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.
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.