“Mistakes” is not a word in a teacher’s vocabulary.
Teachers see opportunities for learning and improvement. They see “teachable moments” and patterns of performance, but they don’t see “mistakes.”
They do, however, see bad habits. Some worse than others. Some repeated over generations of students.
Over the span of my fifteen years teaching (so far), I have seen students of Italian display the same five bad habits over and over again. What is it they say about trauma? That it can be passed on, genetically, from generation to generation? It seems like bad second-language acquisition habits do the same.
Here are the top five bad habits most learners of a foreign language have, and what to do about them.
1 – Students are eager to learn. In itself, that’s a positive thing! But learning a language is like learning to move your body for the first time. You have to walk before you can run. When seeing a structure for the first time, students often ask me “is there another way to say this in Italian?” Of course, there always is. Languages are plastic and are meant to be played with to give nuance, add emphasis, match the speaker’s personality and aims. But trying to learn everything all at once is like shooting yourself in the foot. Teachers have a special word for “learning by bits”: it’s called “scaffolding.” First, you learn how to use one structure well, then you add something on top of that, which both reviews the structure you’ve just seen and adds something new to it. Scaffolding continues into the highest levels of language learning: it never stops. You wouldn’t immediately reach for the highest rung on a ladder, would you? So you shouldn’t aim to be using more sophisticated structures before you can comfortably use the basic ones. If that feels repetitive, you’re doing it right. You likely didn’t run a 7-minute mile on your first, thirtieth, or even fiftieth try. Practice makes perfect.
DON’T aim to see everything all at once.
DO practice the limited structures you do know until they come naturally to you without a second thought.
2 – Translation. It’s every language teacher’s most insistent frenemy. Comparing your target foreign language to structures you know in another language can actually be quite helpful; we teachers use this strategy a lot to illustrate particularly difficult concepts in class (often, students in a language class already know at least one other foreign language). But the grammar of the foreign languages you know doesn’t always align; often, “false friends” are created when comparing languages (words that look or sound alike in different languages but have completely different meanings), or vocabulary gets mixed up. When receiving feedback on written or oral assignments, students will often say things like “But in Spanish, you use this verb this way” or “but in French, this word means such-and-such,” or “but in English, we say this.” It’s true that all Romance languages share a common base, and that even English has a lot of latinate features in common with Romance languages. That doesn’t mean, however, that grammar is universal across languages, or that expressions carry from one language to the next. “I’m excited,” in English when translated literally as “sono eccitato/a” in Italian refers to a state of physical arousal — not quite what students are going for. Or “sounds good” in English has been incorrectly translated into Italian as “suona bene.” Those are just two examples. Translating from your native language into your foreign language may pay off on a few fluke occasions, but will be a huge disservice to you in the long run. As a general rule of thumb:
DON’T translate from your native language into your foreign language
DO compare structures from your foreign language to your native language when you can and when it’s helpful (comparing the oggetto diretto to the COD in French is one such example).
3 – This one goes hand in hand with the first two items on our list. Students want to use their foreign language exactly the same way they use their native language — but can’t. It can be extremely frustrating to feel this limited. You want to say: “Unfortunately, because I was feeling terribly ill yesterday, I was unable both to complete the assigned homework or to submit it within the recommended time limit. I offer my sincerest apologies.” (By the way, who even says that?!) But all you know how to say is: “I was sick yesterday. I didn’t do my homework. I’m sorry.” And the truth is, you might make a mistake even in saying just that. Guess what? That’s okay. It takes children upwards of three years to start using even the most basic features of a language fluently and confidently without error (or with infrequent error). Give yourself the same time and patience you would give to a toddler.
DON’T be a virtuoso, and try to say everything all at once.
DO use the structures you have learned to say what you can say confidently and correctly.
A few more bad habits you’d do well to kick:
4 – Ignoring the structures you’ve learned the minute you see a new one. Just because you’re learning the passato prossimo, doesn’t mean the presente stops existing. Languages are organic. They serve the communicator, not the other way around. Use the structures you need to say what you want to say. Your homework assignment asks you to use the condizionale presente. Great! That doesn’t mean every single sentence in your assignment will need to use that verb tense. Would that ever happen in your native language? Not likely.
DON’T limit yourself to meeting the requirements of class assignments.
DO aim to integrate new structures into existing structures to use your foreign language the way a native speaker of it would.
5 – Relying on your foreign language instructor to do the learning for you. Teaching and learning are two very different practices. Trust that in order to teach, you must first learn, but that learning is not the same as teaching. A fisherman spends his lifetime learning about different kinds of bait, tackle, and rods, different fishing techniques, where different species of fish live and how they act. To teach you what he has learned — over many years, with patience and consistency, and through a number of different experiences — he takes you fishing on the lake. One day, he shows you how to use worm as bait and a standard fishing rod. The next day, he shows you how to cast the rod and reel in the fish. The next day, he takes you to different waters to show you how the fish there react to a different kind of tackle or technique. His job is to transmit his knowledge to you in context (on the lake, not out of a fishing text book). Your job is to take note of his actions, store them in your long-term memory, and keep the different tools you need to use in order. The fisherman can show you over and over again how to cast the rod and reel in the fish. If you don’t do it, or if you forget the bait, the tackle, the rods, the boat, the oars at home, he can’t help you.
Learning a language is the same. Your teacher can — and, trust me, often does and will! — post powerpoint presentations, word documents, practice exercises, reading material, and playlists to help you learn. It is your responsibility to keep track of that information in the way that best suits your learning needs and patterns. Not everyone learns the same way, and while teachers aim to give all students the tools and experiences they need to thrive, no one universal approach exists to guarantee that everyone in the class will learn at the same rate or succeed equally. Take notes on posted material. Re-order the information if you don’t like the way it’s been presented. Keep a notebook or a file on your computer where you can store all the posted exercises, grammar explanations, and oral activities. Make grammar charts if you need them. Highlight your notes. Add sticky tabs to pages in your text book that are tricky for you. Come to class prepared with questions. Engage with class material actively, not just passively.
DO be responsible for your learning.
DON’T expect to learn by only coming to class and reading the posted material once.
Learning a foreign language is the easiest way to open a window on to the world. Remember to eliminate these five bad habits for the best possible experience.
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