coach, I facilitated a safe environment where Kate was encouraged to take risk, make mistakes, make space to let thoughts come up and reflect on the learnings.
We took the following steps together and I asked Kate to:
- Reflect and take responsibility:
- What was Kate trying to achieve?
- Kate wanted to communicate efficiently and with confidence in French and improve her proficiency
- What was the failure?
- People had trouble understanding her, she could not get her point across and she was not taken seriously
- What was the mistake?
- Kate used incorrect pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar structures and syntax
- How did people react or what was her perception of it?
- Some laughed at her, some ignored her, some corrected her, some switched to English, some made an effort to try to understand her, some understood her
- How did she feel?
- Kate felt humiliated, frustrated and incompetent. This reminded her of a negative experience at school when she was shamed and ridiculed for making mistakes during a speaking assignment
- What happened as a result of how she felt?
- Kate became increasingly afraid of speaking, self-critical and as a result, spoke less or not at all.
- What was Kate trying to achieve?
- Find the cause:
- What led to the mistake?
- Kate recognized that she was still pronouncing certain vowels as English sounds that completely transformed the word in French. She felt she lacked fundamental vocabulary and applied English syntax and grammar making the meaning of sentences difficult to grasp for a French speaker
- What led to the mistake?
- Analyse the implication of what Kate found:
- Poor pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar or syntax may lead to a breakdown in communication and her bad experience at school still influenced how she responded to failure today
- Take action: What steps can Kate take to prevent these mistakes from happening again?
- Kate identified areas that needed improvement and we made a plan to work on areas of pronunciation that we were difficult for her, to correct usage of French past tenses, to do some small talk and proper syntax for placement of adjectives and adverbs
- What did Kate do differently to implement the learning?
Kate decided to be proactive and created a list of new words and expressions. She practiced them with online flashcards and worksheets until she knew them well.
- How did Kate approach the situation the next time?
Kate knew now that making mistakes was part of the learning process. She focused her attention on delivering her message and turned her conversations into learning opportunities, welcoming feedback and even encouraging it.
- What did Kate learn about herself and her experiences?
Kate recognized that her mistakes were not a reflection of her intelligence or learning abilities, so she became more self-assured and confident even when she was making mistakes. She found out that feedback was most of the time well-intentioned, helpful and a great opportunity to learn. She discovered that a mean-spirited comment was just that – and reflected poorly on the person who made it – not on her character or abilities.
With the help of the unique Neurolanguage Coaching approach using neuroscience and coaching principles, I saw my coachee Kate’s learning experience and performance make a complete turn-around. After learning about the brain and the value of making mistakes for brain growth, cultivating curiosity and consistent spaced practice and developing a growth-mindset, Kate memorized better, became more focused and confident – and simply better at speaking French, which was a big plus for her work.
Learning a foreign language may account for a small part in our life’s many experiences, but what we learn from our mistakes during our learning journey can greatly contribute to our growth as an individual.
So, find the gift that comes with making mistakes and celebrate the learning!. Don’t forget that “I don’t know” can always be changed into “I don’t know YET”. Mistakes are proof that you tried and you are well on your way to succeed!
Moser, J. S., Schroder, H. S., Heeter, C., Moran, T. P., & Lee, Y. H. (2011). Mind Your Errors Evidence for a Neural Mechanism Linking Growth Mind-Set to Adaptive Posterror Adjustments. Psychological Science, 0956797611419520. – UCubed.org
Damien Mascret – “Multiplier les erreurs aide à mieux apprendre”, 01/2014 in le Figaro based on a study by Pr Tom Stafford (University of Sheffield, UK) and Michael Dewar NY published in Psychological Science
Iconiq Psychology – video – “Fear Of Failure? Here’s Why Making Mistakes Is Good For Your Brain!”, June 6, 2018
Daisy Yuhas “Curiosity Prepares the Brain for Better Learning” American scientific mind, October 2, 2014
Mathias Gruber – University of California, Davis – TedX talks “This is your brain on Curiosity”, November 20, 2015
Jeff Mitchell (Community Sport Advisor – Auckland) “Using your learning edge -embracing mistakes”, July 24, 2014
Gustavo Razzetti (blog – Liberationist.org) “Celebrate the lesson, not just the mistake”
Carol Dweck “The power of YET” TedX talks, May 24, 2016