Perfectionism and perspective in language learning

As I’ve mentioned before, I suffer greatly from being my worst critic. I have a perfectionist streak (or maybe even more than a streak…), which is of questionable use with many endeavors, but it’s downright horrible when it comes to learning foreign languages. Why? Because I’m always going to make mistakes. Always. It doesn’t matter how much I study or practice, I’m not going to be perfect. Hell, I’ve been practicing my native language for almost 29 years in some fashion or another, and I still make idiotic mistakes with it.

And that’s fine. Making mistakes is okay, unless you’re a perfectionist like me, who then proceeds to beat himself up over said mistake. It’s a nasty little spiral. I’ll study and read and listen and so on, for hours, days, weeks, and that’s great; something that’s commendable, I think. But if I blunder on a German adjective declension (I really hate those things…), well, then I’m just a complete failure and no native German will ever want to speak to me. Ever. I ignore the progresses I’ve made, the things I can do or say, and then I just feel like crap about the whole endeavor.

Except that’s just, erm, dumb. If I mess up a German adjective ending, or a Russian declension, the people I’m communicating with don’t suddenly think I’m a complete fool with whom they should never speak with again. How do I know this? Because that’s not at all how I feel when I hear a foreign English speaker make mistakes here and there. They can conjugate verbs wrong (or even not at all), mess up plurals, stumble over the right prepositions, mangle the pronunciation of tricky words… and you know what? I’m still impressed that they’ve gotten as far as they have, that they’re communicating in a language that was, at one point, completely foreign to them, and that they’re still sticking with it.

So, if you’re like me and continually lament over the things you don’t know yet, or the things you mess up on… knock it off and give yourself a pat on the back, because if you’ve stuck with a foreign language for any amount of time, you’re awesome. Keep working on your weak points, but appreciate your strong points, too.

Bonus: I had actually started on this entry before seeing this blog post, A Lovely Thought About Language Learning, but it meshes well with my message here. Go read the whole post (seriously, off with you – go on!), but boiled down, it’s this: language is the only thing worth knowing poorly. There are a lot of things that you really have to know very well before it’s worth your time. Language isn’t one of them.

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7 thoughts on “Perfectionism and perspective in language learning

  1. Judy Hochberg

    Hi Josh,

    [This might be a semi-duplicate comment; please trash the first and keep this one.]

    I’m glad to find your blog, and thanks for your shout-out. We are definitely on the same wavelength. Your comments about German reminded me of when I was trying to buy groceries in the Swiss Alps. A nice family was trying to help me, but my vocabulary was truly inadequate. I finally tried holding up packages of deli meats and asking, “Sagt es ‘oink’ oder ‘moo’?” It worked!

    Good luck with your Spanish — let me know if you need any help.

    hasta luego,
    Judy

    Reply
    1. Josh Post author

      Judy,

      Thanks for your comment. Your story about “sagt es ‘oink’ oder ‘moo’?” gave me a chuckle. :)

      Reply
  2. tobefluent

    I think that letting go of perfectionism is the most important thing about learning a new language – and often the most difficult! It’s easy as the native speaker to tell someone else not to worry about mistakes, but it can be a lot harder to say the same thing to ourselves.

    Reply
    1. Josh Post author

      Yeah, it’s been one of my biggest hurdles for as long as I can remember. It’s also hindered my speaking ability in all of my languages, because I’m always thinking, oy, I can’t say it perfectly, so I better not say anything. Bad, bad, bad!

      Reply
    1. Josh Post author

      I just need to find a balance. Embrace it enough to keep pushing myself; let go of it enough so that it doesn’t hinder me. :)

      Reply
  3. Chris

    Balance is important! Being a perfectionist does not mean that people are obsessed. They just want to excel as much as possible and with the right perspective, they can do it without any problems.

    Reply

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