Mistakes. Love 'em or hate 'em, if you're learning a foreign language, you're bound to make them. And when you make them, you're bound to hear about them! That's right, I'm talking about FEEDBACK.
Some people HATE getting feedback, and say that it's humiliating and demotivating. Others LOVE it, claiming that getting lots of feedback is the only way to grow.
But which is it, really? Is feedback helpful? Or hurtful? In this article I've got some powerful tips that will help you handle feedback like a pro!
The 3 Key Factors of Language Feedback
When talking about getting feedback in language learning, there are generally two schools of thought:
Either feedback hurts, or feedback helps.
Let's start with the first idea: that "feedback hurts".
When people say that "feedback hurts", they're usually describing scenarios that include:
- Taking a language test, and having your mistakes circled in red ink.
- Blanking in the middle of a conversation because you suddenly forgot a word.
- Learning for years, only to travel abroad and find out that no one can understand you and you can’t understand no one.
Conversely, when people say that "feedback helps", they typically mention situations like:
- Taking a language test, and finding out that you performed better than you did on your last one.
- Talking to a native speaker (affiliate), and realizing that you can actually hold a decent conversation.
- Realizing that no matter how long you learn, you'll always be able to find ways to improve.
People in the "feedback hurts" category often find that getting corrected is deeply humiliating, and something to be avoided at all costs. People in the "feedback helps" category see getting corrected as an inevitable (but ultimately positive) part of the process that can help direct your attention towards areas of improvement.
But which of these camps is right? As a language learner, should you run from feedback or embrace it?
Truth be told, I believe the answer is actually somewhere in between. You should avoid corrections in some situations, and actively seek them out in others.
But how can we know when to do which? How can we determine when feedback is useFUL, and when it is useLESS?
In all my years of language learning, I've gotten thousands, if not tens of thousands of corrections. Getting these corrections has made me feel great, terrible, and everything in between.
All this experience has helped me understand that the utility of language feedback is dependent on 3 key factors:
These factors include:
- Your overall skill level in your target language
- How you feel about feedback
- How the feedback is delivered
Let me explain each of these factors in detail, so that you can learn to absorb only the most useful forms of feedback, and ignore the rest.
It goes without saying that there's not a language learner in this world who speaks his or her target language perfectly, without making any mistakes. That being said, everyone is liable to receive feedback, no matter if you're an absolute beginner or the most advanced near-native on the planet.
So who, then, is feedback most useful for?
Since beginners make lots of mistakes, and advanced speakers make less, you might assume that feedback is most useful for beginners, who "need it" most of all.
But I actually believe the opposite: feedback is most useful for intermediate and advanced speakers, and least useful for beginners.
Why is this?
Because when you start learning a language from scratch, there's simply too many things to pay attention to. Since you know very little of the language, feedback that addresses all (or even most) of your shortcomings would be absolutely overwhelming—like drinking from a firehose!
As you progress towards the intermediate level and beyond, you'll get to a point where you do most things decently well, meaning there's actually a lot fewer things you could be corrected on, at least compared to when you began.
At this stage, your brain is much better equipped to handle the realities of receiving feedback and using that feedback to improve your language skills. Since a certain amount of the language has already become "automatic" for you, you have the mental bandwidth to pay attention to your weak points and actually fix them. A beginner, to whom nearly everything is brand new, does not have this luxury. So giving feedback to a beginner is much less likely to be useful.
Let me give you an example of this from my own life:
Recently, I took a trip to the Italian city of Siena with Max, a German friend of mine. Throughout the trip, we alternated between speaking German and Italian, so that we could both practice our skills.
Despite the fact that German is one of my strongest languages, I asked Max to share every single mistake that he noticed in my speech. It wasn't always easy to get corrected in this manner, but I made sure to take lots of notes. Why? Because I know that my German is otherwise good enough that I can spend my time and mental energy focusing on these mistakes, and gradually eliminating them from my speech.
Let's move on to the next major factor that determines whether or not corrections are useful.
How You Feel About Feedback
In many ways, feedback is an inescapable part of life. Even outside of languages, most of us have spent years in school getting all different kinds of feedback: grades on exams, academic report cards, and all sorts of reactions from our friends, families, and even complete strangers!
These experiences are often uncomfortable, or even downright negative. No one likes to fail an exam, or be told that they're not quite as good at something as they would like to be.
This, of course, happens in language learning, too. When we make mistakes with our language use, we risk being judged, misunderstood, or even laughed at! And that's not fun for anyone.
But it would be unfair to paint feedback as a wholly negative experience. For example, I'm sure you've had many experiences in your life where feedback helped you overcome a stubborn obstacle, or achieve something that you previously thought impossible.
So even though you've likely experienced times where feedback was both welcome and unwelcome, you've likely developed a habit of expecting one or the other type in your mind: you automatically assume that correction will help you, or that it will hurt you, regardless of the actual situation.
Over time, these assumptions become a general feeling: you either like getting corrected, or you hate it. They make you feel great, or make you feel dumb, with little in-between.
If you're in the latter category, where having someone correct you makes you feel bad, then most feedback isn't going to be of much use to you. Even if the person correcting you is well-intentioned, the reality of having your performance scrutinized might throw you off, and impact your will to keep learning.
On the other hand, if you're in the habit of seeing all (or most) feedback as constructive and useful, then that's exactly what it will be! In this way, your feelings about getting corrected become a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy—you get the exact amount of value from them that you expect to.
All that being said, I think it's much better to have an open mind towards feedback, rather than a closed one. But how can you cultivate such an open perspective, if you don't have it right now?
Here are a few tips:
- Accept that all language learners make mistakes, even the most skilled of us!
- Challenge yourself to remain positive and upbeat, even as you make mistakes and get corrected for it. If you're able to quickly recover after a misstep, you'll find that people often forget you made the mistake at all!
- Realize that corrections are often the clearest pathway to improve: after all, if you don't know what you're doing wrong, you'll never be able to fix it!
Now, let's move on to the last factor that influences the quality of feedback!
How Feedback is Delivered
Let's imagine for a moment that you're learning Russian (affiliate). You're chatting with a Russian speaker for the first time, and in the middle of the conversation, you say the Russian equivalent of "I want to go school", which is a common mistake English speakers make when learning the language.
Almost instantly, the person you were speaking to interrupts you to point out that you said something wrong, almost as if it didn't matter what you were trying to communicate, but only the way in which you communicated it. You get the impression that this person only wants to speak with foreigners who get their language right, and that's it.
Now let's rewind back to the moment you made your mistake, and try to picture a different situation unfolding: the Russian speaker listens attentively and happily until you're done speaking, and then says something to the effect of:
"I'm currently going to school, too! Oh, by the way, you made a little mistake there: it should be "I want to go to school" rather than "I want to go school"! It's not a big deal, though, you're doing great!
Which of these situations sounds more pleasant to you?
The latter, of course! Even though you received a correction in both situations, the positive delivery of the feedback in the second scenario made the whole experience more useful to you as a learner.
In the earlier scenario, the Russian speaker was rude, and impatient. Even though a mistake like "I want to go school" is perfectly understandable in Russian, this individual was more worried about catching your mistake than actually participating in the conversation.
And that's why my final factor of feedback quality is about delivery. Well-delivered feedback is almost always useful, while poorly-delivered feedback should always be ignored, even if the correction is essentially the same.
If someone is being too harsh, too nitpicky, or even too enthusiastic about pointing out your mistakes, they're forgetting an essential fact: that language is about communication, and meaning can often be communicated effectively even in the presence of mistakes. Native speakers are capable of understanding quite a bit without judging every little aspect of your language use.
And that brings me to my last point: the most useful feedback of all is the feedback that you ASK for.
If someone is giving you lots of unsolicited feedback, or giving you feedback at inopportune times, then those corrections are much less helpful than they otherwise would be.
If you want help from other people on your language skills, be sure to ask for it, and then lay out clear guidelines for the kind of help you're looking for. The best feedback is feedback that is positive, appropriate, and well-timed, so make sure to let the native speakers you interact with know what kinds of corrections you want, and when you want them.
Alright! That's it for our discussion of feedback, at least for now. Before we go, let's review what we talked about:
Most people feel either positively or negatively about getting corrected when using their target languages. Despite this, we can't really say that feedback is either "good" or "bad".
Instead, I happen to believe that the quality of feedback is dependent on a number of factors that have to do with both the learner and the person giving the feedback.
These factors are:
- Your skill level in your target language
- The way you feel about feedback
- How the feedback is delivered.
In a nutshell, my advice is this: if you're too new at your target language, or too anxious about getting corrections, then most feedback will be useless for you. Conversely, if you're more advanced, and actually feel like corrections will help you, then you should get as much as you can. But no matter which side you're on, you shouldn't waste your time paying attention to people who are too harsh or too frequent with their corrections, especially if you didn't ask for them. It's just not worth it.
That's all for now! Happy language learning!