How Important Is Speaking Correctly (Foreign Language)?

When you start learning a new language and reading all the motivation and instructional blogs, you find that there are a lot of strong opinions on whether or not it is important to speak correctly. Today, hopefully, I can help you cut through the dogma and the loud voices to figure out the answer for yourself.

Getting started

In the early stages of learning a language, the most important activity is speaking: forcing recall from your brain, forming sounds and accents, creating thoughts. The biggest language learning progress is made during real use of the language.

So it's no surprise that a lot of people feel that it's not important to speak properly. You'll usually see this worded in more extremist ways, because people think it makes the case better: "it's okay to make a few mistakes", "you don't have to be perfect", "even natives make mistakes from time to time", etc.

When you're defending such an extremely isolated position, it's really hard to be wrong. But it's really unnecessary. The real benefit isn't to be "as error-prone as a native", right? The benefit is that allowing yourself to make mistakes gets you talking, which gets you learning, and that's a pretty good benefit.

Fluency and beyond

Later on in your language-learning progress, however, when you've established your fluency, people stop seeing you as someone who's trying really hard to learn the language, and they start accepting you as someone who speaks the language.

At that point, there is a mental shift. Instead of giving the benefit of the doubt, and patiently working with you to understand what you're saying, instead, they start just having conversations with you... you know, as an equal. But that's when your mistakes start to really show.

In spite of what people tell you, natives really don't make very many mistakes. They have occasional moments when their brain is going faster than their tongue (just like you have in your native language). They have expressions which are explicitly used in spite of being incorrect, such as slang expressions. But mistakes are actually very rare.

And what's more, when you make a simple mistake as a foreigner, you're usually saying something wrong that an average five-year-old always gets right. The effect is that whether you like it or not, whether it's conscious or not, whether people intend to or not, they're judging you by your speech.

Unlearn what is learned?

Here's where the dilemma comes. All those mistakes you allow yourself to make in the beginning form habits. Bad habits. Yes, no doubt they got you speaking, and learning, and did a lot of good. But now they are your enemy because you have to unlearn those terrible habits.

And what makes that task even harder is that once you reach fluency, your corrections are going to come much more rarely. People will overlook those mistakes as "cute" traits of a foreigner. "Oh I just love the way s/he talks!" So instead of correcting you, they're going to allow you to continue being wrong.

To quote Tolstoy, "Не бойся незнания, бойся ложного знания." Basically, "you shouldn't be afraid of not knowing something, you should be afraid of knowing it incorrectly."

What is your language goal?

The bottom line, then, is that whether or not you should worry about speaking correctly has a lot to do with what your intentions are with the language you are learning.

If your most important goal is to learn a language quickly, don't worry about mistakes. If you're just learning the language because you're traveling for business or pleasure, just speak and have fun. If you just want to enjoy television programs or popular songs from another language, who worry?

If your goal is to make friends and enjoy your short stay in a foreign place, by all means, take the quick gains that come from allowing yourself mistakes, because the advantages from speaking are more valuable.

However, if your language goals are more long-term, it's worth reconsidering that strategy. If you're dating (or marrying) a Spanish-speaking person, you should probably not get into the habit of sounding stupid if you want to be taken seriously. Or if you're thinking of moving to Germany, or Russia, you'll probably want to be respected at your future job. You get the idea.

Nobody is perfect, and you're going to make mistakes. If your need for the language isn't serious, go crazy with it. But if you have serious, long-term goals with the language, you probably don't want to willingly add on more mistakes to the ones you're already destined to make.


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Author: Yearlyglot
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  • Great article, although I can't personally think of a reason why I wouldn't try to speak any language correctly, even for languages that aren't as important for me. You say those that are learning a language only looking for quick gains should not worry about speaking correctly - do you mean that they shouldn't try to learn from their mistakes (everyone is going to make mistakes, no matter what your goals are)? To me, learning isn't a chore nor a worry, and improvement makes me feel good. There is no change in strategy necessary - learn as much as you can as quickly as you want and have fun or don't do it.
    I wholeheartedly agree with the focus of the article that learning to speak correctly is very important, but I think giving people excuses to learn it the wrong way simply because they have different goals is a little much. Why can't everyone, no matter their goals, just learn the correct way?
    I think that our goals with the language change the materials that we use, but not the mindset behind learning. If you are learning the language to read something and don't have plans to speak with natives, then holding off on speaking is fine, while not consciously trying to improve when you are talking with a native is just lazy, even if that's not your focus.
    I personally qualify as a language learner in the "Benny camp", as my main goal is to be able to speak with natives (although for Japanese I want to be able to read anime as well), so I've been speaking from week 2. But past pronunciation help, I could see someone with different goals not speaking so early.
    I think Tony read your post, but missed some of the points you were trying to get across - which I can't say I blame him as you only mention briefly that making mistakes is natural in the learning process, while at the same time you describe people who say "making mistakes is OK" as "defending such an extremely isolated position". I think what you really meant was the people that feel making mistakes is OK AND say you don't have to correct yourself are going to run into huge problems in the long-run. I think it was an easy point to miss.
    This article definitely got me thinking. Thanks! It spawned some article ideas of mine own.

  • The problem with this approach is that it will take you forever to feel ready to speak. I believe it is necessary to talk to people right from the beginning, and hopefully talk to people who are happy to correct you.I agree that if you constantly make the same mistakes and are never corrected then it will be harder to undo, but not impossible. But you absolutely need to make the mistakes in the first place in order to learn from it and correct it.

  • Who said anything about "feeling ready to speak"?You're arguing against a straw man. Did you even read my post?

  • I'm not arguing with your article, I just don't understand what advice or point you are trying to put across. Everyone will make mistakes no matter what, there is very little you can do to stop it (Apart from not speaking at all). When you reach a more advanced level, you will simply be able to speak better with fewer mistakes, but you will still make them. My own opinion is that spending hours and hours worrying about speaking like a 5 year old will only put you off and delay you on your ultimate goal, which is to communicate and be understood.

  • That depends on what your "ultimate goal" actually is. Again I ask... did you actually read my post?If your ultimate goal is simply to speak to people, don't worry about it. But if your goal is to communicate on a more advanced level, you'll be more successful if you do so without making a bunch of mistakes.The difference is in mentality. They are, after all, only "mistakes" if you're doing it for a grade. In real conversation, they're not so much "mistakes", but rather "things you said that just don't make much sense". Remember, you're not talking to an instructor, you're talking to a person.

  • I find it amusing when I start speaking without many mistakes because I also then speak with more confidence. Because of this, now when I start speaking to my friends or others, they do mistake me for being fluent.

  • That's awesome. No matter how you get it, confidence is extremely important to your progress in a language.

  • I think that this is a mistake with classroom learning as well and why some school students, after years of practise, come out of class being unable to cope with communicating in another language and may never be fluent. Schools focus too much on following a specific course, mostly text books. This course is mainly based around the fact that there is only one teacher and perhaps thirty pupils. The course is then really only about writing. Because of this, when it comes to speaking, the pupil gets nervous and freezes, unable to think what to say. They haven't had enough practise talking and make too many mistakes.This happened to me. I was really good at writing but didn't get as good grades in speaking. Too many mistakes and too nervous. Sorted this out by practising at home. Sorry if I was too repetitive or veered off topic.

  • I know exactly what you mean by having to unlearn ingrained bad habits. There are a few parts of speech I learned early on to say the wrong way because no one ever corrected me. Now that I know how to say them the right way, I still manage to say them the wrong way, and it drives me crazy.

  • Exactly!

  • Totally agree. Not everyone needs to speak on day one.

  • I don’t necessarily disagree with your process here, but I also don’t learn that way at all. I don’t want to speak from the beginning because I don’t know anything yet. What am I going to say? Speaking only tests recall if you have something inside the ol’ cranium to recall in the first place, and that means learning before speaking.I prefer to learn and enjoy (and learn to enjoy) the language fist through lots of input, not speaking much at all for the first couple of months. That way mistakes don’t even come into the picture yet. Then, when I actually have enough words in my brain to say something, I search out a speaker or speakers of the language to practice.But that does depend on your language goals, like you said. I’m learning French because I like the language. I don’t have any plans to move to or visit any place where French is spoken, so my learning is more relaxed. If I were planning a vacation for a month from now, I suppose my learn strategy would involve speaking a lot sooner, but I can’t be sure about that.

  • That’s called fossilization. It can be a real problem. My wife (English is her second language) always says “sweat” when she means “sweaty”. No matter how much I correct her, she never changes. I have some fossilized mistakes in Spanish, as well, and most of them I know about and still can’t change.

  • Singing is a good analogy. If you want to be an opera star, you'll have to learn to hit the notes perfectly before you learn the tune. If you just want to give 'er at the karaoke bar, then the tune (and having fun) is more important than hitting the notes.

  • Interesting and thought-provoking post. Grazie.
    I always tell my students that s/he who is the most fluent has over the course of time made the most mistakes... but to pay attention to the details, too... it's far easier to learn something correctly from the beginning than to unlearn something you learned incorrectly later on down the road.
    Jodina of https://italianowithjodina.com

  • I don't think your method is all that different from mine. You're assuming that I "speak from day one". I do not. That's Benny's gig.

  • Great example!

  • That is precisely why defining your goals and expectations is so important. Fluency can mean a lot of things.

  • Ah, that clears things up, then. Good to hear. I’m not one of those that go cowering in fear of speaking, and therefore go years passively studying a language but never saying a word, but I also don’t go running off like an idiot, hunting for conversations with native speakers when I know only a handful of words. There has to be a balance, and I suppose that balance is a little different for everyone. Excellent post, by the way. Well proportioned and quite informative. I liked it.

  • I've been able to change my fossilised errors.My process is like this:
    1. Someone corrects me
    2. I say the full sentence again with corrections
    3. I write that sentence down
    4. I put the sentence into my SRS so that I can get that input again

  • I think a sharp distinction needs to be drawn, but never quite gets there, with regard to the "Benny camp".Benny's advice about language learning makes a lot of sense, and certainly there are many things he says that are universal, but what he does also has a very heavy bias toward the fact that he'll be in a place for only three months, perhaps not to return again for years.When your practical experience in the language is compartmentalized like that, it adds a huge motivation to speaking early, and it has almost no long-term motivation for being particularly accurate with the language. Wearing the badge of "guy who learned this language in 3 months" means natives will always treat you with the patience of a newbie and the reverence of someone who did something cool.The place where I differentiate myself from him is that I'm spending a full year, learning at a more relaxed pace, with a stronger motivation for continued, long-term use of the language. Next year when I start a new language, I will continue using Italian regularly with the friends I am making this year.

  • A hugely complicated and hugely interesting area. If you say the right few words in the right way then you can convince a newly met native speaker that you are probably very fluent (whether you are or not) and vice versa of-course (sometimes an advantage if you do it deliberately).I think you need to be honest with yourself at all stages to work out what you want. It is easy to feel fluent (or good enough) and then find out that you are much worse than you think because your new found friends have been making big concessions. The classic case being the Westerner who marries an Asian wife, makes some progress talking with her then discovers that everyone else has difficulty understanding him and he can't follow them (like a mother with a small child she is used to his poor speech and dumbs hers down for him).I now have different goals in different languages, I am quite happy that German understanding is coming also so fast and easy (in comparison to less familiar languages) I haven't even thought or cared about speaking yet (maybe not for ages) I am relentlessly searching out speaking practice in Chinese don't have time to look for Germans. Anybody dare to say I am not "learning" German?When I first speak German it will be poor for sure but I know that and can deal with it then.Natives are often overly generous (even more so in less usual target languages). Lots of English people for example will tell an Asian that they talk like a native (if they speak very good English) but actually it is immediately obvious they are not a native speaker.The real problem is what is the correct way? Not such an easy thing to answer in some languages, and has anyone met one of those rare foreigners who learns to speak your language better than a native speaker, I don't mean just better than an average level of education, they can manipulate humor and moods etc. better than a native speaker because they the have picked up something else from looking from the outside in.

  • Why will it take forever????It took me a number of weeks in Thai https://chris-thai-student.b...It may be a year or more for German, I don't feel that Randy is advocating an "accept nothing less than perfection" approach at all.Actually there are many mistakes you don't need to make (ever). It is quite possible to start at a point where you are making more (advanced?) mistakes if you get my meaning.

  • That's really the problem, isn't it? When you're learning, everyone treats you with "kid gloves", and you feel like you're doing really well. And sure, that's great for motivation. But eventually, you won't be just starting out learning, and eventually you'll just be the guy nobody wants to talk to, because we can't understand what you're trying to say. Better, I think, to pay more attention to speaking correctly in the beginning and not make it harder on youself later on.

  • Hi Randy and everyone else,I just wanted to add something to this topic about making mistakes when speaking a foreign language that hasn’t been mentioned here. I’ll be discussing English as I’m a foreign English speaker but I believe the same applies on speaking a foreign language in general.Namely, it’s about two types of mistakes that one can make.There are the real mistakes that will cut into every native speaker’s ears and I fully agree you have to eliminate them from your speech. The ones that would fall under this category are getting conjugations completely wrong (‘she go home’ instead of ‘she goes home’), misusing words (a typical foreigners’ mistake is to swap ‘she’ for ‘he’ for some reason), not getting the word order right and the list could go on and on. In short, these are the mistakes that, as the majority of folks here agree on, aren’t acceptable and you’re so much more better off getting these things right at the very beginning of learning the language.By the way, I’ve heard quite a few foreign English speakers speaking fluently (read – in an uninterrupted and fast manner) despite making many of the above mentioned mistakes. The resulting speech? Hard to understand, messy and not pleasant to the ear. Obviously what those folks have missed is someone to point out their mistakes in the early stages of picking up the language. And I know from my own experience with others that it’s very hard to eradicate mistakes like these if they’ve become a habit.The second kind of mistakes are the ones that would be considered mistakes if we go by the formal grammar and syntax rules but would be accepted in less formal situations and day-to-day communication.Omitting words for the sake of simplicity – ‘Sleep well?’ instead of ‘Did you sleep well?’ or ‘How you doing?’ instead of ‘How are you doing?’ Swapping more complex grammar tenses for simpler ones – ‘If I didn’t do it would you be allowed to come?’ instead of ‘Had I not done it would you have been allowed to come?’ Swapping passive tense with perfect tense – ‘I’m finished with taping up the packages’ instead of ‘I’ve finished taping up the packages’… All those sentences are grammatically incorrect but totally accepted in normal daily conversations.Of course, as you learn a foreign language, you wouldn’t speak like that in the beginning. I totally agree that you have to know proper, formal grammar and only when you’ve become quite fluent in a language you can acquire colloquialisms and small-talk phrases.But my point is that quite often this informal speech is left out when foreigners learn to speak a language. They know how to write properly but if they try to get the language as perfect as in writing they can miss out on a real spoken fluency.Would love to hear what others think about this!Thanks,Robby

  • I'll start by saying that I am very particular about the difference between "speaking correctly" and "making mistakes".A "mistake" is when you know how to do something correctly, but you fail to do so. We all make mistakes. Sometimes I press the wrong key when typing, or I choose the wrong word when speaking too fast. Those are mistakes, and they're not really what we are discussing here.What we're discussing is "incorrect use of language". And here's the thing: the distinction you are drawing is a distinction between "intentional" and "unintentional" misuse. Colloquialism is incorrect, but it is intentionally so, whereas bad grammar, and poor conjugation, etc, and unintentionally incorrect.When you do something wrong *intentionally* it is for effect. It changes the meaning, or adds nuance, or adds humor, etc. But when you do something wrong *unintentionally*, it adds confusion and makes people work harder to understand your point.And the most important detail is the fact that you must first establish that know how to speak correctly before you can properly learn the nuance of intentionally speaking incorrectly.

  • You nailed it, Randy! I especially like the way you split the things up in 'intentionally' and 'unintentionally' incorrect grammar.It's still essentially the same thing I said by writing 'I totally agree that you have to know proper, formal grammar and only when you’ve become quite fluent in a language you can acquire colloquialisms and small-talk phrases.'But when you put it this way it kind of makes more sense and to my surprise I never really thought about it from this angle...Thanks!

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