Learning a language when you're a perfectionist

Perfect written in lights
Letting go of perfect is not easy

Being a perfectionist might have its good points but it is quite an obstacle to learning a language. (If you are a perfectionist and you want help with your English, I use Neurolanguage® Coaching to help my clients achieve the most perfect results for them!)

If you are a perfectionist you get frustrated that you can't learn to speak a language perfectly in record time. You get annoyed with yourself for forgetting vocabulary or for not understanding every word of an article or a film. And speaking is very stressful, as you know that what you are saying is not perfect, in fact it is often very far from perfect. All this can lead to perfectionists being afraid to speak the foreign language altogether and eventually giving up.

The key to language learning is to put yourself out there and just communicate, which makes most people feel vulnerable at first. For a perfectionist, speaking a foreign language is like taking all your clothes off and walking naked through town. 

Learning a language takes time. A long time. You won't speak perfect English 3 months after you start studying it. And you will make plenty of mistakes, have some embarrassing misunderstandings and make a fool of yourself by calling the taxi driver a taxi screwdriver (Yes, this is a real mistake.) 

When you are stressed or anxious, your brain's limbic system is engaged, which means you go into fight or flight mode. When this happens, the last thing your body wants to do is learn, the best state for learning or performing is when you are relaxed. Your perfectionism is actually hindering your brain's learning capacity.

I know you can't suddenly stop being a perfectionist overnight, so what can you do?

Here are a few tips:

  1. Consciously focus on the positives. (You might have to force yourself to do this at first.) You just had a conversation with someone in Spanish? Did that person understand you? Did you understand them? Great! DO NOT think about the mistakes you made in the conversation. You just watched a video and you understood most of it? Fantastic! DO NOT stress because you can't understand every word. One day you will. 

  2. Work with a language coach, who will understand how to put you in the right mode for learning. Someone kind, who makes you feel relaxed and happy about speaking a foreign language. This will go a very long way in giving you the confidence to speak in the real world. 

  3. Laugh. So what if you said something ridiculous? It will make a good story.

  4. Remember that most people are happy to hear you making an effort to speak their language. The majority of people do not laugh or get annoyed. The people that do are not worth bothering about.

  5. If you have to do a presentation or you have a meeting in a foreign language, practise in advance. Learn some useful phrases (not too many!), think about what vocabulary you might need to know and practise as much as you like. Once it's finished, DO NOT think about it again. It's over, you did fine. 

  6. DO NOT try to learn big word lists. It's a waste of time. Be realistic with your goals - one word a day is perfect. 

  7. Be kind to yourself. You are doing just fine. Everyone has good days and bad days. Some days I speak beautiful French. Other days I can barely order a coffee. That's ok. 

  8. Break your language learning down into small goals: having a chat with someone, writing a tweet, giving your opinion in a meeting, understanding a TED talk. If you focus on the big goal (become fluent in French!) you will be disappointed in yourself many times over. Push yourself a little further every time and congratulate yourself when you've done it. In learning a language, it's the doing it that is important, not the doing it perfectly. 

  9. It's not all bad news! Your perfectionism can be useful: it will push you to learn things properly. Instead of saying the same phrase wrong all the time, you have the willpower to check how to say it correctly and then use it. Perfectionists often make the best writers of a foreign language, as you will work on writing well. (Although you might want to set yourself a time limit when you're writing. Nothing is ever 100% perfect.) 

  10. Don't give up! 

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