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Perfectionism and Language Learning

by Emily McPeek

There are plenty of situations in life where being a perfectionist has its advantages. And this is true for certain aspects of language learning, as well. Perfectionists tend to be detail-oriented and might even get a sort of rush from mastering the complexities or minutiae of a foreign language.

I speak from personal experience here. My penchant for perfectionism seemed to be very helpful to me when I first started learning Spanish in high school. Things that seemed to trip up my fellow beginner students didn’t really faze me. Stem-changing or irregular verbs? “No problemo”. (Words that end in “a” but are actually masculine? Sin problema).

To this day, my Spanish writing sometimes looks out of place because it is spelled too perfectly, with every diacritical mark in its proper place. As a spelling and grammar enthusiast in my native English, I’m perfectly fine with this.

But it wasn’t long before the tables turned.

When perfectionism became my language learning downfall

As a child and teen, I was the shy bookworm type. This, initially, didn’t seem to hinder my Spanish study. I started borrowing fiction books in Spanish from my teacher that were well beyond my level just for fun, and this really accelerated my learning. I was learning entirely new verb tenses from context, and it felt great.

Then at some point, I must have been put in a situation where I had to speak in Spanish, and I must have fallen flat on my face. I don’t remember when this happened specifically, so I can only surmise that my psyche is repressing the traumatic experience. But I soon realized that, while my reading and writing were quite advanced, my conversational skills were minimal.

I eventually came to two conclusions. First, that the large vocabulary and ease with language I had earned from my bookworm years was giving me unrealistic expectations in my second language. When I couldn’t express myself exactly the way I wanted to, it was extraordinarily frustrating and I just shut down. Second, that I became so self-conscious in any Spanish conversational situation that my brain just stopped working. The resulting embarrassment, of course, led to a vicious cycle.

How I beat my perfectionism

Always eager to remain in my comfort zone, my first thought was that I just had to get my brain used to a conversational pace. So, bilingual chat rooms it was! But months later, the problem had only marginally improved; I used to say, “My fingers are fluent, but my mouth isn’t.”

There was no getting around it. The only way to improve my spoken conversation was (gasp!) to have spoken conversations.

My self-consciousness really held me up here, though. I ultimately realized that I was much more comfortable speaking to someone in Spanish if I sensed that their English was worse than my Spanish. Otherwise, it was a no-go. This, of course, ruled out any Spanish-speaking person I was close with in real life.

So I did something crazy. I went to my university’s study abroad office, found a little city in Spain that I expected would have very few English speakers, and packed my bags. I rented an apartment with two Spanish roommates who spoke essentially no English, and I created my own miniature immersion program.

It turns out that roommates aren’t ideal for this. If I could do it again, I wish I would have gone with a host family language immersion type program. However, with some effort, over the six-month period, I guess that I improved my conversational skills from a 3 to a 7 on a scale of 1-10.

Now, after several more trips to Spain, twelve long years after my first Spanish class in high school, I finally consider myself fluent in spoken conversation. Most people don't have an extra twelve years to waste, so, fellow perfectionists, let mine be a cautionary tale. If you want to learn fast, you have to start talking from Day 1. It's going to be uncomfortable. Do it anyway. It will be worth it in the end.

About the writer

Emily is a lover of languages and freelance translator specializing in scientific articles in the natural and social sciences.

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