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Language mistakes can be embarrassing.
I remember when I first moved to Brazil and was still new to Portuguese. One of the first words I learned was pão which means “bread”.
In Portuguese, the “ão” makes a nasal sound that we don’t use a lot in English. The closest we get might be the “ng” sound in “angry”. I could make the sound, but because I wasn’t used to it, I would often forget to make it when I was speaking normally.
I used to just drop that part of the word.
Unfortunately, without the nasal sound, pão sounds exactly like pau, which is a slang term for male genitalia. I realised several weeks into my time in Brazil that every time I had gone to a bakery for bread, I had mistakenly asked the poor attendant if I could have a penis.
Not all language errors are as embarrassing as that one. But still, most of us just generally want to make sure that we don’t sound stupid when we’re speaking.
Recognising our own mistakes is one of the hardest things about independent language learning. It’s also one of the main reasons that people hire a teacher or go to English class: they want real-time feedback on their mistakes.
In this article, I want to try to give you some advice for how you can get better at noticing your own mistakes when you’re speaking or writing and then get better at fixing them yourself.
Re-thinking English “mistakes”
First, though, I want to clarify how I think about language mistakes.
Mistakes are essential for learning
My own particular view, which I have expressed several times on this blog, is that mistakes are essential for learning. Without mistakes, I actually think it’s not possible to really improve.
So while I certainly advocate thinking about your errors and using them as a basis for learning, I don’t advocate that you try to avoid all mistakes.
I encourage you to embrace them. See them as part of the process. Even when they’re embarrassing.
The biggest mistakes in language learning aren’t language mistakes
There are some mistakes that you should work hard to avoid, but these are about how you learn.
We’ve detailed these most common mistakes people make when learning English elsewhere, but here’s the quick list:
- Not having a plan for learning English
- Avoiding conversations in English
- Choosing boring activities
- Relying too much on a teacher
- Not making enough time for your learning
These are the worst mistakes you can make as an English learner. Notice that making grammar mistakes and poor pronunciation are not on the list.
Teachers aren’t perfect error correctors
I also want to point out that having a teacher or language partner is not a sure-fire way to learn what errors you make.
Some teachers miss mistakes.
Some teachers point out so many mistakes that it stops you from being able to actually speak.
Some teachers say something is a mistake when it’s actually not—it’s just different from how they would speak.
I remember listening to one English podcast in which a man from the United States was speaking in English with a Brazilian woman.
There was a moment where he corrected her pronunciation on something that I thought was exactly right. He corrected her about 5 times before giving up. Neither she nor I could hear how what she was saying was different from what he was saying.
Teachers aren’t perfect, even if they’re native speakers. Take their advice with a pinch of salt.
Don’t be too concerned with language errors
All that is to say, try not to be overly focused on your errors.
As an English teacher, I often see students obsess about what the “right” way to say something is or needing their grammar to be perfect. Sometimes being too focused on being “right” can hold people back from learning.
Of course, as I made clear in the introduction, I also know what it’s like to feel embarrassed because of your mistakes.
So strike a balance.
Yes, aim to improve and to, eventually, speak without errors. But don’t be obsessed with errors, either. And certainly, don’t let the fear of making mistakes keep you from writing or speaking.
With that, here’s my advice for recognising your English mistakes.
Seeing mistakes in your writing
It’s probably easiest to see mistakes in your writing. Here are some tips and tricks to help you do that.
1. Read your work out loud
This is one trick that I use in my own writing. Reading what you wrote out loud helps you find places where your language sounds funny or awkward.
If it sounds awkward, there’s probably a mistake in there—or at least an opportunity for improvement.
2. Use a grammar checker
This is another trick that I use myself—I always put my work through a grammar checker.
My favourite is Grammarly, but there are others. It’s not perfect, but it definitely helps me find the little typos and mistakes that I might have missed.
For example, it helped me catch the following error that I had in an earlier draft of this article:
Another useful app is called Hemingway. It focuses more on style. It helps give suggestions about parts of your writing that might be too complex or where you could simplify your language.
Neither of these tools is perfect, but they may help you recognise some of your errors.
3. Find a feedback community
One of the best ways to improve your writing is to get feedback from others.
Other language learners are a good place to start if you’re looking for feedback. I bet the friendly people in the Leonardo English community would be happy to take a look at your writing to help you identify mistakes.
Other possible communities for writing feedback include:
4. Online writing feedback platforms
There are now some services that try to help English learners write better.
One is Write and Improve. It’s free, and it gives you prompts and short exercises where you can practise writing. It not only helps you see your mistakes, but it also gives you a score. It could be especially helpful for you if you are studying for an English exam like the IELTS.
Again, though, remember that it’s not perfect.
I tried it out and wrote a couple of paragraphs responding to a prompt. I was assigned a score of 4 out of 5 and an English level of A2. Yikes! (Don’t tell my university—they’ll take away my degree.)
I recommend not being too concerned about your writing being “perfect” or worrying about the score you get. Just use it for suggestions for improvement.
5. Google something if you’re not sure
If there's a particular sentence construction you aren't sure about, Google it in inverted commas.
For example, if you can’t remember whether it is “he caught” or “he catched”, type the word in inverted commas “he catched”, and see what the results are.
If there are no results, it's probably incorrect.
See the other suggested answers to find some ideas for what you could say instead.
Recognising mistakes in your speaking
It’s a bit harder to notice the mistakes you make when you’re speaking, but you can do it with practice. Here are some suggestions for getting better at that.
6. Don’t speak too quickly
We tend to make more mistakes when we talk fast.
When we’re in a real conversation, we usually focus on speaking fluently. We try to speak without long pauses or too many stops and starts.
But when we want to speak accurately, we need to slow down. Take your time when you’re speaking to notice your mistakes before you make them.
7. Record yourself
Recording yourself speaking is one of the best speaking activities you can do. Not only is it an effective way to measure your progress in English, but it also makes it easy to hear the mistakes you make when you talk.
This is a good one for spotting grammar mistakes.
You can also use it to compare your pronunciation to that of a native speaker.
For example, you could record yourself reading the transcript for one of the English Learning for Curious Minds podcast episodes. Then you could listen to the host, Alastair, and compare your recording to him.
You’ll be able to hear where his pronunciation is different from yours.
8. Use a pronunciation app
Some online platforms, like Google Translate, give you the pronunciation of words.
Others will even listen to you and tell you when your pronunciation is good and when it’s not.
Speech Ace is one of those. It gives you a word or a sentence. Then it will judge how close your pronunciation is to their database.
Don’t use it to try to achieve “perfect” pronunciation (there’s no such thing). But it could be helpful for getting close to a British or American accent.
9. Hire an English teacher
Online tools will almost always be imperfect. At the moment there are few substitutes for a sympathetic native speaker.
I’ve also said that English teachers themselves aren’t perfect. But they can be useful to help you notice your speaking errors. They’re one option.
You can easily find an English teacher or tutor on platforms like:
An English conversation partner can also provide lots of the same benefits, although they may not be able to teach you grammar as well as a trained English teacher can.
If you are thinking of finding an English teacher online, we've written some extensive guides on the major websites:
You can fix your errors on your own
Language schools will tell you that you need to be in a school or have a teacher to progress in English. There’s this idea that you need to have an English expert to guide you.
You don’t need a teacher. You can be your own guide as you explore the wonderful world of English.
Sure, occasionally using a teacher may be helpful. I definitely recommend finding a conversation partner.
But remember that you can make excellent progress as an independent learner.
I’m still not perfect in Portuguese, but I’ve improved a tonne over time.
These days, I’m taking a university course in data science entirely in Portuguese and can follow along. I’ve managed to create deep friendships entirely in that language. And I almost never embarrass myself when I ask for bread.
We get better, slowly, with lots of practice. And as we do, we make fewer mistakes.
There are no shortcuts.