I’ve always struggled with perfectionism.
Whether it’s academia, sport, gaming, cooking—anything, basically—there’s always been this little voice in the back of my mind whispering:
“This isn’t good enough…”
It should come as little surprise, then, that I’ve suffered through its irritating put-downs on my language-learning journey as well.
The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection.George Orwell
Whether it’s making a mistake on Duolingo, not understanding something on a TV show, or using the wrong word gender when talking with a native, I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve scolded myself for not being perfect.
And yet, not only is this unhelpful, it’s also wildly unrealistic.
After over four years of uninterrupted language learning, I’ve come to realise that seeking pleasure is more effective than striving for perfection.
So in this article, we’ll look at how and why perfectionism does more harm than good in language learning, and why having fun is the most effective approach.
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O to be perfect
Many of us are plagued by this need to be flawless. And it stretches far beyond language learning.
It extends across all areas of our lives. Our appearance, our values, our emotions, our performance, our expectations.
And it isn’t difficult to understand why.
We see celebrities on Instagram and wonder how they can look so perfect. Their posts make their lives seem so complete. They’re adored and known the world over.
And when we compare ourselves and our ordinary lives to these seemingly perfect creatures, we all too often feel inferior.
Inevitably this creates a culture of perfectionism. We strive to be like those at the top. Flaws, hang-ups and mistakes are unacceptable.
It’s easy to think setting ourselves such high standards will benefit us. Surely it’s better than striving to be average. We all want the best for ourselves. And we can only achieve this by purging ourselves of all that makes us less. No one will respect or value us otherwise. Least of all ourselves.
So we diligently iron out the creases. We lambast ourselves for every mistake. We push ourselves to be the best in as little time as possible. We become both the slaver and the slave.
Perfectionism in language learning
So when we finally come to learn a language, we’re already bogged down by all these painful beliefs.
They affect the way we think about languages, the way we acquire them, and the way we use them.
We think that to truly know another language we must be able to both understand and produce it flawlessly. There is no room for error. Any slip-up, miscommunication, or misunderstanding would be a catastrophe.
This is a common fear for language-learning perfectionists. What will people think of us if we make a mistake?
So we dig in to the textbooks, hire expensive tutors, and make mountains of notes, in the hope we can avoid such embarrassing, shameful situations. Only by preparing ourselves so thoroughly can we confidently step out into the world and use our brand new language.
The pitfalls of perfectionism
Only, we never do.
Our perfectionism makes us so terrified of making mistakes that we habitually avoid situations in which we could make them. As such, we never actually use the language we spend so long learning.
That is, of course, if we haven’t already given up — something perfectionists so often do.
That’s because perfectionism sucks the joy out of everything. When we tell ourselves we need to be perfect, even the most pleasurable activities become painful.
And when something becomes painful, we’re less likely to want to do it.
Loathing what we love
I experienced this a lot at when I was at university.
I didn’t go to uni as part of some grand career plan. I went because I wanted to study history, for the sole reason that I was interested in it. Nothing more.
But thanks to my perfectionism, that soon melted away.
I put tremendous pressure on myself to get good grades. Each essay was like a trek up a mountain. I couldn’t enjoy the research or presenting my arguments because I was consumed by the need to score highly.
It was torture. Nothing was ever good enough. The thing I loved became something I loathed.
That was, until I reminded myself of why I was at uni in the first place. And it wasn’t to get good grades.
I was there because of my interest in the subject matter. If I wasn’t enjoying myself, then what was the point in being there?
Once I realised this, things quickly changed. I began to write with flair and personality, and revelled in the creative process. I saw it as an opportunity to express myself, rather than a trial at gunpoint. And if I didn’t score highly, so what? The grades meant nothing if I wasn’t enjoying it.
In any case, my grades didn’t drop. In fact, they improved. So not only was I enjoying what I was doing, I was getting better results as well!
Remember what drives you
This also applies to language learning.
Forcing ourselves to know every word in the dictionary, to pronounce everything correctly, to sound like a native from day one, sucks the fun out of what should be an enjoyable experience.
And this makes it more likely that we’ll give up.
Which is crazy, because it’s not even a standard we can live up to.
We’ll never know every word in the dictionary, we’ll never pronounce every word correctly, and our natural accents will always find a way to pierce through.
So what’s the point? Unless your goal is a career in espionage, there probably isn’t one.
In my case, I didn’t start learning Italian to know it perfectly. My goal was to be able to understand and communicate ideas. That, after all, is the purpose of language.
So what if I use the masculine article when I should have used the feminine. Who cares if I use the wrong preposition. So long as I’m able to communicate a message and have that message be understood, that’s all that matters.
Likewise, so long as I get the gist of what someone is saying, even if I don’t understand every single word, that’s good enough for me.
Why pleasure is better
Thinking in this way instantly relieves a lot of pressure.
It gives us a licence to be average, renewed motivation, and allows pleasure to take over.
A licence to be average
We no longer feel we have to meet an unrealistic standard. Where once perfection was everything, being adequate begins to suffice.
This gives us what we might regard as a licence to be average. We can make mistakes, misunderstand grammar rules, not remember a particular verb conjugation, all without the usual consequences that come with perfectionism.
We are, in effect, allowed to suck.
This makes it less likely that we’ll give up, and more likely that we’ll show up.
Ironically, despite our strong work ethic, it’s typical of perfectionists to procrastinate. We tell ourselves that we really should spend some time with our target languages. But because we’re so afraid of not being perfect, we delay getting started.
Days, weeks, and months go by with not a single minute spent practising. It fills us with guilt and ultimately stops from learning our target language.
But when we let go of our need to be perfect, and allow ourselves to rejoice in our mediocrity, our performance no longer matters. Our motivation to learn almost instantly reappears.
Pleasure takes over
The biggest and best result of this is that we begin to enjoy the learning process. As perfectionism vacates, pleasure moves in.
And it goes beyond motivation. There’s also a thriving body of literature in the language learning community that argues that this is the only way we acquire language.
He talks of a war between what he refers to as Comprehensible Input (which he favours) and Skill Building (which he detests).
In short, Comprehensible Input contends that skills (i.e. reading, listening, writing, speaking) emerge as a result of using a language.
Skill Building, however, contends that we must consciously learn the skills before we can use a language. In this way, the cause-effect is reversed.
Skill Building, Krashen argues, is painful and doesn’t work.
Whereas Comprehensible Input is pleasant, and–most importantly–does work.
In my experience, this is accurate. I’ve benefitted more from authentic content than I have from suffering through grammar books and flash cards.
Interestingly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, perfectionism often goes hand-in-hand with the Skill Building approach. It whips us into thinking that we have to know every rule in a language before we can use it. It punishes mistakes and leaves us terrified of making even the slightest error.
But with Comprehensible Input, the need to be perfect is nowhere to be seen. It encourages mistakes, forgives them, and allows us to enjoy compelling content in another language from day one. Thus we acquire the language and have fun doing it.
It is, as Krashen says, a win-win.
An effortless routine
Which is why, alongside Duolingo, my language-learning routine is filled with pleasant activities.
I even change the language settings on my phone, computer and Xbox so I’m constantly immersed in Italian.
These are all activities I would happily do in English. But doing them in Italian means I can improve without even trying. It turns my most pleasurable activities into my most effective lessons.
It really is a win-win.
Have fun. Learn the language
There’s nothing wrong with having high standards. But when they start to drain the fun from the process, it’s time to re-evaluate.
I cannot emphasise this enough: making mistakes is an important part of learning a language. In fact, it is absolutely essential. The more comfortable you are with making them, the sooner you’ll acquire your target language.
Don’t be afraid to get things wrong. Celebrate your errors. Embrace your slip-ups. Relish the challenge of tapping-in to another way of thinking.
So next time that little voice tells you that what you’re doing isn’t good enough, remind yourself of why you’re learning the language, and carry on being perfectly imperfect.