Monday, 3 February 2020

Why do I Suck at Languages: The Perfectionist.

Spoiler alert: you probably don't.

But let's start at the beginning: why is it that some people attend years of language classes and seem unable to compose a simple sentence?
These people all have something in common: they are perfectionists in some way shape or form.

The Perfectionist, be they adult or child, is by far my best customer. The Perfectionist sometimes spends years in beginners classes feeling like they are treading water. If you recognise yourself in this statement, this blog is for you. I am going to break down why you feel like you are not making any progress and sign post small steps you can take to help you gain confidence.

When learning a language is a frustration. 📷 Andrew Hunter on Unsplash.

Language courses are made for people who are good at languages. 
The problem: Modern language courses, if they are worth their salt, put great emphasis on speaking. They do this because this is best way to help students to actually speak the language, as opposed to reciting phrases and memorising grammar rules. People who are traditionally good at languages are, generally speaking, comfortable getting stuck in, making mistakes and picking up the rules as they go along. In other words: the exact opposite approach that the Perfectionist would take. The Perfectionist's instinct is to withdraw into their comfort zone, study all the vocab and rules available and only come out when they can make perfect sentences.
What can you do: I know you don't want to hear this, but the only way to start speaking is to start speaking. It's ok to take baby steps. You can even start by yourself for a while. Practise in front of the mirror, your reflection is not going to judge you. Then it's time to get yourself out there. Book a class or join a conversation group.* Turn up and speak to the teacher/organiser that you just want to listen for a couple of sessions. Give yourself a limit though, otherwise it will never feel like the right time.
Once you reach that limit, take the next step: give yourself the goal to speak once during the session. No matter, if you only answer a simple question with a simple answer. Then up your speaking quota as you go along.

Languages are a code that seems completely logical whilst being riddled with inconsistencies

The problem:
In short the language you are learning is not an exact science.
This problem is one big reason why you HAVE to take a deep breath and speak with another human of your chosen language in order to achieve a decent level of competence.
After 12 years of teaching German I would be a very rich woman if I had a pound every time I said: "Yes, by rules of logic this should be Dative, but it's actually Accusative". Languages are spoken by humans, humans have dialects, rebel against stuffy language rules and they make mistakes. That means that grammatical rules you learn in class, might be ignored by a high proportion of native speakers.
What you can do: Look at the situation philosophically. According to Wikipedia there are between 90-95 million people who speak German as a first language. As someone who grew up in Germany, I can assure you that every single one of these almost 100 million people (I include myself in this) bastardizes the beautiful German language to some degree. As someone living in London, surrounded by native English speakers, I can confirm that this is also true for every English speaker (even the Queen is dropping her  Ts when nobody's listening).
So if at any point, you forget that it's Der Tisch and Die Tasche, that's okay. German is hard, languages are hard. Give yourself a break.

Translating makes you feel safe

The problem: You're naturally thinking in the language you already speak. In the early days of learning your new language it's very tempting to just translate your thoughts verbatim. There's only probem: as a beginner you neither have the vocabulary, nor the grammar to translate your thoughts. As a result, translating your complex thoughts leads to only one thing: frustration.
What you can do: Keep the end goal in mind. No, you won't sound sophisticated saying the equivalent of: "Yesterday I go cinema. Film was good." But remember, you're a beginner and that's ok. So start of simple and add one improvement per session. Before you know it, you will be able to express more and more complex thoughts without taking a detour via translation.

Too many notes

The problem: The only thing worse than too many notes is no notes at all (but with The Perfectionist that doesn't tend to be a problem). Taking notes is a vital part of your language studies. Handwritten notes are not only a very useful study aid, they also help you commit any information to memory. But like everything else in life: it's possible to have to have too much of a good thing. Having to memorise 3 pages of detailed notes within a week leads us back to our old nemesis frustration and self-doubt.
What you can do: I'm not going to waste both our time by suggesting you take fewer notes during class. We both know that the thought of missing something important will be nagging in the back of your mind, distracting you from the objective.
So instead I'm going to suggest that you take as many notes during class as you want, as long as you can still take part in the actual class.
When you get home, sit down with your notes and a blank A4 sheet of paper. Make a cheat sheet from your notes reduced to the essentials of the lesson and limit yourself to a manageable amount of vocab. I suggest 5 words per week (meaning 260 words per year). This is your study aid for the week and only when you are happy that you have absorbed all the information and vocab from your cheat sheet move on to more words and information.

A foreign language? 📷John Moses Bauan

Perfectionists are great

As a child I quite liked the idea of becoming a scientist, but gave up on this idea when maths and exactitude became more important. In other words: I am one of these mavericks who just start talking in the new language and work out the grammar later. As Herr LLH and my typos in this blog will certify, I am not a detail person. This is a disadvantage for a budding physicist, but great if you want to learn a language fast. Meaning I am on the opposite end of the spectrum of perfectionism. In order to do tasks that require accuracy, I need to go against my instinct.
Perfectionists are amazing scientists, programmers and mathematicians. We need the Perfectionist but when the Perfectionist wants to learn a language they need to adapt the way their mind works. If and when they face the challenge, they make great linguists.



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