Anyone who has ever considered learning a new language is probably aware that it is going to take time, effort and consistency to build a solid foundation of knowledge and proficiency. Some languages may be harder to learn than others, but the principle is the same: If we want to learn something, we need to invest time into it. And the more time we invest, the more we improve. After all, practice makes perfect! And that may very well already be one of the biggest obstacles we have to overcome. Not only are we going to have to invest time, but we have to do so regularly and consistently, otherwise we may not be progressing noticeably enough, or worse yet, we may forget what we have previously learned and make no progress at all! So, even though many of us decide to pick up a language by ourselves and on our own terms, we may still feel put off by our very own nagging sense of obligation and commitment. Getting started may be the hardest part of it all, and then once we are in it, we are already hitting the next obstacle: Are we learning fast enough? As human beings, we can be very impatient. When we want something, we don’t usually like the idea of having to wait for it. We want it as soon and as conveniently as possible. Why would that be different for being able to master a foreign language?
As we are tugging along on our learning journey, many of us face yet another obstacle: We are meticulously perfectionistic. Not only do we appreciate a job well done, but we also cherish being able to do a job well ourselves. We appreciate quality, and when we face a lack thereof, especially if we feel we are owed or deserved it, our sense of injustice is tingling. We value good quality, and we want to be good at things. Making mistakes is not a very pleasant experience for many of us. Not being able to do something makes us become painfully aware of our own limitations, and even though our limitations can change, and we can often grow beyond them, experiencing them can be unpleasant. We are sensing our very own lack of quality. When learning a new language we will, very quickly, become aware of the limitations in the things we cannot express.
But wait, there is more: Not only are we impatient perfectionists, we can also be extremely concerned about how we are perceived by others. Many of us strive not to be, but sometimes we just can’t help it. We worry about what others think, and how our strengths and weaknesses are perceived by the people around us. On top of that, we appreciate being kept in the loop, and we like the feeling of knowing what is going on. It gives us a sense of control, and we love being able to control things. It gives us a sense of security and, well… power. Not having power or control over a situation can wreak havoc on our emotional and psychological well-being. Knowing is bliss, not knowing can be agonizing.
In conclusion, we are impatient, perfectionistic, paranoid, control-obsessed procrastinators, who struggle to find the perfect balance between things. And whenever we struggle, we can be extremely hard on ourselves. So much so, that we are doing ourselves a huge disservice. Especially if what you are trying to accomplish, e.g. learning a new language, hits so many of our human weaknesses all at once. But another thing we all have in common but fail all too often to see is: We are not alone. Many of us have struggled before us learning a new language, and many of us are struggling at the same time as us. So instead of giving in to your inner self-doubting procrastinator, consider this:
Make a list of small, achievable goals. A checklist, as it were. Download that app, order that book, look up that info. Regardless of how small, write it down, and when you make the actual first step, check if off the list! Your brain will appreciate the accomplishment, no matter how small. Then, move on to the next step: Spend 10 minutes on the app, read the first chapter, check it off the list. Not only are we combating the procrastinator in us, but we are also implementing a sense of order and direction, which can help tremendously with managing our stress levels as well.
The next time you get frustrated with not learning fast enough, consider this: By learning a new language, you are not just picking up a hobby or pastime, but you are actively attempting to rewire your brain. You are battling deeply implanted speech-motor habits in your brain and how it controls movements of your mouth, tongue and palate. This takes time. A lot of time. And that is OK. Impatience comes from wanting something sooner than we can have it. In this case, we want complete mastery of the language. That’s too big a goal to strive for in one chunk. It will take time for you to accomplish it, and until you have, you will constantly be reminded of this “un-accomplishment”. But in the meantime, you are accomplishing things, you may just not be acknowledging it. Break up the goal into bite-size and digestible chunks. Do not lose track of the overall goal, but instead of only striving for mastery of the entire language, strive for mastery of the conjugation of a specific verb or tense. Celebrate smaller accomplishments. They are just as valuable. Without them, the big goal would never be attainable.
Being a perfectionist is not a bad thing. On the contrary, it can provide a healthy drive that pushes us forward. Unfortunately, it can also make us continuously and painfully aware of our own imperfection, especially because we love comparing ourselves constantly. Comparing your current self with your imaginary, perfect, future self, or comparing yourself with others, and perpetuating this self-inflicted conviction that the level you are at right now at is not enough to be proud of yourself. What we need to learn to do is lower the dose of our perfectionism and remember not to take it on an empty stomach. Striving to do better is great, striving to be our best is wonderful, but being perfect is not humanly possible, and absolutely no one is. On the contrary, making mistakes is an integral part of learning. Even making mistakes repeatedly, over and over, is an important part of the experience that can help us perfect something even more. Hence the "practice" in "practice makes perfect". Use your perfectly dosed perfectionism to practice more, try harder, and do better, but the moment there is even the slightest insinuation that our striving and our accomplishments up to this point are insignificant, we have taken too high a dose.
Feeling self-conscious is self-inflicted. No one else can make you feel self-conscious. It starts with you, and it ends with you. Think of it as going to the gym and feeling worried that everyone is going to look at you. The reality is, most people are there to work out themselves, and not to watch you. And even if they did, they will most likely look at you for a few seconds, and then move on with their workout and never think about you again. More likely, the same person that you thought was ridiculing you in your head, was probably just as self-conscious as you. A lot of people are self-conscious, which only means, they are focusing on themselves, and not you. So, if everyone is thinking about what someone else is thinking, they are not actually thinking about us, which means, we can relax. And even if they do think about us, it doesn’t matter. Because other people’s thoughts cannot make you what you are not. The challenge with learning a new language is, you will absolutely be making mistakes. If a native speaker did not understand what you tried to say, remember that you already speak another language fluently. You are adding to your skills, you are not lacking. So not being able to say something perfectly is not a “lack of skills”, that deserve to be belittled. Rather, they are an extra set to an already existing, complete one.