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Sbagliando S'impara/You Learn by Making Mistakes

If there is one thing in which I believe, it's that there is power in making mistakes.

Sometimes, mistakes lead us to important lessons that change our outlook. Other times, they teach us about ourselves in a new and interesting way. Mistakes can impact who you date, where you live, what you study, or what you do for a living.

Mistakes can change everything. They are powerful...if we have the courage to confront them.

I was recently out with my classmates for "aperitivo," or the Italian equivalent of happy hour, where the objective is to open your stomach before dinner with drinks and light snacks. One of the main reasons why I go to these events every week is to make new friends, so I started speaking with a student from Germany. He asked me about my language level, and I told him C2 (the highest level available at my school).

(Quick disclaimer: I don't believe I'm currently speaking at the C2 level; there are various opinions out there about how hard the jump is from B2 to C1+, and it has been a challenge. One of the harder parts about the B2/C1+ transition is that there are no more verb tenses to learn, so after that point, it becomes about combining various tenses, working on your vocabulary, and generally making it all make sense.)

When I revealed my level, I saw him recoil with a look on his face I have come to recognize. He was nervous, and maybe even a little bit intimidated, because he was closer to the beginning of his language-learning journey.

Because it's happened before, an interaction like this not only makes me sad for the other person because they need a bit more confidence to speak with someone at a higher level, but it reminds me of the fact that I know exactly how that feels. It's a crippling fear that I have also experienced.

And then he said, "I'm scared of making a mistake."

I wanted to give him a hug. I've held myself back from saying what I wanted to say many times, and it can make you feel small. It's one of the most frustrating feelings to not be able to communicate the way you want to--in any language.

What's ironic is that I love hearing how students at other levels (and of different nationalities) speak. Even among the mistakes, we can still understand each other. It's actually quite beautiful.

And also, who am I? Certainly not one to judge. Certainly, not someone who would correct someone else's mistakes (and definitely not someone I had just met since I was there to make friends!). Certainly not a teacher.

But at that moment, I did want to teach him my favorite Italian phrase. It's a phrase that is the most important one in my language-learning journey, and it's one that I apply to nearly everything else in life.

Sbagliando s'impara. You learn by making mistakes.

I learned this phrase at an Italian restaurant in New York City in 2016 when I met up with a friend from the American school I attended in Milan. My friend was encouraging me to speak Italian, and the waitress joined him in encouraging me when I said I was scared of making a mistake.

It's been critical for me to adopt this mantra/mindset over time. When I arrived in January, I was so intent on not making mistakes that it prevented me from joining various conversations. I wanted to perfectly translate everything I said before opening my mouth. I found that trying to avoid mistakes not only completely blocked my train of thought, it didn't allow me to learn the way I wanted to learn.

In fact, I was robbing myself of the exact reason I came back to improve!

And then, I was placed in a class where the teacher corrected every mistake she heard in our sentences. At first, just because of how I'm wired, I took it as a criticism...I might not be able to speak Italian the way I thought I could. I'm making so many mistakes.

But then, I realized that I started avoiding those mistakes the next time around. For example, in Italian, you can't start a phrase with "perchè" (because), even though you can in English - "Because I went to the concert last night, I am exhausted today." You have to instead use the word "siccome," (since). I made that mistake a few times but won't again because I was taught the rule and moved forward.

In the course of trying to learn a language, the objective should never be to speak perfectly. To me, it's too lofty of a goal. In a way, language learning is just like one gets through it by doing it perfectly. The mistakes help us move forward.

My dad always says that mistakes aren't mistakes if you learn from them. Mistakes become lessons. With that in mind, I guess "sbagliando s'impara" has become more and more woven into the fabric of who I am. Even though I'm not Italian, I'm glad to know that an Italian phrase/mindset/way of life feels so normal and natural to me.

Sbagliando s'impara...I joke around that it should be a tattoo that is on my body and readily available for reference whenever I need it. By now, I know it so well that it's the equivalent of an internal tattoo...inked on my brain and on my heart.


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