Freedom in Language Learning

What is freedom? Where does it come from?

Freedom is the same as love. When we love something we can’t bear to see it tempered.

A free person chooses who to love, what to wear, and where to live. A free person has the right to do whatever they want, to create their own set of rules for life. To say, think, and act without limits.

But the concept of freedom is not that simple. There are limits to our freedoms. We are not allowed to drive too fast, damage other people’s property, or kill people. And as a society, we accept these limits to our freedoms, because we have decided they are necessary, and good.

But how did we decide that? How do we know what is good and bad? This question is something that philosophy has asked for thousands of years.

But we can all agree on one thing: mistakes are bad. Our mistakes are punished from the moment we are able to make them. Mistakes keep us up at night. Mistakes we made in high school make our faces flush red when we think of them. Mistakes are the red crosses on exams. Mistakes cost us opportunities, and jobs, and why, why do we always keep making the same mistakes?

But what if mistakes are connected to freedom? Gandhi said:

“Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.”
― Mahatma Gandhi

But I would go a step further and say that mistakes are a necessary part of freedom. In fact, they are a sign that freedom is functioning, and healthy. But why?

Because mistakes are always a result of choices. You can only make mistakes if you have the freedom to choose poorly. A person who doesn’t make mistakes is a person who makes no choices. That person is not free.

Now, all of this might seem completely unrelated to language learning, but it’s not. So many students are not free, prisoners in their own minds, enslaved by their education.

How many times have you rejected your freedom and avoided a conversation, or not put your hand up, or not shared your idea because you were worried about making a mistake?

The mistake of not having the right answer, or the right accent, or the right level, or the right passport, or the right colour skin.

And I understand. As adults we have reached a point in our lives where we are afraid of making mistakes. We avoid them and we choose to do things that we know we can succeed at.

But every time you avoid making a mistake, you avoid learning. Because every good teacher knows and the research shows that:

“All learning occurs by mistakes.”

Getting fluent in English will require you to make millions of mistakes, so the level of your English directly reflects how many you have made. If someone has a higher level of English than you, it’s because they made more mistakes, and you haven’t experienced all of the painful learning experiences that they have.

So making NEWER and BIGGER mistakes, more often, is a sign that you’re learning.

Now I want to make something clear here: I’m not saying that you should ignore your mistakes. Quite the opposite. The research shows that being aware of your mistakes is vital to avoid repeating them in the future, but you have to give your attention and energy to the right kinds of mistakes.

As a teacher I encounter hundreds of mistakes every day, but I hardly correct any of them. I know from bitter experience that if I corrected every single mistake, I would kill the motivation, and fluency, of my students.

Now, to help you think differently about mistakes I want to introduce you to the mistakes pyramid.

At the top of the pyramid we have the mistakes that are the least common, but the most serious: mistakes that cause offence.

Under that we have another type of mistake: mistakes that cause understanding problems.

And finally we have the most common type of mistake: the type that causes no problems with communication. These are the mistakes that you should focus on the least. They don’t affect communication, and studies have shown that the people you’re communicating with won’t even notice them, because people’s brains only care about meaning.

But unfortunately they are the mistakes that are the focus of every bad grammar book, every bad exam, and every bad YouTube lesson, and they also invade and imprison the minds of many learners.

Bad English teaching tells you that there is only one right way to express something. It tells you that if you follow the rules, you won’t make mistakes. It tells you to stop making choices.

It tells you to give up your freedom.

But the characteristic of language that makes it so special is that it is infinite. It is infinite because it is made up of pieces that we combine to express every thought, idea, and feeling. It is infinite because we are free to combine those pieces as we like. And that makes language a true democracy.

So next time you want to say “I can’t” because you are worried about making mistakes, just remember that those words mean you have the freedom to make mistakes, and that freedom is incredibly precious, and you have a duty to exercise that freedom because it was earned by the blood, sweat, and tears of your ancestors. You should never take it for granted, or give it up.

I want to finish this post by telling you an ancient story.

(For an audio version of the story, watch this video, starting at 09:00)

Once there was a woman who collected water from the river every day using two large jugs.

One of the jugs had a crack in it, while the other jug was perfect. The perfect jug was always full of water at the end of the long walk from the river to the house, but the cracked jug arrived only half full.

This continued every day, with the woman carrying only one and a half jugs full of water to the house.

The perfect jug was proud of itself, perfect for the task for which it was made. But the cracked jug was ashamed of its own imperfection, and miserable that it was able to accomplish only half of what it had been made to do.

One day the cracked jug spoke to the woman: “I am ashamed of myself, and I want to apologise to you.”

Why?” asked the woman. “What are you ashamed of?”

“For all these years, I have only been able to deliver half of my potential because of this crack in my side. Because of my imperfections, you do all of the work, and you don’t get full value from your efforts.”

The woman smiled, and she said, “Next time we walk to the house, I want you to notice the beautiful flowers on your side of the path.”

Next time they went up the hill, the cracked jug saw the sun warming the wild flowers on its side of the path, and realised that it was responsible for watering those beautiful flowers every day.

Your English might not be perfect, but just think about the beauty you are going to bring to the world with your imperfections.

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