Did you know that I used to try to be absolutely perfect in English? That even today it bothers me a tiny bit when people tell me they can hear my German accent?
I remember that I used to be the best in my class in English. Then I changed schools and better people came along. I was the best IELTS taker my university had ever seen at IELTS 9.0. Then I went out to the pub and understood no one. One thing I learnt in that progress is that trying to be flawless is like guaranteeing yourself a failure. Turns out perfectionism doesn't work if you want to learn a language. We don't have to be the best to be good.
In the haze of ambitious new year's goals, let's have a look at how to achieve everything you want without pressure and perfectionism.
Perfectionism By Another Name
You are probably already aware that "perfectionism is bad". There are many who warn about its dangers. It makes logical sense to start before you're ready and keep practicing until you achieve fluency, but in reality I've seen many learners who never seem to be ready. A former German student of mine had this habit of pausing in the middle of the sentence because he forgot a word. He'd switch to English very quickly, exclaiming that he's tired and today just isn't the right day. He asked for grammar exercises instead, trying to rule out any language learning flaws before he even started.
The "I have to be perfect" feeling is sneaky. It doesn't hide in a labelled box inside your mind and heart. Perfectionism works hard to keep its hold on you. Funnily enough, the feeling loves it most when you are trying to speak in your target language. This is when perfectionism has a good day. Here are statements to look out for. Ever had a thought like this?
- "I need to be ready before I can speak"
(and what exactly is ready?)
- "I just want to make sure I get this right"
(what if there is no right?)
- "Is this how a native speaker would say it?"
(native speakers aren't perfect)
- "Am I making enough progress?"
(if you are learning, the answer is yes)
- "Am I good enough?!"
Perfectionism is Bad Because..
It paralyzes you, because your high ambition will stop you from trying before you are "ready". It's never worse than when the task is to speak. The fear of what others may think of you, the instant vulnerability of being on the spot, and the stress of thinking so fast are good nutrition for perfectionism. This is why you may prefer to keep quiet or spend another few days preparing. And before you know it, a year of study has passed and you've spoken to nobody.
It frustrates you and kills your will to try again. Last week, I was chatting to a girl at a friend's party and mentioned that I'm a Welsh learner. She exclaimed "wyt ti'n dysgu cymraeg?!" and revealed that Welsh is her native language. Oh my! I had to speak! After a few sentences of conversation she complimented me on my skills (which is ridiculous since half the conversation was "how do I say .... in Welsh?"). Then came the fatal moment. I said something, and she replied "that's not how we would say it in Wales", then explained to me how the locals shorten words in slang. And of course I felt embarrassed! Of course I was gutted to have been so uncool and use stilted uncomfortable Welsh.
The frustration of that moment must not stop me from learning more and trying again. I'll have to keep speaking in textbook Welsh for now. I have to stay on my own path, and the same goes for you if you're learning another language. Never let yourself feel frustrated enough to stop, just because you made a mistake once before.
Remember that being bad at your target language is good, because you'll get better. But when you stop, that's the single way you will fail at learning a language.
The Yoga Analogy
In yoga, there is a philosophy that freedom in the practice means freeing yourself from the desire to achieve perfect poses at all times. It's about letting go of your ego and of having to be right all the time. You work with recognizing your own body and its capabilities. You accept good days and bad days, and you thank yourself for doing what you can. Your prize is not a perfect yoga pose, but a better relationship with your body.
In language learning, that wonderful freedom is waiting for you too. I have received feedback about my failings time and time again, and have had to remind myself that language is a living and evolving tool, never used in the perfect way. Now at age 32, I guess my way through Welsh conversations and feel excited when mistakes are corrected. I work on my mindset much more than my "conversation prep", and trust that everything others correct will be the best and most useful vocabulary I could possibly acquire.
Something magical happens when we put aside those high standards and just surrender. Surrender to mistakes as and when they happen. Surrender to looking like a non-expert. Surrender to trusting the process and letting yourself learn.
With allowing your mind to simply engage and progress at its own speed, you get to discover how capable you really are. The question of being "good enough?" becomes irrelevant as you discover that you are truly the best that you can be. And verb endings, imperfect accents, all those things that trip you up in speaking your target language become things that you learn as you go along.
Mistakes are visitors you bump into on your journey. They are added training bonuses that show you where to focus. They're what keeps you in the game when you risk complacency. I wish we would reframe the way we think about mistakes in language learning and accept that they are boosters, power-ups, encouragers - whatever you want to call them, mistakes are that perfection you're looking for.
3 Practical Tips for Being Perfectly Non-Perfectionist
1) Start Before You're Ready, But Start Easy
Language learning is not about being the best or the most impressive person out there. Your interest in another language is enough validation, so go with the journey and take it super-easy at the start. It is NOT embarrassing to aim for saying one sentence correctly before you say another. Remember that yoga pose: You want to ease into it, not muscle into it.
2) Prep 5 Stock Phrases
Stock sentences are useful phrases that you can always say to buy yourself a little time, to enter or exit a conversation. They're useful things like "What does _ mean" and "How do I say _", along with asking the other person to slow down and be patient. Stock phrases also contain polite formulas like please and thank you, and maybe "Do you want a drink?". When I say prep, what I mean is you should have these stock phrases down so well that you could recite them at 3 in the morning if I shake you out of your sleep.
These stock sentences are your safety blanket, the lines you know you've got right no matter what. The reason I recommend you learn no more than 5 is that studying stock phrases isn't the point of learning a language.
You need enough to help you manage, but not so much that it stops your creativity. Remember - this is all about embracing restrictions so that you
3) Keep A Log
Instead of remembering the times that you made a mistake and "looked like an idiot", make sure you make a note of every correction that you get. Focus on what you're learning and how the other person is helping you improve. Even if you post a pronunciation video on YouTube and get "Your Russian Sucks!", so what! Ask the commenter what exactly you did wrong and upload another one. Remember that Yoga pose, where you are building your strength and easing into it.
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