Have you ever failed at learning a new language or are you afraid that your child might fail or feel bad about Spanish? You’re not alone. Even when we’ve put the time and effort into learning something new, many of us still fear making a mistake, and feel bad about ourselves when we do. This is a distinctly common experience, but it doesn’t have to be a negative one.
This post will walk you through the scientifically proven benefits of talking about failure, explain why failure is a natural part of learning, and help transform your mindset moving forward in your child’s language acquisition journey.
Starting A Conversation About Failure Leads To Fluency
Talking about Failure Boosts Learning: Through our upbringings and educational experiences, many of us have been taught that failure is something awful, and should be avoided at all costs. We often forget that even the greatest minds in history have failed. In 2016, Xiaodong Lin-Siegler, a cognitive researcher at Columbia University’s Teachers College, published a study on this topic:
The study showed high-school students’ science grades actively improved after they learned about the personal and intellectual failures of world-renowned scientists like Einstein and Marie Curie. Meanwhile, the students who exclusively learned about the scientists’ successes saw a decline in their grades.
While this study revolves around science, language learning can be approached with the same mentality. Some of the most successful language learners, including TruFluency’s founder Micah Bellieu, have had moments of failure (she actually dropped out of Spanish in college because she felt like a failure, only to become fluent in Spanish, French and Japanese in her late 20s and 30s!). Openly discussing our challenges not only helps learners feel more comfortable but also helps them succeed in the future.
So be sure to discuss this feeling with your child. They will likely feel uncomfortable in the first few weeks of class. They might feel out of place, like they don’t understand anything (they don’t!) and that they’ll never get it (they will! It’s a proven fact!). Remind them that when they were born, they didn’t speak English, but they don’t remember learning it. Now, they will learn Spanish in the same way, through experiences, visuals, and trying to express themselves. It’ll feel differently, and it won’t feel as easy as English did, but if they give it a month, it will start to feel completely different than the first class.
Failing Is The First Step To Understanding
Failure Leads to Conceptual Understanding: Think of your past educational experiences. In most schools, teachers introduce an academic concept, show you exactly how to do it, and then give you time to practice. An experiment published in the journal of Cognitive Sciences gives us reason to challenge this traditional model. Director of The Future Learning Initiative at ETH Zurich, Manu Kapur, conducted an experiment in which groups of students were taught new math concepts using two different methods:
● The Traditional Method: In Group 1, the teacher introduced the concept, showed students exactly how to work through the problem, and then allowed students to solve it by themselves.
● The Productive Failure Method: Group 2 was encouraged to solve the problems first before getting an introduction or demonstration of the new concept.
Only after students made several attempts to work it out independently did the teacher help them.
Kapur found that those who were pushed to try independently, fail, and then try again, showed a “greater conceptual understanding” of the subject and outperformed the second group when asked to apply what they’d learned to other math problems. As shown in Kapur’s study, this productive failure method helps students understand concepts on a deeper level than traditional instruction.
We’re not purposely trying to confuse your children in class by speaking only Spanish, but by speaking only Spanish, they will get confident much more quickly. Spanish teachers know that the kids will begin to understand, if they keep trying. Our brain simply works that way. So give your brain a chance to fail, and then understand the concepts much more deeply – just like in the experiment!
Our Brains and Learning: Fail, Grow, Repeat
The Brain As A Prediction Engine: Failure is not a bad thing. We will experience failure, as surely as a toddler will fall while learning to walk; our brains are built that way. In 2013, neuroscientists at The University of Cambridge conducted an experiment exploring how the brain processes new information, and is built to make mistakes along the way:
● What they found was that the brain functions as a “prediction engine”, or “pattern recognition machine.”
● This means that learners have experience, and use those experiences to make predictions as they navigate the world.
Our brain’s predictions aren’t always right, and we don’t acquire knowledge in a linear, orderly fashion. But with each passing guess, the brain grows stronger and learns from its past mistakes.
This is exactly what happens in language learning also. We have heard from language learners that all of a sudden they seem to understand, or all of a sudden they know how to respond. The brain is creating patterns based on what it’s hearing in class or during everyday life. Then, you begin to respond without much thinking. This happens with our first language (although we don’t remember it happening), but it happens in the same way with our second (or third or fourth). Our founder and many other polyglots report suddenly being able to respond more easily, even if yesterday they were struggling. The brain is fascinating!
Change The Way You Think About Failure
Fixed vs. Growth Mindset: Regardless of what you’ve heard, there’s no such thing as a natural language learner. While it’s true that some learners have an ear for accents or a knack for rolling their r’s, language learning should be viewed as a malleable skill rather than a gift. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has spent her life investigating the impact of different mindsets on student performance and breaks down the way we view learning into two distinct categories:
● Fixed Mindset: Dweck believes some people have a fixed mindset, believing that IQ and intelligence are things a learner is born with and can’t do much about. “I’m just bad at learning languages!” falls into the fixed mindset category.
● Growth Mindset: On the other hand, some people have a growth mindset about their learning abilities, believing they can improve their skills and build upon their knowledge through practice and effort. “With some time and effort I’ll get better at this!” is an example of a growth mindset.
Dweck developed a series of studies in which she tracked the performances of elementary and middle school students when faced with successes and failures. The children were divided into two groups:
● Both groups were given easy tests and performed well.
● One group of students was told they scored well because they were particularly talented or intelligent.
● The other group was told they scored well because they had put forth an effort.
The results of the study showed that the students who were encouraged to have a growth mindset were significantly better at learning from their mistakes.
To support your child’s learning journey, try not to praise them for their innate intelligence, as it will make them feel like they have done something wrong when they fail. Instead, focus on their efforts, or the time they committed to something, and the language acquisition process itself. This growth mindset will help your child learn from their mistakes and gain confidence in their abilities.
Our founder (a polyglot) is often told, “You must be really good at languages!” to which she quickly replies, “Not really. After 8 years in Spanish classes, I was failing and hiding in the back row because I didn’t understand the teacher and couldn’t respond. Then I dropped out of all language classes from fear after 2 weeks.” Then, 5 years later, she started using the conversational method built on experiences, her interests, and relevant words she would actually use. Eventually, she became fluent. But it’s definitely not because she was ‘good’ at it.
Language Learning That Makes A Difference
In an immersive language program like TruFluency Kids Spanish Immersion Online, students are thrown into new situations without instruction in English – we use images, visuals, body motions, and make sure it is clear (without English translations). We encourage learners to speak on their own, fail, and then try again. Even if it’s just a nod – we’ll take it! We follow this model because at TruFluency Kids we don’t see failure as the enemy.
Instead, we look at failure as an opportunity for students to learn, improve, and grow. When reframed as an essential part of learning a new language, failure is ultimately the greatest teacher of all. To kickstart your child’s language learning journey and find out more about TruFluency’s online immersion programs, click HERE.