When we start learning something, we always want to perfect it right away. If you’re learning numbers, you can't just stop after one, two, and three. You need to learn at least from one to ten—or one to 100. If you wish to study the conjugations of some French or Spanish verbs, you can't stop after learning "I am" and "we are"; you have the inner yearning to discover how each of the conjugations and tenses work and the logic behind them. And if you haven’t learned all of that, then you can’t even think about holding a conversation in that language! You're just not “ready.” 😉
Based on research, this is how the average learner thinks. And to be frank, that's one of the main reasons why most people fail to learn languages. ☝️
What I describe above is an inner yearning for perfection and a deep need to feel “ready” before actually starting to use a foreign language. In this blog post, we'll dive into the ways a perfectionist mindset holds back your language-learning results, where it all comes from, and what to do instead to find success in your language endeavors.
Perfectionism is holding you back
If you really think about it, expecting perfection at something before you do it is not a very natural thing for human beings. Throughout the centuries, we have always learned most efficiently by making mistakes. And research shows that making mistakes is the best way to learn something, because it's impossible to be perfect at something right away.
Perfectionists experience “analysis paralysis,” and, to be honest, they're in quite a difficult situation. They want to be perfect so they can employ their learned skills, but they can't become perfect without making mistakes. They’re basically working against themselves, so they become stuck.
That's what research tells us as well: Language learners believe that achieving results that would allow them to manage the new language would take so much effort and so many years of work that they don’t initiate the process.
We are trained to seek perfection from a young age
We don’t have to search far for the answer to where such perfectionism comes from. The roots form in school: The traditional grading system engrains in us that mistakes should be avoided at all costs. This programs a deep fear of making mistakes, hence programming us to desire perfection before using an acquired skill. In that case, the probability of making mistakes would be lowest. ☝️
Just think about how a usual language test emphasizes mistakes with red ink and ignores the, say, 80% that is correct. Now let's ask an important question: What would happen if we were to start focusing on the correct 80% instead? What if we used these language skills for actual conversations and speaking practice instead of fear-mongering students based on the incorrect 20%? 😉
The answer is simple. Students would feel encouraged by their results instead of oppressed by an environment that straightjackets them with the idea of perfection.
To read more about how the school system programs you to fear languages, check out this blog post.
Why embracing imperfection is much more efficient for language-learning
This might sound weird to you, but it's one of the things that most successful polyglots—that is, people who speak many languages—say is their main reason for language-learning success. It's not trying to be perfect, but building the language up naturally, as a child would do. 🚀
What do I mean by that?
First, all successful polyglots surround themselves with the target language, be it with podcasts, Speakly listening exercises, or something else. Most polyglots would even say that, before learning any foreign words, they would endure a listening exercise to start training their ears. All that happens in a totally uncontrolled way, which would be impossible in a perfectionist mindset. ☝️
Here is a video where an inspiring polyglot, Laura Maliszewska, discusses exactly that:
Second, polyglots understand that not all of a language’s words and phrases are created equal. And, indeed, as you probably know by now, Speakly teaches you words and sentences based on their statistical relevance in real-life conversations. This is incredibly important for reaching fluency in a foreign language. 🚀
Here is a video where an inspiring polyglot, Lindie Botes, discusses exactly that:
As a language learner, tuning grammatical perfection before speaking the language aloud seems enticing. But successful learners know that, in reality, that’s not how language learning works.
You need to be vulnerable. Start using the language even if you only know a few words or sentences, and you will eventually pick up "perfect" grammar—much, much later.
So, be imperfect, start learning the most relevant words and sentences of the language with Speakly and start using the language even if you're stumbling over words. That's the best way to build up your language skills. 🚀
To wrap up this blog post, I'm leaving you with a clip from our awesome discussion with polyglot and language expert Lindie Botes (see the full conversation here), with whom we discuss the perils of perfectionism.