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Failing to Succeed: Why Failure is Crucial to Language Acquisition

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Wash U chapter.

            “Excuse me,” said the woman in heavily-accented English. “You know where is this office?” She held out a slip of paper bearing a hastily-scrawled address. 

“Yes, that’s just across the street on the second floor of the tall, brown building,” my mother replied. The woman pursed her lips sheepishly. “Sorry, I don’t understand,” she admitted. 

A moment later, my mother’s knitted eyebrows jolted upward. “Do you speak Spanish?” she wondered.

“Yes, yes, Spanish,” the woman confirmed, her eyes widening. 

“So does my daughter,” smiled my mom. She turned to me. “Honey, can you help her?” she asked. Looking relieved, the woman began to inquire something in her native language, chattering at the speed of a bullet train. The wheels of my train of thought, however, screeched to a sparky halt in their tracks. I opened my mouth, but all that came out was silence.  

After ascertaining I would be of no assistance, my mother painstakingly pantomimed the directions until a glimmer of recognition illuminated the woman’s face. Offering a grateful “thank you,” she scurried toward her destination. 

            “Why didn’t you say anything?” my mom wondered once the woman was gone. 

Pressure began to build behind my eyelids and a burning sensation flared inside my nose. “I don’t know,” I replied. But I was lying. I knew exactly why I’d said nothing, even though I could have helped the woman: I was afraid to fail. 

What I know now, is that failure is an integral part of language acquisition. To learn, one must trip and fall over words, then hoist oneself back up again only to tumble over once more. True, this is an adage I heard throughout my education. But it was one that, a slave to my perfectionism, I could never accept. 

            As a native English speaker, my relationship with language was rich and rewarding, but never complex. Reading and writing came as naturally as breathing, and, while I’d occasionally stumble over words, I never doubted my ability to speak. I suppose that’s why, as a frizzy-haired seventh grader, I eagerly registered for Spanish classes, assuming my affinity and aptitude for language would be no different en español. I was mistaken.

            For the first time, I grew frustrated by that which I’d always cherished: words. Like a washed-up fish, I’d sputter, mouth gaping, unable to recall the term for “pencil” or the past participle of “decir.” Hours of studying were rewarded with high marks in my classes. But, to me, they were just letters, proof of my ability to memorize. I still couldn’t speak.

            I couldn’t speak when the woman asked for directions; I couldn’t speak when my mother asked me to translate questions for our contractor; I couldn’t even speak when, three years of classes later, I traveled to Spain on a family vacation. In every instance, mortification and powerlessness consumed me. But my fear refused to relinquish its hold on me; I exchanged my voice for my dignity.

             Failure is an integral part of language acquisition. But so is confidence. If we do not have confidence, we will not speak. If we do not speak, we will not fail. If we do not fail, we will never truly learn.

            I never truly learned for five years.

            I sat on my worn, purple futon, reflecting on another instance of paralysis: My boyfriend – ironically, a native Spanish speaker – had tried to converse with me in his mother tongue. I fell silent, my vision blurred and skin hot. I told him in English that I couldn’t talk now.

Stewing in shame, memories of my discomfort, angst, and chagrin consumed me. The woman asking for directions greeted me mockingly in my mind’s eye. I could almost hear her heavily-accented English. Her heavily-accented English. I sat up straighter. That woman was like me, I realized. She, too, was struggling to learn a second language. But she was brave. She lassoed her fear and asked for help, knowing full well she’d make mistakes along the way; I was too afraid, too proud to do the same. Did I judge that woman for not being able to speak perfectly? Absolutely not. And would she have judged me? Not at all, I understood. No one had ever been judging me. No one, except for myself. 

            Confidence breeds speech. Speech breeds failure. Failure breeds growth. But growth, in turn, breeds confidence. For years this seemed a counterintuitive conclusion – that, by failing, we in fact become more capable and comfortable rather than simply afraid and ashamed. And yet…

            My boyfriend and I now have regular Spanish phone calls. I listen to Spanish podcasts, watch Spanish television shows, and read Spanish articles. I raise my hand in class and give lengthy, unscripted answers to my professor’s questions. I make constant mistakes- and I’ve never been more confident. 

Alexis Bentz

Wash U '24

Alexis Bentz is a senior at WashU double majoring in English with a concentration in creative writing and Spanish.