In Praise of One-Time Mistakes
Okay, not all one-time mistakes are good. You don’t want your surgeon, for example, making his or hers on you. That possibility is why doctors have malpractice insurance. Still, in general, one-time mistakes can be learning experiences like no other. As a foreign-language learner—right now I’m brushing up on my French and Italian courtesy of DuoLingo.com—I usually remember an idiom in one of those languages best if I incorrectly translate it once. As a perfectionist, I hate making any mistakes. Thus, when I do make one, I’m obsessive about not making it again right away. Somehow my mind goes the extra mile to remember the correct translation, and the next time I usually get it right. But when I do goof up, oy! I’m an unhappy camper, sometimes to the point of uttering a choice unseemly phrase in English. The latter always seem to come to mind instantaneously, and I never seem to screw them up!
Since I do my language learning at the end of the day and sometimes right before I go to bed, I am often tired. If I’ve been doing computer work, moreover, my eyes are tired from the strain. Also, I may be in a rush to get my daily language training over with so I can go downstairs to watch the next episode of whatever we’re currently watching on PBS Passport or Netflix with my wife. The result is, I may misread the prompt with the logical consequence of a mistake. Last night, for instance, DuoLingo asked me to translate the Italian sentence La tua gioia è la mia gioia. It was an easy sentence with the key noun a cognate with the English joy. I knew exactly how to put it into English. Yet to my chagrin, I got the translation wrong. Why? Well, my mind reversed the order of the two noun phrases. So, instead of translating it to “Your joy is my joy,” I wrote, with unconscious narcissism perhaps, “My joy is your joy.” Not only that, but when the same prompt appeared again to give me the opportunity to get it right, this time I omitted the second “joy” and, and even though my translation still convey the same meaning, I was nevertheless greeted with the unhappy mistake sound from the computer. Maybe this is why “oy” rhymes with “joy”!
I find that mistakes in a social context tend to help me remember better not to remake them. Recently, for example, I told our German interim pastor in her language that I had missed attending some event or other. In doing so I used the present-perfect form of the verb vermissen. The pastor kindly repeated the sentence but made a point of using the correct verb in this context, verpasst. My embarrassment as a relatively fluent and correct speaker of German is that I will likely never make that same mistake again. Be all this it may, one-time mistakes are generally effective helpers for us to get things right going forward, gosh darn it!
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