No shame in loving language!

Free yourself from perfectionism!
Free yourself from perfectionism!

Perfectionism leads to shame because perfectionists can never live up to their own standards.  Not trying and rationalising lack of action cause less pain than trying and failing.  When people start learning languages they often think of their current level of their native language as the level they should be at.  The task seems so daunting to many that they don’t start.  Yet some still start.  Naturally, after many months and years, they still do not reach the level of their native language.

Often they feel bad about not knowing a language fluently.  They might feel lazy, they might feel stupid–in other words, they feel shame.  In spite of earning a reputation for monolingualism, most Americans I know have learned another language in some capacity, whether Hebrew at synagogue or Spanish on “Sesame Street.”  But they feel shame, they hate themselves because they’re bad at the language.  Excuses begin.

I can help you.  I think you probably know a little of a language, and that’s great.  People often rationalise the reason why they don’t know more.  I’ve included in this post three of the most common rationalisations I’ve heard–and cures for them.  Enjoying what you know and taking yourself a little less seriously will help cure your language perfectionism.

I only know a little–not very much

“All I can say is ‘uno, dos, tres.'”  “I can pronounce the words, but I don’t know what I’m saying.”  “I learned a little in school, but that was a long time ago.”  Phrases like these belie underlying shame for not being good enough at a language.  The one who says it feels like they should know a language better, but just never got around to learning it better.

People seem to think that their “limited” exposure does not measure up to what it should be.  Fluency or nothing seems to lie at the core.  Since they can’t communicate everything they want in the language, they won’t bother.  The language is to have conversations; without that ability, their language knowledge may as well not exist.

Language serves a lot of purposes besides full conversations, namely, to connect people.  If I only know “¿Cómo estás?” then I can use it when I run into a Spanish-speaking person at work.  (If the person answers in Spanish, refer to the next point, below.)  If you say you can only read Hebrew or Arabic and not understand, look again–you probably understand a smattering of words that you can use.  Two words are better than nothing.  A friend of mine went to China with a coworker, and they only learned “hello” and “handsome man.”  They broke the ice in a lot of situations by bringing smiles to people’s faces.  A handful of words won’t carry a whole conversation, but can bring people together.

I can’t understand when people respond

I’ve heard the story many times: I really hunkered down and studied my language.  I took classes, I bought Rosetta Stone, I listened to my language on-line.  Finally, I got the chance to go to the country.  When I took my Coke to the cashier, the lady spoke so fast that I couldn’t understand a single word.  I asked her to repeat, so she said it louder, and I still didn’t get it.  I smiled, showed her my money, and she picked out the right amount.  Humiliated, I realized I am no good at languages and I will no longer try.

Language-learners resemble children in adult bodies.  They look like adults, but you have to talk to them like they’re little kids.  They can’t understand the simplest things!  The tension is unavoidable.  You know what you want to say, and you want to be respected like an adult.  Now it sounds like the adult you’re talking to in your language is yelling at you, scolding you.

I think we can revel in this disconnect.  Rather than feel the shame of a naughty child, we can laugh at the funny man-child (or woman-child) we have suddenly become.  My friend told me about his friend–I’ll call him Jack–in France.  Jack came to France to look for work, but his French was barely existent.  He kept his chin up in this difficult reality.  When he saw quizzical responses on people’s faces, when he couldn’t make out the answer to his request, he laughed.  Because of Jack’s great attitude, he could have a whole boulangerie in stitches when he went to order a croissant; everyone had a good time.  Rather than feel shame for his French, Jack drew attention to his inability to speak “well” and everyone loved him because of it.

I really want to get good at this language before I start another one

A long time ago I was on a message board with folks who love languages.  One person was lamenting that she wanted to learn Russian and Greek, but she didn’t want to start yet because she wanted to get good at Spanish first.

The person held some unrealistic expectations that were holding her back.  First, the point at which one is “good” at a language eludes us–if it actually exists.  As a result, we are tempted to put off the starting point for Russian, Greek, etc, forever, since we can always convince ourselves that we are not yet “good” at Spanish.  Second, the need to wait exposes our tendencies towards perfectionism.  We need to be good first because people might think we’re no good at Spanish or we can’t finish what we’ve started.  Maybe we’ll lose the little Spanish we gained once we start Russian, and then we’ll sound more dumb than we were!

My response was: embrace your inner debutante!  Learn a little bit of Russian while you learn your Spanish.  Find a Spanish textbook on how to learn Greek.  Memorize “hello” and “good-bye” and “I love your language!” in Russian, and then go back to Spanish.  Listen to Greek radio on-line while you memorize your Spanish words.  No chef perfects beef before moving on to chicken–he does both.  He doesn’t have to be the best at both, but he can still learn how to adapt.  Learning is always good.

Perfection is not attainable

Perfectionism lies at the root of our language shame.  We don’t speak enough, we don’t understand others, we shouldn’t start being imperfect at another language–all come from perfectionism.  When we don’t attain that perfection, we feel guilty.

Laughter is the best medicine, and it can cure perfectionism.  Trot out your three words of Spanish, smile when you don’t understand, and love learning a few phrases of a language you’re not focusing on right now.  Any language you can learn will help you–and will help the one you are speaking to.  When our attitude shifts away from our shame towards love and connection, speaking languages will continually bring us–and everyone around–delight.

Photo credit: danorbit. / / CC BY-NC-ND


8 thoughts on “No shame in loving language!

  1. I’ve definitely got the perfectionist streak going… and it’s holding back my progress with the Portuguese. I’ve put so much effort into getting my Spanish up to palatable level (am not yet where I want to be with it, though), that I’m left completely daunted by the effort it’s going to take to get even close to that in Portuguese.

    I realise this probably won’t reflect well on me, but here goes: A while ago, at a local market here in Spain, a woman in her 60s approached me and my friend. We had been talking in German, and the lady overheard us. She said she’d been living in Germany for 40 years before returning to Spain, and we chatted for a bit. She was very sweet, and we had no communication problems at all – she understood everything we said to her, and we understood her perfectly well. I enjoyed the encounter but… I was thinking… her grammar was just downright AWFUL. Gosh, after four decades in Germany!!! For me, this just wouldn’t do. I’d rather not start on a language at all, if I knew that’s the best I could ever achieve.

    Yeah, I know. I’ll go stand in a corner now….


  2. Wow, this post was a great reminder of many good things! Thank you for writing it 🙂 I’ve recently found myself feeling really ashamed of my Russian- had to give a toast last night and chickened out and did it in English. You’re right- we shouldn’t waste time thinking of all the reasons we’re not good enough, we should be thinking “what can I do this very minute to get even just a tiny bit better?” Over time language skills are either the results of those tiny improvements (meaning better skills) or of all those missed opportunities (meaning weaker skills).


    1. This is a good point. Learn a little every day. I just read on another friend’s blog that he writes something that he learned every day. He’s not language-focused; he just wants to progress from one day to the next.

      What did you learn today in Russian?


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  4. I’ve never thought about all the ways I shame myself with language, until now. I definitely am feeling a little raw and in need of contemplation after reading this. It speaks to what I consider my “biggest obstacle” to learning Chinese in Taiwan:.. That people here routinely speak English to me instead of Chinese. But it’s my own shaming that is the REAL obstacle. You say laughter is the antidote for shame? I’m going to try it and see what happens! This may a be a significant turning point for me. Thank you, I am deeply grateful!


    1. Thank you. I’m happy to hear it! There’s nothing like tearing off that scab and getting down to the issue. I always remember that there are thousands of children learning that language at the same time as me. What’s the difference? They don’t care if they sound stupid, they just want results! 🙂

      I found it practical to have an ice breaker that will show that you like the language and are trying. For example, my friend went to China for work. She didn’t know how to say anything except, “Hello, handsome man!” Everyone thought she was so funny!

      My Somali friend taught me how to say, “This is a problem,” in–I guess–a funny way. People think that’s really funny.

      Finally, you can trick people into not speaking English. Ask them how to say things. “Excuse me, I’m learning Chinese. Could you please tell me how to say ‘park bench’?” It doesn’t even matter if you already know how to say “park bench”–you’ve recruited them as a Chinese teacher.

      You’re doing great! Your language-learning is teaching you about yourself. Even if your Chinese doesn’t improve (but it will improve) you will have come out a better, stronger person.


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