You can damage your English by writing and speaking
How practice can damage your English
If you ask “How can I learn to speak English better?”, many people will tell you “Practice, practice, practice”. “Speak and write in English whenever you can”, they’ll say. All English classes are full of activities which involve speaking and writing. You produce sentences when you do an exercise in your textbook, when your teacher makes you speak in class, or when you have to write a composition. All these activities are supposed to help you with your English.
Practice can be very useful. It’s even necessary to learn English well. So what’s the problem? The problem is that for many learners, speaking or writing means making a lot of mistakes. Some people make a mistake in every sentence!
Suppose you are writing an e-mail message in English. Your English is not perfect and you want to write the message quickly. You write (incorrectly): I want speak English.
When you write a sentence, you also read it. So the incorrect sentence becomes “toxic input” for your brain. The next time you write a message, you will be more likely to write I want finish or I want be happy. Why? Because I want speak English is fresh in your head — you recently used it! And when you write I want <do something> a few more times, you’ll get a bad habit: I want <do something> will become your natural way of speaking English. Such bad habits can be very difficult to eliminate. Even if somebody later points out your mistake and you concentrate very hard to avoid making it again, the bad habit is often stronger. It’s an uphill battle.
Every time you write or speak with mistakes, you reinforce those mistakes. As you repeat your mistakes, you develop bad habits. If you make a lot of mistakes, practice becomes a harmful activity because it teaches you more bad English than good English. Some learners make so many mistakes that the more they practice, the worse their English becomes!
What about “learning from your mistakes”?
The only way you can learn something from your mistakes is when somebody corrects them. If you say an incorrect sentence, and if someone points out the mistake and tells you the proper way to express your meaning, then your knowledge of English increases.
You may therefore think that speaking or writing with mistakes is not so bad because it is a chance to fix your errors and learn something new. Unfortunately, this is true only if you have a checker — a competent person who will correct your mistakes. If you don’t have a checker, speaking or writing with mistakes will only give you bad habits.
If you’re thinking that an English teacher could be your checker, consider this:
- Many teachers (especially non-native speakers) are simply incompetent. Sometimes they will find “errors” in correct sentences or suggest bad alternatives. I couldn’t count the number of times it happened to me in high school.
- Most teachers correct only the biggest mistakes and ignore the rest. The reason is simple: class time is limited. If they corrected every mistake of every student, they wouldn’t be able to teach their lessons. You could get some kind of private tutor, but how much would it cost to have him correct everything you write and say in English?
What about “random native speakers”? This category includes any native speakers who are not your teachers: your American friends, Australian penpals, native speakers on Internet forums, or just regular people around you, if you are in an English-speaking country. Can they be effective checkers?
Not likely. In general, native speakers will not correct your mistakes! As long as they can understand what you mean, they will completely ignore all your mistakes in grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. For example, the message below is perfectly understandable and could easily pass uncorrected:
Why is that?
- Correcting mistakes requires not only great English skills. To correct someone, you have to pay attention to what he says or writes. If something is wrong, you have to think of a better way to say it. Correction takes time and effort. And people are lazy and don’t have the time to fix someone else’s sentences. It’s much easier to ignore the mistakes and keep the conversation going.
- It’s always stressful to tell someone that they made a mistake. Many native speakers will be afraid of an awkward social situation and when you make a mistake, they will pretend that nothing has happened. Some of them will even think they are being polite.
“Learning from your mistakes” sounds good, but it is not easy, because making mistakes is not enough — you still need someone to give you feedback. And it is difficult to find a competent person to help you.
Besides, even if you had such a person available whenever you speak or write in English, making mistakes would probably still be harmful, since mistakes can lead to bad habits even if they are corrected. The sooner you realize you cannot “speak your way” to good English, the sooner you will make some real progress.
Solution: Stop making mistakes!
We have said that when you practice, you reinforce your mistakes, and that you cannot rely on feedback from other people. We have also said that you need practice to learn English.
There is a simple solution to this paradox: Never make mistakes! Before you conclude that we have completely lost it, please read what one of us (Michal Ryszard Wojcik) has written about his experiences:
It is close to the truth that I have never written an incorrect English sentence.
I knew many grammatical structures and I used only those that I knew. My sentences were similar to sentences which I knew to be correct. I followed good examples, so all my sentences were good.
In the beginning, I could write only very simple sentences, but all the simple sentences were correct. Then as I advanced, I added more and more complicated structures, and again all my sentences were correct.
You can speak and write with almost no mistakes, too.
“But if I’m afraid to make a mistake, I will never open my mouth!”
You will not be afraid to make a mistake if you know how to say things in English. You will know how to say things in English if you get enough input — that is, if you keep reading and listening to correct English sentences until correct English phrases sound natural to you and incorrect phrases sound weird to you. Then you will be sure that you’re speaking correctly.
“I make a lot mistakes when I speak English—what should I do?”
- Definitely get a lot of input. If you make mistakes in your English sentences, that means you don’t know how to say things in English. You need to learn how to say them. You won’t learn that by speaking or writing. You must read and listen to correct English sentences. There is no other way.
- Try to be more careful — use the rules of error-free speaking. If you still make a lot of mistakes, you probably shouldn’t open your mouth just now. Switch to writing, which gives you more time to look things up. If you still make a lot of mistakes, consider a “silent period”: stop speaking and writing, and spend a month or two getting input only. (More details in this article.)
“But you cannot learn anything without mistakes!”
Of course nobody is perfect and some mistakes will occur. But believe us — you can learn English with almost no mistakes. How? You can fill your brain with correct sentences and imitate them. You can simply follow good examples.
People sometimes say that the process of learning a language has to involve a lot of mistakes, because they think learning a language is like learning to play golf. But this is a bad analogy. In languages, it is easy to “follow good examples”. In golf, it is difficult.
If you see a few example sentences with a word, it is not difficult to produce a correct sentence with that word. On the other hand, you could watch professional golfers all day long, and still be unable to strike the ball correctly. The only hard-to-imitate element in languages is pronunciation. (A more detailed analysis can be found in this article.)
“Can I ever make a mistake on purpose?”
Yes. Sometimes you can say or write something which you think is wrong. You can do it if you want to learn how to say something in English. For example, if you are talking to a native speaker, you can do this:
- Say “I’m not sure how to say this in English, but ...” and then say your sentence (which is probably wrong).
- The other person can tell you how to say it in English correctly.
- Learn the correct way to say the sentence.
Notice that this technique is only safe if:
- you are sure that the other person will correct you if you make a mistake
- you use it only occasionally
Mistakes and pronunciation
The advice about avoiding mistakes also applies to pronunciation. This is discussed in this article.