“If you don’t make mistakes, you’re not working on hard enough problems. And that’s a big mistake.”

Frank Wilczek

2004 Nobel Prize winner in physics

The journey to fluency in a foreign language can be loads of fun at times, but it also includes inevitable challenges and setbacks.

  • You will misunderstand others and be misunderstood yourself.
  • You will unintentionally say offensive things or make cultural gaffes.
  • You will accidentally mispronounce people’s names.
  • You will use the wrong level of formality.
  • You will butcher grammar.
  • You will mispronounce and misspell words.
  • You will order the wrong food and get on the wrong bus.

But as frustrating or painful as these mistakes can be, it’s critical to understand that they don’t block the path to mastery. They are the path to mastery. Screwing up and figuring out where we went wrong is an inevitable, mandatory part of the leaning process. The only true mistake is the one we don’t learn from.

So accept your mistakes. Nay, embrace them! See each stumble or gaffe as one step further up Fluency Mountain. And realize that what you screw up today, you’ll probably get right tomorrow, especially if the mistake is particularly embarrassing.

My favorite example of this comes from the author Tim Ferriss. The year is 1993 and 16-year-old Tim had recently arrived in Japan for a year-long exchange program. Before going to bed one night, he tries to enlist his host mother’s help to get up in time the next morning. He had meant to say:

Ashita hachi-ji okoshite-kudasai.
明日八時にして下さい
“Please wake me up at 8 tomorrow.”

But he accidentally said:

Ashita hachi-ji okashite-kudasai.
明日八時に犯して下さい
“Please rape me up at 8 tomorrow.”

The host mother was as confused as Tim was embarrassed. But instead of letting the mistake deter him, he let the humor of this—any many other gaffes—fuel his Japanese journey:

“I ALWAYS try. At the very least, it’s comedic relief, totally breaks the ice, and you can all have a laugh.”

Tim Ferriss

Author, The 4-Hour Chef

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