Four different kinds of mistakes: Problem analysis

Using a foreign language to communicate invariably leads to mistakes. This is only natural and making mistakes is, as I have argued elsewhere, necessary if we ever hope to attain a high level of language ability. However, there are many different kinds of mistakes and thus also different ways of handling them. In this post I’ll tell you about four kinds of mistakes and what to do when you encounter them. First, however, some general words of advice.

No, I’ve made a mistake! What should I do?

Being corrected and/or learning about one’s own weaknesses is a difficult process and requires a healthy attitude and some practice. Since this article is more about the mistakes themselves and less about attitude, let’s ignore social and emotional factors for now. When you become aware of a mistake, you first priority should be to place the mistake in one of the four following categories.

  1. Careless mistakes
  2. Uninformed mistakes
  3. Isolated errors
  4. Systematic errors

Don’t worry if you think the definitions of these categories aren’t obvious, I will go through them one by one soon. What you need to do is to ask follow-up questions, think, take notes and determine what kind of problem you’re facing. Only then can you accurately determine which course of action is the right one, from ignoring the problem entirely to spending lots of time trying to pinpoint it exactly and get rid of it.

In general, a mistake is when you produce or perceive language incorrectly, even though you’re aware of the correct form, meaning that you had a chance to do it correctly, but failed. An error is something you genuinely don’t know or can’t produce.

Now, let’s have a closer look at the four categories. They are sorted in order of severity, with the least serious mistakes first and then proceeding to the more nasty varieties.

Careless mistakes (you know what’s right, but you still made a mistake)

This is a very common problem not only for foreigners, but for native speakers as well. You know what you want to say, but for some reason you still get it wrong. It might be because you speak too quickly or because you type sloppily, but the end result is the same. This category then contains mistakes that you would yourself find out if you read your text/listened to a recording of your own speech one more time. It’s not necessary that you actually do find it out yourself, but if you do, that’s very good.

Treatment: If you find the mistake on your own, be sure to correct it immediately. This will hopefully make you less likely to make the mistake again and you will prevent other people from pointing out the problem to you, thinking it’s more serious than it is. If someone else points this out to you, follow the normal guidelines for being corrected and move on. You know that you know the right answer, so you don’t need to spend time here. Try not to show any sign of irritation if people point out mistakes that are obvious typos or similar. Smile and say thank you.

Uninformed mistakes (you don’t know what’s right and you make a mistake)

This is a kind of mistakes which is common when you start learning a language. You don’t know how to say something and you have to guess. Perhaps you have no idea how to say something, so the likelihood is that you will often make a mistake. However, since you had no predefined idea how to use a certain word or sentence pattern, this kind of mistake is not very serious. This is just one way to learn new things.

Treatment: Take notes if you think what you have learnt is important enough to learn. If it’s something that’s way above your current level, just ignore it. However, if you’ve already reached an advanced level, I would be very careful indeed and write down any new things you learn that you really ought to know.

Isolated errors (you thought you know what was right, but it wasn’t in this case)

As the above-mentioned problems decrease in frequency, the isolated mistakes start appearing. They are often the result of using previously learnt rules in situations where they aren’t applicable or using words you thought could describe a specific situation, but that actually can’t. A basic mistake of this kind would be saying 他五年 (he is five years old), when it should be 他五岁 (他五歲). You are right in thinking that 年 means year, but you didn’t know that you have to use 岁 (歲) to describe someone’s age.

Treatment: Take notes! This is a very important part of going from “being able to make yourself understood” to “speaking good Chinese”. If you’re using spaced repetition software (which you should), such as Anki, you should change your flashcards to reflect what you’ve learnt, and possibly add more cards if you’ve learnt something entirely new (although that’s more like “uninformed mistakes” above).

Systematic errors (you thought you know what was right, but it’s always wrong)

This is the most serious problem you can ever encounter, but you’re still likely to meet many of them during your language-studying life. I’ve had problems like this many times in all areas of learning Chinese and I suspect I still have a few, although they are gradually being changed to isolated errors. A systematic error means that you make a certain error every time, perhaps without even knowing it. For instance, if you pronounce the third tone before a fourth tone as a rising tone, this is a systematic error and you’re going to make that mistake every time you pronounce this combination of tones. This is very serious indeed and you need to take decisive action.

Treatment: Practice, lots of directed practice. You need to spot these problems as early as you can, because they can be terribly difficult to change if you find them out many years after you started learning Chinese. Talk to your friends and teachers and make sure that they point out this kind of mistake. This is where you should spend all the time you can afford to delve deeper into the problem. How serious is it? What areas are involved? What exactly is the system, the rule, behind your errors? Check this post on my personal website for an example of a detailed analysis of my own pronunciation problems (written after having studied Chinese for 2+ years).

How to use these categories

If the purpose of writing this post still isn’t obvious, let me point it out using just a few sentences. Knowing what kind of mistake you’re making will greatly affect the way you try to repair it. If you suspect that there is a systematic error behind something, you have to act decisively and try to figure out if that’s really the case. Ask questions, check with more than one native speaker.

If it’s not systematic, you can relax a bit, but you should still pay attention if it’s an isolated error or something important that you just haven’t studied yet (uninformed mistake). I tend to almost ignore careless mistakes since they don’t really affect my language ability at all. Just as long as I know that I can say or write something properly if I really want to, I’m happy. This is of course not an excuse to talk or write sloppily, but spending lots of time talking about things you already know wastes time and tends to move focus away from the systematic errors.

The art of being corrected

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Very few people can receive criticism for something they do with a perfectly open mind and with a positive attitude. In fact, I would go as far as saying that being able to do that is an art. Being corrected or receiving criticism in various ways is a natural part of learning a language and something you should welcome with open arms, even if it takes courage and practice to do so. Making mistakes is an essential part of learning, but we need other people to help us maximise the benefits of making mistakes.

Sadly, because of the fact that most people can’t take criticism very well, even teachers sometimes hesitate to correct their students. Why? Because they know that some students don’t like being corrected! This sounds silly, but I’ve heard this from half a dozen teachers at least (the solution to this is to take responsibility yourself, even if you’re enrolled in a language program).

To master the fine art of being corrected, you need to follow three principles:

  1. Understand the problem and be clear about what the correct answer is
  2. Encourage the person who corrected you so that he or she will do it again
  3. Don’t make a fuss!

These principles seem simple enough, but for most people, they are hard to follow. If you can take criticism in front of the whole class without feeling the least bit defensive, congratulations, I respect you deeply and you have nothing further to gain from this article. For us mere mortals, there are a few things to discuss, however.

Lower your defences, expose your heart

When someone says that I’m doing something wrong, my first reaction is to defend myself, I feel bad about having said something wrong, I feel that I should have been able to do it better, I might even feel annoyed that someone has corrected me. This is human and I’m sure most people feel this to a certain degree. This is really bad, don’t do it!

Rule number one: Whatever you do, don’t start explaining yourself or defend yourself, just listen!

The first thing you can do to lower your defences is to adopt a curious attitude. Your first goal is to figure out what’s wrong and what you can do about it. Some people just nod and try to leave the embarrassing situation as quickly as possible. You should stay there long enough to figure out what happened, provided the situation allows it. Slow down, ask questions, be sure you know what the problem is and that you understand the solution to it.

It’s essential that you repeat whatever you just said incorrectly, but now using what you have learnt to make it correct. Don’t just nod and think that you’ve understood, actually say it again and make sure you’re doing it right. If you’ve used the wrong word order, recreate the sentence again and get it right this time. If you feel you can do it without overtaxing the other person’s patience, you might even try another example based on the same principle. Still though, be careful, your native friends aren’t walking dictionaries or (most of the time) teachers. If you’re worried about this, starting a language exchange might be a good idea.

Someone has just done you a favour and deserves a reward

Since you’ve only focused on understanding the correction, you haven’t had much time to feel hurt. This is good, but it’s not enough. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, making mistakes is very important to make progress and you want to subtly encourage people in your surrounding to correct you as much as you can. Let’s consider two examples to make this point obvious.

First, consider a situation where you speak English with a foreigner in your country and this person makes a mistake. Politely, you explain how it should be said, whereupon the foreigner looks really embarrassed, mutters something and then changes subject. Second, imagine the same foreigner in the same situation giving you a big smile, repeating what you just said, thanks you and continues with the discussion. Which version of the foreigner are you most likely to help again?

I think the most important way to encourage this is by having a positive attitude and show that you’re interested in what the other person is saying. If you adopt the curious attitude I’ve discussed above, you should be at least half way. However, you also need to do this with a positive air; try adding a smile, it usually works (smilies do the trick if you use social media to learn Chinese). If you can convince people (including yourself!) that you like being corrected, they will continue to do so, otherwise they will quickly stop. This might include even your teacher!

Don’t overdo it

As I have discussed previously in other articles, it’s important to understand that even if studying Chinese might be all you do at the moment, that’s not true for your Chinese-speaking friends. They aren’t necessarily teachers and they aren’t likely to stick around for long if you just view them as correction machines. Only ask for direct and active help if you feel the other person is interested in helping you.There are many ways of solving your language problems other than asking your friends (read my article about language question triage). It’s worth far more to have access to native speakers in general than to be correct a few times here and there. If you focus too much on language, people will probably think you’re boring and stop inviting you to parties.

Mental models and making mistakes

Everybody knows that making mistakes is part of learning and that you have to live with it. Some of you might even have heard that mistakes are good, as long as they are treated correctly. Very few, however, live according to this maxim. In this post I will talk about making mistakes and that a healthy attitude towards mistakes is of great importance when trying to learn Chinese.

Learning from your mistakes is more than a cliche

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” – Michael Jordan

The reason Michael Jordan succeeded isn’t because he lost lots of games and missed lots of shots. What he’s saying is that when he misses and when he loses, he tries to learn something from it and become a better baller. If you’re afraid of missing or losing, you will never win. This is what we need to understand if we want to master Chinese.

Modelling a language in your brain

When you learn Chinese, what you do is taking all the information you have and trying to create a model in your head. This is usually not a conscious process, but the model is there nevertheless. When you use Chinese, you use the model you have to produce something which, according to what you know, should be correct Chinese. If what you say then turns out to be wrong, it means that there is something wrong with your model (of course, sometimes you make mistakes you know yourself are mistakes, but that’s not the issue here).

Let’s take a simple example. When a beginner learns that 可以 means “can”, he creates a model that maps this new word with its English equivalent. However, this is problematic, because Chinese and English don’t correspond very well with each other and can’t be mapped like that. When the student tries this new word on a Chinese-speaking friend and says “我可以说中文”, he will find out that this is wrong, because 可以 means “can” in the sense of “is allowed to” or that something “is okay”. Thus, the above sentence might be used to describe that the student is allowed to speak Chinese, but that’s a weird sentence indeed. When somebody explains this to the beginner, he can then update his model so that it’s now closer to reality.

He has learnt something. Remodelling equals learning.

Different ways of remodelling

There are two general ways of updating your mental model: passive and active. Either you can hear or read something which doesn’t fit with your model or someone can correct something you produce, which is based on your model. Since this post is about making mistakes, it should by now be clear why making mistakes is so important. If you have the choice of making an honest mistake or not, what would you rather choose?

The answer should be that you want to make the mistake, because whether or not you make it, your original model is still wrong, the only real difference is that if you make the mistake, you will become aware that the model is wrong and you can fix it. Not making the mistake is like sticking your head in the sand and pretending that the problem isn’t there.

The social and psychological aspects of mistakes

Our modern society is heavily focused on promoting success and shunning failure. Admittedly, no one likes making a mistake, but if you practice, you can turn mistakes into friends (read more about attitude in general). When someone points out that you’ve made a mistake, make sure you understand what it is and be happy that you’ve learnt something. If you feel irritated, ask yourself if you would rather know about the holes in your roof now or when the typhoon arrives. I have written much more about being corrected, keep reading: The art of being corrected.