The Danger of Perfectionism

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CHINA UPDATE: I’m back in Australia! I was in Nanjing for just over 5 months at Nanjing University. It was a phenomenal experience, my Chinese improved immensely and I had a ridiculous amount of fun. I find myself continually daydreaming about the time I spent over there. I did quite a lot of travelling and feel like I have a good grasp of what the country is all about and what it stands for (and yet there is infinitely more to learn).

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Perfectionism is a quality that many people possess – maybe due to a lifetime of parental pressure or societal expectations more generally, or perhaps because of the common characteristic of education of emphasising a ‘wrong’ and ‘right’ answer or marks-based system, which can condition students to have a crippling fear of making mistakes.

Particularly, in regard to language learning, being subjected to years of rote-learning  verb conjugations throughout school can leave you with an acute sensitivity and distaste for small errors (even those that don’t affect your meaning) and often an expectation that an incorrectly executed grammar pattern might result in an embarrassing correction by the person you’re communicating with (as language teachers often do).

Perfectionism is often characterised as being a good thing. And, often, it can be. For example, spending hours ensuring your university or college essay is correctly cited and reads well will often pay off and may very well be a worthwhile endeavour. However, speaking a language is an instantaneous phenomenon. You don’t have time to agonise over every word that comes out of your mouth, and a belief that this is important is likely to result in you being too afraid to open your mouth, or too slow to engage in a proper conversation if you have to make sure every sentence is flawless speaking it.

If you think you are a perfectionist in your language learning (I used to be, and often still am) then I encourage you to stop reading this article for a moment and think for a moment about what the ultimate goal of languages is.

Go on, do it.

I think that the obvious answer is that language is a vessel for communication. Perfectionism then can, I believe, be defined as worrying about flawlessly using the language to the point that it becomes a barrier to communication. If you agree that communication is the main purpose of language, then you must see the incompatibility of perfectionism with this goal.

When I was learning French, I got so caught up with trying to speak it perfectly and with an impeccable accent that I was often quite self-conscious when using the language. This happened partly because of a level of competition with some of my French-learning friends. The effect was that I often made even more mistakes, and my speech was often slow and unnatural. It took a long time to get out of this habit, and even now some of my past perfectionism remains.

I think that, learning French, I also thought that people would judge me for making mistakes. Now, when I think about it, that seems silly to me. When I think about all of my foreign friends, practically all of them make mistakes speaking English, but this is never a problem unless they think it is. My foreign friends who I think of as speaking English ‘well’ are always the ones that emphasise speaking naturally without worrying too much about mistakes.

The opinion of the person you’re talking to of your language skills is despite all this actually quite important. Their evaluation of your level will influence the way they speak to you, the things they say and ultimately the complexity and depth of the actual conversation. However, speaking naturally, rather than just correctly will always give the listener the impression that you speak the language well. My advice is just to listen to the way native speakers talk, and try to emulate the same patterns and rhythm in their speech

Making mistakes was never something that I worried about when learning Chinese. Of course I would always ask people how to properly express things, but I was more concerned with communicating than speaking without error. As a result, I am a lot more comfortable and confident speaking Chinese than I was when I was learning French at the same level. Often I have no clue how to correctly say what I want to express, but I generally always manage to successfully communicate by describing my meaning and by using other methods of communication.

That just about caps up my thoughts on the matter, but I just want to reemphasise the importance of not worrying too much about making mistakes. It’s great to strive to speak as well as you can, just don’t let that affect your ability to communicate. Your language skills will develop naturally as you gain more exposure to the language and speak with people.

Now get out there and speak without fear!

As usual, let me know in the comments or send me a message if you have any questions or comment about what I’ve discussed!

Author: Dan

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  • Lisa Steingold

    Je suis apprendre Francais…so I really appreciate this blog but actually as an executive coach working with behavioural change I find this post so incredibly relevant! THANK YOU for sharing!!

    • Thanks Lisa! I love the psychology behind not only language learning, but language in general. Glad it interested you! Bonne chance avec le français!

  • hey there! I just wanted to tell you that i loved your blog and that you inspired me 🙂 keep on and bon courage! 😉