If we are lucky as Spanish students, we may come across a Spanish person who is willing to correct us when we make a mistake. However, sometimes we might be met with a smile or slight giggle which gives us the feeling we have said something wrong but are unsure what, and on other occasions we might be congratulated for speaking excellent Spanish even when we know perfectly well that we have made lots of mistakes.
So, why is it that the Spanish are sometimes unwilling to correct you, even when you ask them to? Sometimes, it is because they do not wish to appear rude or critical, especially if they actually feel admiration for the fact that you are having a go at speaking their language. On other occasions, and probably more frequently, they are simply more interested in the message you are conveying and their only concern is to understand you. A smile or giggle worries us because we can feel that we are being laughed at, but this is usually not the case. Perhaps you said something in a quaint or roundabout way which raises a smile which is not meant to be in any way negative.
As a general rule, it is best not to expect correction from the Spanish and if you think about it, you probably don´t spend your time correcting their English either, for the same reasons. You do not want to appear rude or critical of someone who is making an effort to communicate with you, and if you have understood what they mean that is usually quite enough. You may even effusively congratulate someone on how good their English is, simply because you are relieved to have understood them, when they themselves are conscious of their linguistic limitations.
However, if we do wish to correct someone’s mistakes, what is the best way to do it? Probably the most discreet and pleasant way is to simply echo back the correct version of the word or phrase. When someone does this to you, you will notice the difference and register it without further comment being needed. This is far better than drawing attention to a mistake by saying “No that’s wrong, it should be ….” which can create embarrassment.
This is a particularly important principle when correcting children. They will unconsciously take on board the correct form that is echoed back to them. If parents or teachers are overtly critical of children´s speech they can create all sorts of problems including insecurity and even in extreme cases, the development of a stutter. If this is the effect over-correction can have on children, we need to be aware that it can also be harmful to adult learners, since just beneath the surface we can all be just as insecure as children when it comes to expressing ourselves.