Better at English

Better at English

044 – A very embarrassing mistake

August 02, 2020

Hi English learners! Lori here, your teacher from Better at English dot com.

It's story time here today, something I don't think I've done here on the podcast before. I'm going to use natural English, but will try to speak just a little more carefully than I normally would, so that more people can follow along.

You can find the full transcript of everything I say on my website:

Today I've been thinking about mistakes, mainly how the fear of making mistakes in English really holds some learners back. Believe me, I know how this feels. I've made plenty of embarrassing mistakes myself in my target languages. Luckily, most of the time I'm able to just laugh them off, and they don't really get me into trouble. But sometimes mistakes lead to a total breakdown of communication. And that's no fun at all.
I thought you might like to hear about one of my more memorable mistakes, a mistake that actually caused a real problem and made me feel super embarrassed. It happened over 30 years ago, (yes, I'm that old) but it taught me such an important lesson about language learning that I still remember it to this day.

So let me take you back over thirty years, to my first year living in Sweden. I think I'd been living there for about nine months when this happened. I'd been trying to learn Swedish since I arrived, and by then I was able to understand a fair amount. I think I could speak without too much difficulty about general, everyday things. I still made tons of mistakes, for sure, but they didn't really cause problems. That is, until this one particular day.

Here's the situation: I needed to make a doctor's appointment for some kind of check-up. I can't remember what it was for; I just remember that it wasn't for anything urgent. It was early in April, maybe April third or fourth. I picked up the phone and called the doctor's office to make an appointment. It was scary. I'd never made a phone call like that in Swedish before. I was worried that I would embarrass myself by making terrible mistakes or just not understanding, and that I would end up having to try to do it in English. Most people in Sweden speak English, which is one of the reasons I wasn't learning faster. But I was determined to make this appointment in Swedish, gosh darn it!

Despite my worries, it seemed to go well. The doctors' assistant answered, and I was able to explain what I needed and make an appointment for April 18th at 9 a.m., that's nine o'clock in the morning. I hung up feeling pretty proud of myself: this was the first time I'd ever made a phone call like this in Swedish -- calling a total stranger to make an appointment -- and I didn't have to use any English at all. It felt like a real sign of progress!

I got out my calendar, found April 18th and wrote: Dr's appointment, 9 am. I was a bit annoyed that I would have to wait two weeks for my appointment, but like I said, it wasn't urgent. I closed my calendar and went on with my day, feeling very pleased with myself about my successful phone call in Swedish.

Now....Fast forward to 3 or 4 days later, April 8th just after 9 am. I was at home in my little apartment, drinking coffee and getting ready to go to the gym when the phone rang. I picked up the phone, hoping that it would be something nice -- maybe a friend calling to find out if we could do something fun that day, I don't know. But it wasn't. It was someone from the doctor's office, a woman who sounded mildly annoyed, calling to find out why I hadn't shown up for my appointment.

That was a shock to me, because I thought my appointment was not for another 10 days, on the 18th. I couldn't imagine that I'd written down the wrong day by mistake. "Are you sure?" I asked her. "I thought it was on the 18th...that's almost two weeks from now.