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.
It’s easy to get off track in one’s language learning (unless you’re one of the lucky few who gets paid to do so). Work projects become demanding, kids’ schedules take up time, and the spring cleaning needs to get done somehow. I found myself in this situation over the past couple months; I got off track. But languages always pull me back. Fortunately, I’ve thought for a long time about methods for learning languages, and a few of my favorite on-line language-lovers offer good advice that got me going again. The two pieces of advice that helped a lot: 1) work a little every day and 2) passive learning is important.
No shame in falling off the horse
I admit that I got out of the daily habit of setting aside time for my languages. This happens to everyone. I am not independently wealthy, so I spend a lot of time working. I do not work professionally with languages, so I have to find the time amidst my spare time. As we all know, spare time ebbs and flows; we have little control over how much we have. Many voices call out for our spare time, as well. Family, community, and relaxation all require some of our time–and that’s after coming home from work.
Nevertheless, I want back up on the language horse I fell off of. I needed to find a way to work on my languages amidst all these demands. So I recalled some great things I’ve learned from the web.
Aaron Myers at the Everyday Language Learner site constantly reminded me via his Twitter feed (@aarongmyers) to do something every day. I love the name of his blog because the double-meaning fits me perfectly. I need to learn languages “every day,” plus I’m a simple, garden-variety “everyday” language learner with cares, demands, and responsibilities like everyone else.
Finding 30 minutes to figure out what exercise I should do, though, was more than I could do. Learning every day was too much. So I was hardly learning anything. This was demoralizing and out-of-character for me. I had to learn how to do something every day, even if it was 5 minutes.
Passive learning jump-started my active learning
Passive learning allowed me to start up right away with little concentration and commitment, and then it led me easily–and unexpectedly–to more active study. Steve Kaufmann, who blogs and vlogs about language-learning, advocates passive language input, which will aid language-learning when one turns to more active methods. While I’m not beginning my language, I thought taking a passive-learning approach for now would help.
The BBC offers a one-hour daily news digest in Farsi, and I challenged myself this week to listen to the whole thing every day. It’s certainly over my head, but it’s well-produced and discussing topics I already know a little about. I listened a little in the morning while brushing my teeth, during my commute, and during some of my workouts. Though I didn’t make it all the way through every episode, and on a couple days I listened to the last few minutes while I was falling asleep at night, I still benefited. I was remembering words I thought I had forgotten and I looked up words occasionally. My mind turned again towards Farsi–exactly what I’d hoped for!
On Saturday, then, I started using the great learning app, Anki. This app soups up my old flash cards. It offers universal accessibility–platforms for PC (Windows and Linux), Android, and on-line–and keeps track of what words I know best. It also reminds me when it’s time to study. Creating new cards I find the hardest, but the application makes it easy to cut and paste from emails, articles, or Google Translate. I can also tag the source of my word. Thanks to Anki, I spent 10 minutes in bed this morning reviewing some words, in addition to the 25 minutes (so far today) of listening to the BBC. I’m back!
Quantity, not quality
Of course, the quality of your language-learning materials are important, but quantity got me back up into language-learning. Doing something–anything–every day not only helped my language knowledge but also my motivation. It’s easy to lose focus when life is busy, but 10 minutes that’s over your head is better than nothing.
Another thing I learned was that searching for quality input is important, but can’t stand in the way of practice. When I’m looking for material more than I’m praticing, I’ve lost my balance. I can tend to be a perfectionist, so I have to beware of this balance. “Just do it!” has to be my motto.
This coming week, I’m going to try more of the same. I’ll listen to the Persian BBC podcast as well as work my Anki cards as much as possible. We’ll see where I end up.
Are you languishing in your language-study? Did you fall off the horse? What’s one thing you can do–even for one day–in the next day or two to work on your language? Tweet this article and help spread the encouragement!