Failure and mistakes are natural parts of language learning, but the majority of people are terrible at learning from these failures. Today, I’m going to explain why we are bad a learning from past mistakes and give you a few strategies that might help you improve!
- Proficiency (n) – a high level of skill or expertise in a particular subject or activity.
- The job ad said they wanted proficiency in at least two languages.
- To devalue (v) – to diminish or reduce the importance, worth, or quality of something.
- I don’t want to devalue his achievement, but he managed to get a promotion without working very hard.
- Constructively (adv) – describes doing something in a positive, helpful, or productive manner.
- We ought to deal constructively with the problems.
- Motivation (n) – the inner drive or desire to achieve or accomplish something.
- I don’t have the motivation to go running today.
- To procrastinate (v) – To delay or postpone doing something, often out of intentional avoidance.
- School children who are asked to give advice to younger students about studying tend to procrastinate less.
- To reflect (v) – To think deeply or carefully about something, often in order to gain insight or learn from past experiences.
- I need time to reflect on what you said.
- Determined (adj) – Having a strong resolve or firmness of purpose; being committed and persistent.
- He was determined to become a professional boxer
- Embarrassment (n) – a feeling of self-consciousness, shame, or awkwardness.
- I felt great embarrassment after forgetting my words during my speech
We are all language learners here. All of you listening are trying to perfect, practice, and maintain your English skills and abilities. And I am a long-term Japanese learner (and one time learner of Chinese, Spanish, French, and even German).
We are all very different people: we come from different countries, different ages, speak different native languages, have different religions or philosophies, and different occupations. Yet, there is one things that we all share in common: failure.
My Experiences with Failure
Failure is a major part of learning a language. It is almost impossible to learn without making mistakes, and while you are studying English, I know you all make mistakes.
How do I know this? Because I am learning a language just like you all. I’m writing this episode while staying in the Japanese countryside. I speak Japanese for hours every single day… and I think I make mistakes every few seconds while speaking.
And there have been some big failures in my language learning journey. Last year I failed my Japanese proficiency exam. I was hoping to pass Level 2 (the second highest level) but just missed out on the necessary score in the vocabulary section of the exam. I failed because I didn’t study hard enough.
Back in 2018 I entered a Japanese speech contest while I was working as a teacher. The previous year I had won the upper-beginner contest and I was confident that in 2018 I could enter the upper-intermediate contest and win. I wrote a good speech, practiced with the help of my Japanese tutor, and thought I was prepared. Then… as I stood on the stage in front of everyone… I forgot all of my words. I failed.
I applied for a job in Japan last year – it was to work as the international coordinator for a small city (where my partner comes from). I was rejected, partly because my Japanese wasn’t strong enough. And every day I experience small failures – making mistakes in my language, not understanding the menu properly in a restaurant, or my conversation partner not being able to understand what I’m saying.
Failure is part of learning. But this isn’t a bad thing. Failure is an opportunity – we can’t succeed without failing first.
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We Are Bad at Learning from Failure
This idea (that failure is a good thing) is incredibly popular right now. Online motivational speakers continually tell us that we should celebrate failure. And I have repeatedly talked about how we should all learn from our mistakes.
The truth, however, is that this is a really difficult thing to do. I can tell you all to learn from your mistakes, but research suggests you won’t. You will make a mistake, or experience failure, and not learn anything from the experience. In fact, the majority of people struggle to deal with failure constructively.
Despite all of the people telling us to learn from our mistakes, we don’t. There is a famous quote from Samuel Beckett: “Fail again. Fail better.” This isn’t the case for most people. We tend to keep failing in the same way and repeating our mistakes.
I am definitely an example of this. Last summer I failed my Japanese exam because I didn’t study vocabulary enough. Since then, I have done basically 0 vocabulary study, even though I intend to take the exam again this year. I haven’t learned from my mistakes… I’m repeating them.
And I’m sure you all do this same. We fail and fail again. We repeat our mistakes. We don’t learn from our failures, even if we think we do.
What we all need to do is learn “how to learn from failure.” This is what I plan to help with in the rest of this episode. First, I’ll talk about why we are bad at failing. And then I will try to offer some suggestions on how we can actually “learn from our mistakes”.
Why Are We Bad at Failing?
Why are we bad at learning from failure and mistakes? If we understand this, perhaps we can recognise some of these same features in our own behaviour. And once we recognise these behaviours, we can start to change and actually learn!
Psychological research suggests there are two common responses to failure displayed by humans. These are known as the “Sour-Grape Effect” and the “Ostrich Effect.”
The phrase “sour grapes” refers to the situation when someone says something is not good after they couldn’t get it. It comes from a story by Aesop called “The Fox and the Grapes.” In the story, a fox tries many times to reach grapes hanging from a vine but fails. Feeling frustrated, the fox decides that the grapes are probably sour and not worth having.
In a figurative sense, “sour grapes” describes when someone belittles or criticizes something they wanted but couldn’t have, in order to feel better about themselves. It’s like a defence mechanism to deal with their disappointment or jealousy.
“Sour grapes” is a way to talk about situations where someone downplays the value or desirability of something they couldn’t obtain, as a way to protect their ego or emotions. It shows that they feel bitter or unhappy about not getting what they wanted.
So, what is the “sour-grape effect”?
It refers to the fact that when we fail at a task, we tend to devalue that task in our minds. When I failed my Japanese proficiency test last year, I immediately told everyone who asked that I was only taking it for practice and the result wasn’t too important to me. However, if I had succeeded in that task… I would certainly have been really happy and think the result was important.
This effect was discovered by Norwegian professor Hallgeir Sjåstad who wanted to understand why people give up on their dreams. He noticed that people often give up on a task or ambition after experiencing failure, even if they could succeed with a little more effort or practice.
In his experiments, he discovered that people who fail at a task and receive negative feedback underestimate the importance of their future performance on their happiness.
Let me try to explain with an example. The professor discovered that reminding a student with a low-grade average that they were currently below average made them devalue the benefits of graduating with a high grade. You see this all the time – people who don’t do particularly well at university or school constantly devalue the benefits of university or school. And when I worked as a teacher, students who received a low English grade would say they no longer care about English.
This can have serious impacts on our motivation. One example is if you fail in a job interview for the job of your dreams, you may decide to never work in that industry again. I did this – back in 2015 I failed in the application process to become a diplomat (my dream job since I was 16 or 17) and decided to never apply again.
Rather than learning from our mistakes and trying again… too often we give up or convince ourselves that we never really wanted to do that thing.
The Ostrich Effect
The ostrich effect references the popular myth that ostriches (the giant African birds) stick their heads in the sand when scared or upset. There is also the idiom “bury your head in the sand” which means to ignore a problem or an unpleasant situation and hope that it will disappear.
And in the context of failure, the ostrich effect means ignoring your failure and concentrating on something new, unrelated, or different. Doing this means you don’t have to process the news of your failure or mistakes.
For example, it has been noted that people with investments check the status of their investments more often when they are growing… and less often when they are falling. They just ignore the bad news. I do the same with podcast statistics – if the number of listeners are higher than usual I will be checking every few minutes… if they are lower than usual I will not check at all.
The ostrich effect suggests that we tend to overlook bad news, failure, and mistakes. And this means we do not learn from our own failures and mistakes. There was a famous experiment about this called the “Facing Failure game.”
This experiment tested people’s ability to guess the meaning of symbols. They were then told if they were right or wrong, and given feedback on their mistakes. After this, they were given another go to remember the answers.
And something was discovered. Most people did not learn from their mistakes. Even though they were told what they got wrong… they didn’t learn. They repeated their mistakes.
In an extension of the experiment, they then repeated the experiment but showed people someone else’s results and told them what was right or wrong in someone else’s results. What happened? They remembered them much better.
It suggests that when people are told they did something wrong, they struggled to process the information and improve. But if they are told someone else’s mistakes… they did learn. The embarrassment and hurt feelings of being wrong stopped people’s ability to learn.
And I’ve noticed this a lot as a language teacher. If you offer a correction or tell someone they are doing something wrong, they tend to not improve or make changes.
How can you learn from failure?
Ok… it turns out that we are all not very good at learning from failure. Even though we know that feedback should be important to us, and that making mistakes is an essential part of learning (especially for English learners), we struggle to deal constructively with failure.
We will either change our expectations and lose motivation or just completely ignore our mistakes and therefore not learn anything. How can we change this? How can we begin to actually learn from failure?
One strategy is known as “self-distancing.” We saw in the “ostrich-effect” that we tend to hide from bad news, failures, and mistakes. This is because it is embarrassing to fail, and negative feedback hurts our feelings.
When we think about ourselves failing, we struggle to deal with that failure. So a good solution is to try and distance yourself from failure. For example, instead of thinking “why did I fail this test?”, you could try asking “why did Tom fail that test?”
The psychologist Ethan Kross has discovered this kind of self-distancing can reduce our negative reactions to failure. It becomes easier to be objective and think about the reasons for the mistakes made. We can analyse why we failed without becoming disappointed or annoyed by it.
Alternatively, one of my favourite approaches is “offering advice”. I found out early on in my studying and learning journey that offering advice or helping other people with their work or study is an amazing way to realise your own mistakes and improve.
While failures hurt our feelings, helping othesr makes use feel great. In this way, we can balance our emotions and avoid “sour-grapes” or acting like “an ostrich.” You are forced to deal with failure when giving advice, but we don’t have to be embarrassed.
I use this approach all the time. In fact, this podcast is basically a version of this. I give you guys advice about motivation, procrastination, study tips, and more… and while I’m doing this I’m learning from my own past mistakes and making better habits.
Studies have shown that people trying to lose weight feel much more motivated when they write out tips and advice to other people trying to lose weight. And that school children who are asked to give advice to younger students about studying tend to procrastinate less and complete more homework.
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As English learners, there are some key takeaways we can draw from the experiences shared in this text:
- Embrace failure as part of the learning process: Making mistakes is an inevitable part of learning any language, including English. Instead of fearing failure, view it as an opportunity for growth and improvement. Remember that even experienced language learners make mistakes.
- Learn from your mistakes: Although it may be challenging, strive to learn from your mistakes rather than repeating them. Reflect on what went wrong, identify areas for improvement, and take proactive steps to address them.
- Avoid the “sour-grape effect”: When faced with failure, it’s common to downplay the significance of the task or devalue its importance. Resist the temptation to dismiss the importance of what you were trying to achieve just because you didn’t succeed. Recognize the value in your goals and remain determined to achieve them.
- Overcome the “ostrich effect”: Don’t bury your head in the sand when faced with failure or mistakes. Instead of ignoring them, confront them head-on. Acknowledge your failures, analyse the reasons behind them, and seek ways to improve. Remember that facing your mistakes is essential for growth.
- Practice self-distancing: When reflecting on your failures, try to distance yourself emotionally from the situation. Instead of dwelling on your own mistakes, imagine them happening to someone else and analyse the reasons objectively. This approach can help you gain a clearer perspective and find effective solutions.
- Offer advice and help others: Sharing your knowledge and helping fellow English learners can be a powerful tool for self-improvement. By offering advice and guidance, you reinforce your own understanding and identify areas where you can improve. Teaching others also boosts your motivation and confidence.
By applying these lessons and strategies to your English learning journey, you can overcome challenges, learn from your mistakes, and make significant progress in your language skills.
What do you think? Are you able to learn from your failures and mistake?