What to do when you MAKE an ESL MISTAKE


(Photo credit: http://bit.ly/2kYndWA)

I’ve taught people from many parts of the world, and one thing I have realized, no one speaks perfect English straight away, and some people don’t care and continue talking anyway, and others suddenly shut down and are afraid to speak again in fear of saying something wrong again.

These kinds of attitudes I notice are often cultural. There are some cultures that are very oral, and everything is said and not often written down. Families encourage their children to speak whenever they want and say whatever they want. This can be great for learning a new language as their confidence is high and they are unafraid to make a mistake. However, there are other cultures that are much ‘shyer’ because somewhere along the line they were punished severely socially for making a mistake and so from that point on have made a point of always trying to be correct in the fear of feeling embarrassed again.

Both have their advantages and disadvantages.

  1. For those who are unafraid to speak – yes they get very confident very quickly, but they lack to time and effort to eventually speak correctly. Often they slip into bad incorrect English speaking habits that take forever to disappear.
  2. For those who are afraid to speak – yes they are losing out on many confidence building activities, but at least we know that when they do speak, they are usually well understood and can get things done well.

So obviously, the key is to find some middle ground here.

Some people are naturally better writers than others, and so there are speakers also, but the key difference is that the writers do have the chance to correct what they have written well in advance before anyone reads it. The speaker just blurts it out and the moment is gone and can’t be brought back for correction.

The focus here is on the speaker. The first thing to realise is that when a person is writing, they are communicating yes, but what they are writing down is to be held on file for future use. When a person is speaking it almost always isn’t that way. It is communicating yes, but only in the moment, to get from one idea to the next. There is an advantage in this because the person who is listening is only going to try to get the gist of what the person is saying so that they can respond.

The best thing to remember here is that perfect English in speaking is not considered to be of as high a priority as it is in writing. The reason is that when we speak we use all kinds of short cuts, slangs, and unexpected words to try to get our message across, however in writing there are certain styles and principles that a writer must use, e.g. specific punctuations, paragraphing, abbreviations, etc. Speaking doesn’t have such specific forms. There are some, but they are more related to intonations or stresses in words and phrases in sentences. These come down to simply trying to make yourself understood.

So the next time you hear yourself saying something that doesn’t appear to make sense, then know one thing for sure. Speaking English is about constant trial and error, without correct full sentences or punctuation. So long as you know that your receiver is able to understand what you are saying – you are achieved success. That is the best way to measure your accuracy.

In other words, when speaking, don’t focus on the errors, focus on how much the person understands of what you are saying. This way you are endeavouring to communicate, not pass an IELTS speaking exam every time you open your mouth!


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