Don’t try so hard: Do the minimum for language love

Don't get worried. Just open up and start speaking.
Don’t get worried. Just open up and start speaking.

I recently met the inventor of Fetch-a-Phrase, a method of keeping all the key phrases you need for a language in your back pocket. You take basic phrases for you language, correlate the words from one language to the other, and then use the correlations to build new sentences.

You don’t have to be great at languages. You just have to care. You don’t have to be fluent in a language. You just have to try. You don’t need to understand everything. You just have to say something. You don’t have to impress anyone. You just have to do something for someone else.

Lower the bar. Perfection is not the friend of language-love.

I get lots of questions about languages.

What do I have to do to get fluent?
Learn a lot of vocabulary each month.

Is it ok to learn more than one language at the same time?
Yes. Embrace your inner dabbler.

I don’t have enough time to get fluent. Should I bother trying?
Yes. You will see fruit no matter how little you learn.

I suck at languages! Why should I even try?
If you sucked at languages, we wouldn’t be speaking now. Try because you can connect with others in a new way. You’ll learn more than you think.

The basis of all these questions is the belief that one has to speak “well” or that one has to be “good” at languages. Both are wrong assumptions.

The reason why you’re worried is because you think you have to be perfect or good or successful. You can read this article to see that you just care too much. Care less, and you’ll be more successful.

Fetch-a-phrase shows that you don’t need much effort to speak a language. Ask how to say a few things. You don’t need months or years of classes, heavy volumes, or multiple apps. One page with the most basic of grammar and equivalences with English (or your native language).

When I was in the Basque Country, the language teacher I met told me that the African immigrants spoke better Basque than the local folks in his classes. The latter were anxious about their language test, the former just talked to people. Studying and caring less hard made the Africans more successful.

The beauty of this effort is the result. When you actually do speak a little of the language, others respond. Your attempt shows them great respect, and so they treat you with great respect—maybe more than you were expecting. They may bring you deeper into a part of their lives reserved for insiders. As I was told one time, “When you speak Somali I feel close to you.”

And, by the way, my Somali is awful.

What language—or languages—are you awful at? When was the last time you enjoyed it? Has perfectionism made you miss out?

Photo credit: Kate Dreyer via / CC BY-NC-ND


7 thoughts on “Don’t try so hard: Do the minimum for language love

  1. Easier said than done, but I agree wholeheartedly. I am forwarding your post to my daughter who has temporarily moved to Ghana and is trying to learn Twi in just this way – no real formal study, just picking things up as she goes.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Buidheag

    “If you sucked at languages, we wouldn’t be speaking now”.

    Hahaha you’ve nailed it! Love your blog posts!

    A thing that strikes me with English and French speakers – they seem to think that literacy and good spelling is the same thing, probably because of what they’ve been told at school…

    Schoold are great, but they have one big disadvantage, they teach fear of mistakes to kids. Such a pity. Kids have self-esteem but it’s not based on language skills. Young kids don’t care if they make mistakes, which is one of the reasons why they can learn languages so much faster than us. We can learn so much from them!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Shelby

    Thank you so much for sharing! I’ve been learning Spanish for 8 years now, and I’ve definitely seen my perfectionism getting in the way. As I look forward to a career in Spanish education, I can foresee this being a barrier for my future students as well. Learning a new language takes a lot of work, but practice only comes when you take the risk and start a conversation.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: First steps at language love – Loving Language

  5. Rachel

    My father said to me the other day, “I don’t speak German anymore because it’s not good enough – I don’t like messing up, it’s too embarrassing.”

    “You’ve got to stop being afraid of messing up to learn a language, dad. Get rid of your pride, it’ll hold you back. To improve at a language you’ve got to come to terms with sounding stupid.”

    I’d say this is maybe the number one stumbling block for language learners – they don’t want to have a go, because they might get it wrong.

    Yeah, it’s embarrassing, but at least the correction sticks.

    Liked by 1 person

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