A Bug Bounty to Learn English, Fuelled by Lollipops

Mastering stuff is tricky (duh, right?). You can learn almost anything on your own but in order to truly master a discipline, unless you are a genius, you’ll need a nice and tight feedback loop. You’ll need to have someone (or something) that knows much more about the discipline than you do and that is happy to point out your mistakes.

If you are a student you’re used to rely on your teachers to get feedback on multiple subjects. They evaluate your progress often and let you know the errors you make so you can fix them.

If you are a professional you depend on your industry peers and teammates to flag the things that you could be doing better. You improve, your professionalism grows a bit and the cycle repeats.

Mastering a second language

Learning a new language is a bit different to any other learning. I think I get why. We learn languages for the first time when we’re little, it’s a basic skill. By the time we’re teens we’ve almost mastered our native tongue. We probably make a small mistake from time to time but, overall, our proficiency is absolute. The rest of the road is all about polishing, about turning a tool that it’s already a fine communication device into something precise and delightful. Only people that love to read, write, listen and speak usually get to walk that part of the journey.

Maybe that’s the reason why adults don’t usually correct each other about language. Amongst native speakers the social contract stipulates that what you’ve learned during your youth (usually heavily influenced by your socio-economic reality) is what you somehow “deserve” to know. If someone points out a mistake made by other native speaker this someone may be considered a pedant. The extra precision that the pedant is bringing to the table can be seen as unnecessary. Or even just patronising since the communication didn’t really suffer because of the mistake. It doesn’t help that when this kind of corrections appear is usually as a cheap way to discredit a message or person, “your grammar sucks, hence your argument is invalid”.

When the mistake is made by a non-native speaker the social contract has different rules but the same non-productive output. We understand the speaker is making a huge effort to operate a language that it’s not their own. We appreciate their effort by overlooking their mistakes and focusing on the message so we don’t correct them. We are worried that our feedback can damage the person self-confidence or distract them. We consider that it’s more important what that person has to say that how they say it. Bottom line: Correcting a non-native speaker grammar or spelling is usually a very rude thing to do.

Michael Robinson

I started to think about this around a year ago, all thanks to British footballer Michael Robinson.

Apart of a retired player this guy has been a sports commentator in Spanish TV and radio since I was a kid. A 25-year long career speaking and writing (in a second language) for a living. He is big in Spain.

Michael Robinson as host of a 1992 video game

The funny thing is that his Spanish is (and has always been) plagued with mistakes. Don’t get me wrong, he’s incredibly fluent (I would kill to be as fluent in English as he is in Spanish) but his pronunciation is weird and his grammar goes from “passable” to “all over the place” in a matter of seconds.

To be fair, the particular way he speaks is probably part of his personal brand. He’s still “the Englishman that talks about football on telly” so I’ve always suspected that keeping his accent and relatively unpolished Spanish was a deliberate effort to not become perfect, to not become one more of the pack.

The question remains though, how can a guy spend 25 years surrounded by Spanish speakers and don’t get to truly master the language? Maybe nobody has ever told him what he’s missing?

Chupa Chups Reward Program™

I’m a Spanish native speaker living in England. Similarly to Michael Robinson I’m getting a living using a second language at an almost-unacceptable level.

As a designer a huge part of my job is about communication. I need to understand people problems and then create solutions that they can understand, I need to write copy, words are a big part of my toolbox. So, how can I establish a proper feedback loop to polish my second-language skills if nobody ever points out my mistakes? How am I supposed to improve?

A year ago I came up with an idea that so far is working wonders. You see, I happen to work surrounded by dozens of English speakers. They are all incredibly smart and lovely people so I wondered: “How could I recruit them to form my personal army of English teachers?” A good old bug bunty.

I can imagine many people might be in a similar situation so let me explain the system I’ve been following in case you want to put it in place:

  1. Ask for help. Tell everybody in your office that you are perfectly aware that your second language is still rough. Let them know that you want to improve it and ask them to be generous enough to tell you every time you make a mistake. Either in person, chat or whatever fancy tool you use.
  2. Give a reward. As we’ve seen previously, correcting people’s grammar and spelling is awkward. You need to be extremely clear so everybody understands that you REALLY want to know the mistakes you make. Offer something in return. Chocolates, biscuits, stickers… I give away Chupa Chups (an iconic Spanish product based on a classic design solution of my people: adding a stick into something that already exists).
    The reward acts as a small token of gratitude so they have not one but two incentives to spot your mistakes. The first, helping a teammate to become better. The second, unexpected and delicious sweets delivered to their desks.
  3. Remember the mistake. With every correction try to have a small conversation with the person who corrected you. That will help you to remember the mistake you made and somehow pin it into your brain. Additionally it will enable you to reinforce the first point of the plan: “please keep correcting me, it truly helps me and I’m genuinely grateful for your time”.

The results are amazing. When I started running this program most of my mistakes were around subjects (dropping “it”, a classic for Spanish speakers) and basic propositions. Now my mistakes are becoming slightly more advanced, not only pure grammar mistakes but about things that just “don’t sound right” to English speakers (even though they don’t always know why) and phrasing issues (things that might sound harsh or have a double meaning). I love it.

So, yeah, I just want to say a big THANKS to all my dear Monzo correctors. During this last year I’ve distributed more than three hundred lollipops and I’m sure that if they get to read this post I’ll be giving away many more :) Please keep them coming you adorable people!

Ouch! That was a basic one.