Earlier I discussed the need to let go of the fear of making mistakes so that you can practise more effectively, and this remains true. However, there are ways to learn faster and avoid making mistakes.
First, we need to mark an important distinction between mistakes and errors.
Mistakes are accidental. The learner knows they are wrong. For example, you might be taught to use the subjunctive in Spanish but will often forget to use it when you are speaking or writing. You would recognise the mistake if you had a chance to check your own output carefully.
Errors are incorrect use of the language caused by a learner’s lack of knowledge. This could be failing to use the subjunctive because you are not aware it should be used in a certain context. In this case, you would still fail to correct yourself after checking your output.
Mistakes are a natural part of speaking and become less common over time with practice. Even native speakers occasionally make mistakes. Errors, on the other hand, tend to stay around much longer and are more difficult to fix. For that reason, it is errors rather than mistakes that we should be focusing on.
There are two general sources of errors:
Your native language interferes with your target language
You misuse a rule or word due to a lack of experience
These sources are, of course, very normal parts of learning a language. In either case, you will probably eventually learn the correct form and the error will become a mistake and then eventually disappear. When this does not happen, this is known as fossilisation.
Fossilisation is the process in which the learner acquires a specific form or way of speaking that is not native-like, and this error or mistake becomes stuck in the learner’s speech. Fossilised errors and mistakes are often resistant to correction and the learner’s efforts to change.
Fossilised errors arise when a learner repeatedly (and successfully, in terms of being understood) uses a certain form without being made aware that it is not native-like. This happens to the point of hearing and using it so often, it sounds natural and comes to mind easily. Fossilised mistakes usually start off as fossilised errors, but remain an unwelcome feature used habitually by the learner even after they are made consciously aware it is incorrect.
The good news is that doing things to avoid fossilisation is also generally good language learning technique. Here is how you can mitigate the risk of developing fossilised errors and mistakes:
Practice by learning the language in context. Use texts and videos over drills that isolate the language.
Focus on listening and reading. Don’t feel like you have to start speaking early if you don’t feel comfortable.
Try to be aware of how words and forms are used around you. Focus on shifting your speech to resemble more closely that of native speakers.
Get feedback or correction. This can be done by a friend, tutor, family member, or language exchange partner. Make sure they understand that you would like your errors to be corrected. Most people will avoid correcting others’ speech to facilitate smooth conversation.