How Learning a Foreign Language Taught Me to Make Mistakes

“That will look so good on a resume!” This is something I hear all the time about studying a foreign language in college. While it’s true that foreign language proficiency is a marketable skill, it’s also so much more than that. I minored in Korean. Of everything I’ve done in college, this is what caused the most personal growth for me. Now I’m the president of the Korean Conversation Club on campus. I spend a lot of time talking to our members about their language-learning journey. One of the biggest obstacles in our club is nervousness to converse in Korean. People are worried that they will make mistakes and look silly in front of native speakers and upper-level learners. I used to think like that, too, but over the years I’ve learned that making mistakes is the single most valuable aspect of learning a language.

It wasn’t long ago that I was in their place, shy and embarrassed to speak. Korean class really threw me for a loop freshman year. I constantly had to speak out loud in front of my classmates. There was no way around it. I used to shy away from saying anything in classes because I was afraid of looking stupid. I used to think that discussion-based classes were annoying and stressful. Eventually, going to Korean class five days a week and being forced to speak up at each class led me to get over my inhibition. Now, I actively participate in all of my classes, no matter what kind of classes they are. I’m not afraid to say the wrong thing, I’m more engaged in classes and more outgoing as a person, I speak more in both English and Korean, and it’s allowed me to make friends from all kinds of backgrounds.

Mistakes are actually the most valuable tool you have. One time in class, the professor asked me to speak about my favorite actor. I meant to say “Lee Min-ho is cool,” but I accidentally said “Lee Min-ho is delicious.” Naturally, my classmates laughed and my professor teased me for my mistake. I’ll always remember that funny memory, and I’ll never mix up those two words again!

Now is the time to get brave. My friend Chisom, a junior at Pitt who studies Japanese, says she spent the first two years of college “afraid to speak it to natives because I was so worried about making mistakes and looking stupid.” I felt a similar way. Since then I’ve promised myself not to waste any more opportunities, and I want you to do the same. If you meet someone who is native in your target language, whether you are in that country or not, just try to have a conversation or even just say hello. You might be surprised at the results. Especially if you are learning a less commonly studied language, people are almost always flattered to see that you appreciate their country and culture. When you open yourself up to these kinds of interactions, you can make meaningful new friendships with people who have a different background from you.

When learning a foreign language, your biggest obstacle is your own fear of failure. Once you get past this, you will find new opportunities. When you learn to speak without worrying about making mistakes, you might even find a new side to your personality like I did. Too often as women we are trained to stay quiet. I say you should speak up, no matter which language it’s in.

Photo credits: The photo belongs to the author