Wanting to Make Mistakes: Henry White on Learning Language & Learning to Be Okay with ‘Not Knowing’

By Rachael Jennings

“One of my main goals this year is to feel confident speaking in Spanish in class,” says junior Henry White. “I feel confident talking with Ms. DelVillar one-on-one, but I want to be able to talk and make mistakes in group discussions.”

Henry White

Henry contends that some of his best language-learning experiences flow from failure-rich opportunities. Some of the moments that have generated the most inquiry have been moments that have made him feel stuck, unsure, caught in that frustrating, half-bright moment of scanning his memory and collections of word roots for the right word.

Immersion has been key to Henry’s success with language; more, being open to making mistakes and learning has, simultaneous, been a necessary component.

“My first experience like this was in the summer of my eighth grade year,” he explains. “My cousins who are from Mexico came to our house for a week or two. My aunt Elodia said that they could only speak in Spanish with me. The first day was a little hard because I was trying to get into that mindset. But the practice changes everything. I would get frustrated if I wanted to remember a word that I needed to say. Later, I would go look up that word and then figure it out, I would try to remember it next time, come up with a sentence.”

“Like, I couldn't remember present tense, and we were doing something in the ‘right now,’ you know?” he says. “My cousin is four, and we were playing hide and seek. I wanted to remember how to say, ‘I am counting to three.’ And I couldn’t.”

However, as he says, “once you figure it out, it helps you expand it and apply it to other situations.”

Henry is currently enrolled in AP Spanish Language and Culture.

“It’s all Spanish immersion,” Henry smiles.

“Ms. DelVillar said the other day, ‘I'm never going to put you on the spot if you're not ready to speak,’” Henry adds. “She wants people to feel comfortable raising their hands, taking that risk, but also taking their time. It's like learning a whole new world. She see that and respects our process.”

Part of what enlivens the language-learning process for Henry is the way that lessons feel culturally relevant, refreshing, in fact, actual conversations that he and his classmates might have in an English or History classroom.

“On one of the first days, we talked about identity,” he explains. We started out talking about cultural identity. In Spanish. We are saying all of our ideas in Spanish! That led into some conversations about gender identity and sexuality. We normally talk about that in English class or GSA, not Spanish class. It was so cool.”

Outside of class, students listen to recordings, read essays and articles, and conduct image, video, and audio analyses.

They began the year with many cultural comparisons, one of which centered on technology—comparing Latin American culture and American culture.

“We found that more people in Latin America used Facebook but used it much less frequently, for example,” says Henry.

Comparison and connection, in many respects, feels crucial to Henry’s study.

“I really like the different structures of language,” he says. “I think of it less of learning a new language as much as learning the different puzzle pieces and how to put them together. It's not just about Spanish.”

“Sometimes the different languages help me learn English together. I learn how to piece language together differently when I'm writing poetry or even prose,” he adds.

Last year, Henry conducted an independent project, wherein he taught himself Polish.

To bolster his studies, he used the program Duolingo.

“That program is a really good basis, but it's not everything. For example, I would learn a few of the colors in Polish, study them, and then go online and find more. There's always more colors. There's always more to find. I thought at first it might be pretty straightforward, but you have to learn to conjugate the adjectives and nouns in addition to the verbs.”

That quality of always having more to find, more to discover—that’s what energizes Henry. He has particularly valued his language immersion experiences, and he is eager for more.

“I would love to go on [an upcoming trip to a Spanish-speaking country], so I'm hoping I can feel comfortable conversing with a stranger in the real world,” he says. “In the winter of my ninth grade year, my class went on a service trip to the DR. We went to a boys orphanage. There were only a couple of us who could speak Spanish, and being able to connect with more than just hand gestures was just so great. Being there with teachers and students who could back you up was so helpful. It was a good early experience.”

But, until he is off on his next immersive adventure, he feels grateful for the support of his teacher and fellow students.

“I help [my peers in the classroom], but get lots of help from others,” he says. “I mean, I communicate with friends and teachers, meet during study hall, learn more. It's a huge thing to communicate.”

And, as he stresses, it’s a huge thing to make mistakes along the way.

Every mistake bolsters the learning process.

Last, Henry reflects: “I love that the language teachers are very encouraging but also understanding that it's hard. They help you build your confidence in yourself. And then we build it in each other.”