William Alexander, whose book Flirting with French is coming out this fall, recently wrote about his difficulties learning French in a New York Times op-ed piece, The Benefits of Failing at French. Despite his slow progress with the language, he found his memory improved, as documented by before and after cognition testing.
I've written before about the brain science of learning a second language, but I don't think I've discussed my belief in the importance of failure. Until recently, our culture was all about success. Americans backpeddled away from the stink of failure, not recognizing it as a crucial step in learning. However, the tech industry knows that to truly innovate, you have to make mistakes. The new mantra is Fail Often; Fail Faster, i.e. quickly learn which new ideas work and which new ideas don't work.
And children don't worry about making language mistakes, they delight in their ability to connect. If you really want to remember something, screw it up and get corrected: you'll never forget that correction. Don't focus on how dumb you felt, celebrate the acquisition of a new concept. That's why it's important to speak without turning on your shame detector. Embrace what the Buddhists call "Beginners Mind".
Neurology is starting to prove that this concept is therapeutic. A recent aging study from the University of Texas looked at seniors who learned new skills compared with those who joined a social club and those who stayed home and did word games on their own. Only those who continually confronted themselves with new mental challenges improved. This was a surprise because the prevailing thought was that social connection would have the stronger effect.
My interpretation is that we must continually push ourselves into the new, risking failure, acting like toddlers learning to walk and speak. Me? I'm trying to learn HTML and CSS. And making a lot of mistakes. A good mistake is a terrible thing to waste.