Blah, blah, blah – Speaking a foreign language when you’re an anxious perfectionist

After putting it off for way, way too long (more on that in an upcoming post), I jumped into trying to speak German semi-regularly about 8 months ago. I started using the Tandem app, chatting with folks, and making fairly regular phone calls. I’ve since made some great friendships with a number of people, many with whom I chat (text) with or talk to daily. I can’t understate how much this has helped my German. (If you take one thing away from this post, let it be this: if you aren’t communicating a lot with native speakers of your target language, start right now. It will help – promise.)

How I felt, for months on end, every time I tried to speak German. 🙂

There have been a lot of bumps along the way, though, mostly caused by my perfectionism. I’ve known on some level for a long time that perfectionism is actually a bad thing, but the past 8 months have really put that fact in the spotlight for me. I wanted to share some observations I’ve had about how I’ve felt and thought, and how to approach those issues:

“Maybe I’m not ready for this. I need to study more and then I will be ready.”

Perfectionism and the performance anxiety that comes along with it is tricksy (yes, like hobbitses), in that it can drive you away from doing the very thing you need to be doing – in this case, speaking your target language more. When I first started sending voice messages and making phone calls with native German speakers, my initial gut reaction was “I can’t do this!” I instantly started running into every day words that I just didn’t know, grammar structures I was clueless about – it was so uncomfortable. I wanted to run back to the safety of studying alone, where I didn’t feel pressure or discomfort.

For me, explicit study is the swimming pool, where I can control the depth of the water I’m in; speaking to a native speaker is the ocean, with me frantically treading water a mile from shore. There’s a time and place for explicit study, certainly – but it’s no replacement for really using the language. And that’s the key point regarding this: no amount of studying will make you ready. There will always be words you don’t know, grammar you stumble over, and that’s fine. While there is definitely some link between passive and active skills (reading and listening might help your writing and speaking a bit), the fact of the matter is, to improve your speaking, you have to speak. A lot. And then some more. And for a while, it’s going to suck, and that’s okay. So, don’t be like me and put it off forever and a day! It’s okay to make mistakes, and that’s a good thing – because we all make them.

“I don’t want to hold up the conversation, so let’s just switch to English!”

Now here’s a funny one. With Tandem and other similar apps, the whole point is to exchange languages – I help people with their English, they help me with my German. With one of my tandem partners who I call for a few hours weekly, I kept finding that I would get anxious and switch to English, usually after struggling to find the right German word or being unable to express myself how I wanted to. I kept doing this and couldn’t quite figure out why, because I really wanted to force myself to stick with German, even if it was uncomfortable. Then it struck me, what I was doing: I was the anxious guy in the grocery store when other people are trying to look at goods on the shelf.

Hear me out…

The grocery store holds a shared experience for a lot of people who are naturally anxious, or who don’t want to “inconvenience” other people. You’re looking at something on the shelf, and another person walks up, wanting to see something in the same area. What do you do? Well, if you’re an anxious person, you get outta’ the way, even if you aren’t done looking. Sometimes you just leave the aisle altogether, thinking “this is fine, I’ll come back later.” Why? Because you didn’t want to be in someone else’s way.

I caught myself doing this with my language partners. Despite the fact that I had sought these people out to help me with my German, I felt bad for holding up the conversation by fumbling for words.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but that’s just dumb, yeah? I’m allowed to look at the canned vegetables just like everyone else. 😉 Whether you are speaking with a language exchange partner or a tutor, the fact of the matter is, they expect you to stumble and fumble and use the wrong words. That’s how this all works – make mistakes, get corrections, learn. You aren’t inconveniencing them, and if they feel like you are – well, you might need a new language buddy or tutor!

“My language partner is going to think I’m stupid because of my speaking ability.”

No, sorry. Not going to happen. I found that, for me, what this really boils down to is this: I feel like my spoken German is terrible, therefore I expect that other people will think that and judge me for it (spoiler: they won’t). There are a few things at play here:

  1. Based on my experiences over these 8 months, most people are really bad at judging how good their usage of a foreign language is. Most Germans I’ve spoken to have bemoaned their “terrible English.” I’ve stated dozens of times that I think my German is pretty bad. Guess who has been right? None of us. Pretty much every time I’ve said something negative about my German, my speaking partner has told me that I’m crazy. And, in turn, I’ve said the exact same thing about their English – more often than not, their English is quite good, but they just can’t see it. If you’re a perfectionist, this feeling is much more amplified, because.. well, your L2 isn’t perfect. Set impossible goals, win no prizes, right?
  2. The second thing is, if your German or French or whatever is bad – so what? Chances are, your speaking partner still isn’t going to think poorly of you, because you’re learning. Mistakes are expected, sometimes a lot of them. As a perfectionist, I hold myself to unrealistic standards, standards to which no one else really holds me to. Furthermore, they’re standards I don’t apply to other people. To break myself of thinking my friends were judging me based on my German, all I needed to do was flip the scenario around: when my German friends make mistakes in English, do I think less of them? Do I think they’re stupid? Of course not. So why would they do that to me based on my German? They wouldn’t. Bingo.

Ultimately, one of my German friends with whom I’ve discussed my perfectionistic tendencies with, gave me a nice, summarized solution to these problems: “Josh, you need to get out of your way.” That really does sum it up. It certainly is not easy, but it is the solution. Perfectionism is detrimental in general, and downright catastrophic when it comes to speaking a foreign language, as it breaks the loop which you need to be in: speak more, get better at speaking. By expecting perfection, you’re already set up to fail the moment you open your mouth – and then you won’t want to do so. And if you don’t speak, your speaking isn’t going to get any better. So, if you’re like me – get out of your way. 🙂 Übung macht den Meister. (Practice makes perfect.)


Learning with Readlang

I’ve recently started using a lot more, adding it to my list of daily language learning tools. It’s similar to LingQ and Learning With Texts, but ultimately, I’ve found that I like Readlang the most out of the three. It’s speedier than Learning with Texts, is cheaper than LingQ (and quite usable without paying anything), and it has a Chrome extension that you can use on every webpage.

The Readlang reading interface (click to enlarge)
The Readlang reading interface (click to enlarge)

What Is It?

For those not familiar with it, as the name implies, Readlang is a reading tool. It lets you look up words or phrases by clicking on them (or highlighting, in the case of phrases), instantly pulling translations from Google Translate. You can either do this on the Readlang site itself, where you can upload your texts; or you can use the Chrome extension (found here) to use the tool on any web page you’re interested in. When enabled, the extension makes every word clickable.

(Side note: I mentioned above that the base translation comes from Google Translate, which, admittedly, is sometimes a bit… off. While you can’t change the instant translation dictionary, you can add custom dictionary links, which are used when you click to edit a word’s translation. The system will automatically search your preferred dictionary, so you can quickly and easily “tidy up” erroneous translations. You can access this feature in the reading interface, or in the word list pane.)

Whenever you translate a word – whether on the Readlang site or a third party site using the extension – that word is added to your master word list. In addition to the word and its translation, the context of the word is added. Being a lover of word lists (and printing them out to use with the Iversen word list method), I really love how seamless this works.

The Readlang word list area (click to enlarge)
The Readlang word list area (click to enlarge)

There are a few perks to the word list that come with the premium membership ($5/month). First, you can see the words from specific texts / books; if you look in the above image on the left side, you’ll see various Assimil lessons that I’ve added to Readlang. In the image, you can see I’ve selected Assimil Swedish 51, and the page is only showing me words from that specific text.

The other word list premium perk is being able to export your words in a variety of formats, as well as select which fields are exported. Here’s the export screen to give you an idea:

Export screen in Readlang (click to enlarge)
Export screen in Readlang

If you’re wanting a quick and easy word-> translation list based on your readings, this is your new favorite tool.

If word lists aren’t your thing, you can export your words for Anki cloze cards. If flashcards are your thing, however, Readlang also has those built in:


Readlang flashcard system
Readlang flashcard system


The flashcards go both ways, and in any given session, you have to get both directions correct before the system says you’re “done” with that word for the day. While I appreciate Anki’s bells and whistles, it’s also hard to argue with a flashcard system that is automatically populated with words you click on, with their context included.

Another thing I really love about the Readlang flashcard system is that the context sentence words are clickable as well. If you look at the above image, you’ll see that I couldn’t quite recall what “pĂ„ samma sĂ€tt” meant, so I just highlighted those words and got the translation.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, I’ve really been enjoying using the site, and I think it’s definitely worth adding to your language learning toolkit. The free version is fairly robust as is: you can use the extension / bookmarklet, flashcard system (without selecting which text you’re focusing on), and look up an unlimited number of single words. The premium subscription gives you longer phrase length (12 words versus versus 6), as well as unlimited phrase translations (instead of 6 per day with the free account), in addition to the sorting and export options I mentioned above. It’s definitely worth checking out.

Beginning steps in Swedish

A few weeks ago, I received my copy of Schwedisch ohne MĂŒhe. This was very much a spur of the moment purchase, based largely on this train of thought: I’ve long been interested in Viking history; I’m interested in Old Norse; I should check out a modern North Germanic language; Swedish looks good. And so I leapt to my favorite line of courses.

Schwedisch ohne MĂŒhe
Schwedisch ohne MĂŒhe

Wanderlust strikes again, but I’m okay with it.

I’m only up to lesson 5 so far, but it’s going well and I’m enjoying it. Some of it seems fairly transparent due to my English and German skills (besök -> Besuch, flytande -> fließend, not to mention things like syster -> sister).

My biggest hurdle right now is pronunciation. There are a few obstacles here: one, my brain keeps trying to read ‘Ă€’ as it’s pronounced in German. Two, there seem to be some tricky instances of letters being silent, and at least as far as I’ve seen so far, there aren’t hard and fast rules for when that happens. And three, for some words, it seems the voice actors just have different ideas about the pronunciation. For example, in ‘det,’ the ‘t’ seems to be silent sometimes, but other times it is clearly pronounced, depending on which voice actor is speaking the line. I’m sure (much) more exposure will help me sort this out.

One last note for now: for some awful reason, this particular Assimil book doesn’t have a glossary in the back. I was very disappointed to find this when I received the book. For now, I’ve bought a Berlitz pocket dictionary, but I’ll have to upgrade at some point or another. Sadly, a cursory search shows there aren’t a great deal of high quality Swedish-English / English-Swedish dictionaries. Who would have guessed that?

Strange Languages in Stranger Things

Like many people, the wife and I just finished up Stranger Things a few nights ago. I ended up absolutely loving it – great story, great acting, great 80s vibe. It was just lovely.

So I was very, very happy to see that Netflix actually lets you watch the show in all of the languages they produced it in; it doesn’t matter where you’re located in the world. You can watch it in English, Spanish, French, German, and Italian. There are also subtitles available for those languages, but a quick look shows that they sadly don’t match the audio all that well. Still, though – pretty nifty resource to have, and it’s a show worth watching.

Here’s a trailer, for those of you who aren’t familiar with what it’s about:


Sam commented and shared this amazing resource, a list of every show on Netflix that is available in foreign languages. Check it out here.

Hallo wieder (Back at it)

I mentioned this a while back on the Facebook page for my blog, but for those that missed it (why don’t you like the Facebook page? 😉 ): the missing passion has been found. No real secret to that, other than I did what lots of people do and recommend doing: focused on enjoying using the language. I’ve been doing a lot of reading and listening to stuff, and watching a bit of TV as well. Lost in German is wonderful, for anyone wondering.

My current reading / listening focus is Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen. I read the series years ago (in English), and my wife has been rereading it herself, so I figured I’d give it another read as well, just in German this time. I grabbed a hard copy of it from Bookdepository, as well as a Kindle version so I could convert it to text and toss the whole thing into LingQ. I’ve been happily marking up words and listening to the audiobook. And of course, with lots of reading and listening, I’m finding myself picking up lots of words without really trying all that hard. I still love my word lists, whether Iversen’s method or Goldlist, but just consuming a ton of content is also one heck of a way to learn words.

While I’ve not done it much due to lack of time, I’ve also been dipping back into my Assimil Russian book. I never did finish the passive wave – I ran out of gas around lesson 91 or 92, I think. So I’ve been working on getting through those, and then perhaps I’ll start on the active wave.

And, as usual when I get excited about learning languages, I’ve been trying to resist further wanderlust taking hold of me. I still have Viking Language 1 calling to me, and my elementary French is rusty, and I never did get anywhere with Dutch, and I live in the states so I really should learn some Spanish, and whoa, Italian sure is pretty, maybe I should learn that… Oy. It’s rough.

I’ll try to update here a bit more often! If I don’t, feel free to comment on this post and nag me. I will appreciate it. 🙂


Loss of Passion

So, it’s clearly been quite a while since I last wrote here. I’ve tweeted a few things here and there, but I’ve largely been silent on Twitter, too. What gives?

If you look at my previous post, you can probably connect the dots. My trip to Germany, while lovely, really did a number on my passion for language learning. Perhaps loss of passion isn’t the right way to put it, although that was the first thing that came to mind. Maybe loss of direction or a general feeling of defeat would be a better way to put it. After years of toiling away with German, going to Germany and feeling lost (at least with listening / speaking) was a bad feeling indeed. I felt very defeated, frustrated, and as if I had wasted all of that time over those many years.

I thought and wrote about sticking with it, figuring I wouldn’t let my experience in Germany get me down. No need to be like a native, enjoy the process, etc.  And that really was my intention at the time, to keep chugging along and enjoying the experience. But reality has been different. I still love languages and have always enjoyed learning them, but the drive has just been gone, and I’m not quite sure how to get it back. Since returning from Germany, I’ve not done much language learning at all. I’ve written a few short messages to my tutor; I’ve read and listened to a couple of articles in LingQ; and that’s about it. I’ve thought about doing more, but I’ll look at my books and think – why bother?

To make matters worse, I’m at a level with German where I don’t seem to notice progress any more. I read, I listen, I learn words, but I swear, it always seems like there’s just as many new words to learn, expressions I don’t understand, grammatical quirks that elude me. I obviously understand that you’re never really “done” with a language, but I’ve got to say, I usually feel like I’m on a treadmill that’s never going to turn off, and that’s no good at all. This feeling is what I mean when I feel directionless in regards to language learning. I know enough German to recognize what I don’t know, and there’s a lot of it, so I’m not sure what to focus on. Too many fires to put out, so to speak, and it’s not clear to me which ones I should douse with water and which ones I should let burn for a while.

Having said all of that, I’m not quitting per se, but I do have to quit beating myself up over how I’ve been feeling. I suppose this post is part of that. I’ve been feeling anxious about not doing anything with languages, about not writing here, about not sharing language stuff with folks who follow me on Twitter and Facebook. I know, I know, you guys have other sources (traitors! ;), but this is something I really did want to do, so I feel like I’ve been failing in that regard. But I need to toss the guilt and anxiousness aside, because it’s doing me no favors. Ultimately, I may get back into the language learning thing – I’m going to try to – and I may not. And if I don’t, well, that has to be okay, I guess.

If you fine people have any anecdotes of being in similar positions and clawing your way out of it, feel free to chime in. I would appreciate it!

(As an aside: this is language learning “real talk.” None of that “it’s easy and great and it’s always a joy and you can be fluent in 3 and a half minutes!” stuff here, no sir. My apologies, though – I know some people prefer their language learning stuff to always be optimistic and uplifting, and I just don’t have any of that currently. Maybe in the near future if I can pull out of this slump!)

(Aside number two: I realize this isn’t the first time I’ve been in this situation and written about it. Life is cyclical, I suppose.)

Germany and “What did they just say?”

So, I mentioned previously that my wife and I were going to Germany for our honeymoon. We went in early September, and were there for a little over a week. It was a great trip, and I’m glad to have been able to go.

Obviously, with my love for the German language, I was excited for the opportunity to be surrounded by it and try out my skills in a real world setting. I ran into two major issues though, one of which I had read about many times, and the other which I (sort of) expected:

  1. The vast majority of Germans we interacted with spoke excellent English, and often started out with it. Once they could tell we were English speakers, there was no going back.
  2. When they did speak German (or when, let’s be honest, I was trying to eavesdrop on Germans around me for listening practice), I… couldn’t understand much. Sure, I could understand basic questions / statements, but a lot of the time, it was a case of, “Okay, I understood that word and.. that one.. and.. what did they just say?”

I fully expected the first issue. The second was kind of expected too, but not to the extent that it happened. I’ll be honest: it was rough. I was struggling with feeling like I was a major failure in the language realm. I’ve been tinkering with German for years now, have read books in the language, read news stuff all the time, listen to podcasts… and then there I was, in Germany, scratching my head at what native Germans were saying. It was not a great feeling. While there and after getting home, I’ve struggled with the question: what have I been wasting my time on? I’ve spent countless hours learning German. If I couldn’t understand native Germans, what’s been the point?

For a brief bit of time, I was considering giving up on foreign languages – calling it quits, selling off all of my materials, and moving on. I’m still not feeling great about the whole experience, but I’ve reflected on it enough to rein myself back from giving up, and have a couple of thoughts on the matter.

First, I don’t listen enough. I never have, really. Reading and, to a lesser extent, writing, have always been my primary method of learning. That problem has long been on my radar, and I’ve made some attempts to correct it, but it’s still the way I lean in my studies. So it’s no real surprise that I struggled to drop into Germany running, so to speak.

Second, while it’s certainly not the whole reason I was struggling, I do know that dialects / regional accents were coming in to play. It’s not like everything was 100% unintelligible. I could catch half the words, some here, some there, and then others were just leaving me with the feeling of, “is that even German?”  So I was left with the feeling of, “I feel like I kinda’, sorta’ know what they’re talking about, but not exactly.”

Third, and perhaps most importantly (to me)… does it really matter? When I really get down to it, I don’t need to be able to operate in a native setting with any of my languages beyond English. I live in America, in a small town with more or less zero international presence whatsoever. I think I’ve heard German spoken here once, by a Polish professor. I’ve never heard French or Russian spoken here, and most likely, never will (especially in regards to Russian). I am not an international spy. I have no need to be able to pass myself off as a native German. At base, I simply enjoy learning languages, even if I will never have any real use for them (Old Icelandic, anyone?) If I, for some reason, moved to Germany, I’m sure I’d be able to get my speaking and listening skills up to par in a short amount of time. But currently, I just have no pressing need to do so. So I shall continue on puttering about with my languages, and be content with that.


The Goldlist Method

I wrote about the “Goldlist method” quite some time ago (just shy of 8 years ago, wow!), but never really gave it a fair try. (If you’re totally lost about what the Goldlist method is, it’s probably best to start with the creator’s page here.) At the time I wrote the original post, I remarked that it sounded rather clunky to me, specifically in regards to the notebooks. I was concerned that keeping track of a bunch of notebooks with dated pages would be cumbersome; I was also quite enamored with Anki, the spaced repetition software that’s quite popular in the language learning community. I figured, why bother with a bunch of dated notebook pages when I have this software that will handle everything?

I’ve decided to revisit the method, though, for a couple of reasons. First, the ideas behind it intrigue me, and second, I’ve lost some of my love for digital vocabulary techniques; I’ve come to find that writing things out is, in and of itself, a good aid for remembering things, and, for whatever reason, Anki never really did work all that well for me. I did the repetitions, I added cards frequently, but didn’t really feel like I was retaining much of it. I’ve had success using Iversen’s word list method (and enjoyed using it), so I figured I would give the Goldlist method a try, too.

Perhaps the biggest idea with the Goldlist method that catches my interest is the idea that our long term memory isn’t really under our control. You can stuff things into your short term memory, but getting it into your long term memory is a bit of a tougher nut to crack. Furthermore, we tend to remember things we enjoy, and so a big part of the Goldlist method is simply taking it easy, enjoying writing out your words and definitions, and not trying to memorize them. By not cramming, you help move things along to your long term memory, rather than to your short term memory. Additionally, since you’ll be revisiting the words in a few weeks / months to distil them, the Goldlist method has a sort of built-in spaced repetition aspect to it, helping things stay in your memory once they’re there to begin with. Not quite the same as Anki’s, which is down to the very day, but it’s still repeated exposure.

I started trying out the Gold list method about 3 weeks ago; at this point, I’ve done about 8 or 9 headlists of 25 words, and 5 or 6 first distillations. (Yes, I need to use it more; life is busy, gimme’ a break). After doing the first few headlists, I found that some of the words I wrote out (and their meanings) kept popping up in my head unexpectedly, days later, so that seemed like a positive sign. The same thing has happened with the distillations. I also found that, as predicted, I felt I knew a solid 30% of the words when I went to distil the headlists. I also think that the creator of the program is onto something, in that the act of actively choosing to “discard” a word – to not repeat it in further lists – triggers your memory to try and hold onto it even tighter. Some of the words I opted to not repeat are still popping into my head on occasion, and I’ve not forgotten their meanings yet. While my experience with the system is minimal at this point, thus far, I’m tentatively impressed (and surprised), and am going to stick with it to see how things go.

In addition to seeming to work, the method has, for me, another major plus so far: it’s incredibly relaxing. Reviewing cards in Anki always stressed me out, and felt like work. Slowly writing out words and their meanings is enjoyable and calming, which, as the creator remarks, is probably part of the reason as to why I’m remembering the words so well. The idea of doing a couple writing sessions over the course of an hour sounds nice; the idea of reviewing 200 cards in Anki over the course of an hour sounds like drudgery (more power to Anki users, though!)

Putting the gold list method to the testThus far, the biggest problem I’ve had with the method was, comically, not really about the method – it was about paper. Due to the length of the lists, the method calls for the use of an A4 notebook. Finding such a thing where I’m at is nigh on impossible, and I didn’t really want to drop $20 on a nice A4 notebook for what, at the time, was simply a test run. I did have a nice notebook that I was able to make work (mostly), by basically using the top left part of the page for 2 columns instead of 1 (see in the picture). It limits how much I can put down by quite a bit, but thus far it hasn’t proven to break the system. Provided I decide to stick with it for the long term, once this book is full, I’ll probably hunt down some high quality A4 notebooks on amazon.

I’ll post more about my experiences with the method after I have some more lists and distillations behind me. If you’ve used the method, let me know how it worked for you in the comments!


Spotify and Language Learning

I’ve been a big fan of Spotify ever since it launched in the states a number of years ago, not only because it’s great for music discovery, but also because it’s a veritable treasure trove for language learners. For a long while, listening to decent music in foreign languages was a matter of either paying to have CDs shipped to you from another country, or hoping what you wanted to listen to had been uploaded to YouTube. While those are still obvious options, I still like Spotify for its catalog and for its ability to help me discover artists I otherwise would probably never find – especially foreign language artists, which, for a guy stuck in southern Ohio, are woefully absent on the radio airwaves.

Spotify Screenshot Anyway – apparently, Spotify recently updated their software, adding a feature which makes it even better for language learners: a lyrics button. Yes, you can already look up lyrics online, but this is a bit cooler than that. When you click the button, Spotify pulls up the lyrics of the song and highlights each line as it happens in the song. Furthermore, clicking on a particular line will make the song jump to that point, so if you want to listen to a line more than once for practice, this makes it happen easily.

There is a caveat, however – the lyrics are, as far as I know thus far, crowdsourced. So sometimes, you may come across a song that doesn’t have lyrics attached to it yet. You can add lyrics, though, and once that’s done, you can listen to the song and click each line of text as you hear it, which makes it possible for Spotify to then display the lyrics in real-time as the song plays. It’s a relatively painless experience, especially considering a quick google search will usually provide you with the lyrics of a song to copy and paste.

All in all, quite a cool feature; check it out.


Language Bits

Just some bits and bobs I’ve watched / read lately about language learning that I found interesting. Enjoy!


Steve Kaufmann has a nice video up about dealing with anxiety and language learning, specifically while speaking, but what he says can really be applied to all aspects of language learning.

Favorite quote:

“Every time I communicate in the language, I should say good, I communicated, not worry about what I missed or forgot, or worry about how I sounded. Simply say I did well, I did as well as I was able to do.”

If you’ve read my blog for any amount of time, you’ve probably picked up on the fact that I have crazy perfectionistic expectations for myself, which is really kind of stupid. It’s always a battle for me to relax and say, hey, you did a pretty good job there, errors and all. Steve’s video is a nice reminder.

In other news, learning a new word stimulates the same region of the brain as sex, research shows. Well, this puts learning tons of new words all at once in a much different light, doesn’t it? 🙂

Here’s a video about how people often try to keep the idea going that German is inherently harsh sounding. While I do think that German might sound harsher than other languages at times (it does have a fair bit of hard consonants), it certainly isn’t the case that every (or even many) Germans routinely sound like screaming Nazis – which is kind of the running joke.