Wouldn’t life be easier if we never made mistakes?
Sometimes I think that as I muddle through language learning; slip up in a major way, or put my foot in my mouth. (I wonder that even more when I do all three at the same time: such as the time when I humorously insisted to my cousin in Slovenia that I’d eaten a whole bowl of cevjle (shoes) rather than the cesnje (cherries) I was talking about. Rookie Slovenian pronunciation mistake).
It’s tempting to wish that life were error-free—that it had an autocorrect feature the way that Microsoft Word does, so that every time we metaphorically make a typo in life, the letters would magically rearrange themselves to display what we’d actually intended. (Of course, that isn’t always foolproof, either). It’s at least tempting to wish that life had a backspace button, where were could just make all go away relatively quickly, even long after the fact, and replace the old words with new ones.
In an interview with the New York Times this week, however, Dominic Randolph insists otherwise.
Randolph, the headmaster of one of the most elite institutions of learning in New York City, the Riverdale Country School, asserts that failures are the things that make us successful.
“Whether it’s the pioneer in the Conestoga wagon or someone coming here in the 1920s from southern Italy, there was this idea in America that if you worked hard and you showed real grit, that you could be successful,” he said. “Strangely, we’ve now forgotten that. People who have an easy time of things, who get 800s on their SAT’s, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they’re doing is great.”
Many college-bound high schoolers would give up a lot of a perfect 800 on each section of the SAT.
Well, they’d give up a lot—except the extreme dedication it would take to quit a bunch of extra-curriculars to study for the exam full-time, which would be an ill-advised venture anyways, as SAT scores aren’t the only things that colleges look at.
Maybe it’s good that most high schoolers wouldn’t give up enough to get that perfect 800, though.
“We are actually setting them up for long-term failure,” Randolph said, in reference to students who sail through the SATs or other similar exams to get that perfect score without much effort.
“When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, then I think they’re screwed, to be honest,” he said. “I don’t think they’ve grown the capacities to be able to handle that.”
It was a frank comment coming from the headmaster of a school which is considered one of New York’s best, where parents with Ivy League dreams for their children line up to enroll, from kindergarten to twelfth grade.
His comments, though, were enough to make me grateful for the countless errors—and difficult frustrations—I’ve had with learning foreign languages. If we are speaking in academic terms, there is quite possibly nothing more frustrating than the series of difficult moments that foreign language learning requires as you progress from elementary to advanced fluency.
But once you make errors, you begin the process to which Randolph alludes: correcting them.
And in conversation, it’s not as easy as hoping spell check or grammar check with rescue you. And in real life, there’s no backspace.
Oddly enough, though, the words, phrases, and things I’ve said wrong are the things that have helped me learn best.
Take, for example, when I was first learning how to decline cases in Slovenian, which is a typical Slavic language that requires you to, in effect, conjugate each noun and adjective according to six different cases. I had no idea what cases even meant when they were explained to me in the classroom—until I encountered them in real life.
“I’d like a Fanta, please,” I said in Slovenian sweetly to the waiter taking my order in a Ljubljana café a few years back, when I first began learning Slovenian. The problem was, I’d asked for a Fanta.
But if I’d wanted a Fanta, I should have said Fant-o instead, due to a case declension when you use a noun as a direct object.
Instead, what I’d done, in effect, was ask the guy out: I’d asked for a boyfriend (fant) which, when declined into the type of sentence I was saying, becomes fant-a.
From that day forward, I never forgot how to use that particular set of case endings.
The problem with the educational system that is that it often doesn’t allow room for error. Each assignment is graded and impacts a student’s final grade, which in turn impacts their chances to advance to the next level, apply to colleges, and succeed in their academic careers. This can be a very frustrating and nerve-wracking process for students. It’s easy to stand on the outside and say we become more of a success because of occasional (or frequent) failure.
The good news is that one day school ends and the pressure lets up a little bit, at least in an academic sense.
It’s no coincidence, after all, that it was only when I was out of school that I felt comfortable enough to make language errors, laugh at them, and learn from them in Slovenia—which resulted in the fastest level of fluency I’ve obtained in any of the three foreign languages I speak or am trying to learn.
Published this week by the Southbridge Evening News and other Stonebridge Press newspapers.