Learning a Language In the Throes of the Perfectionist Syndrome

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The infamous perfectionist syndrome is considered by many one of the worst enemies of a language learner. To those who are trying to follow the Speak from Day One approach – often at the instigation of their teacher – it certainly is. There is that little and very nasty stickler sitting somewhere inside the person, ready at any moment to interfere and whisper something like “if you say this, you will probably make a mistake – are you sure you conjugate this verb correctly?” Which results in awkward silence and in angry glances from the teacher.

The same applies to writing: a language learner in the throes of the perfectionist syndrome will normally wait much longer than necessary before daring to make their written work public, since there might be errors hiding in it somewhere, and the thought of other people noticing them is really and truly unbearable. Ever been in the same forum with a member always correcting every post should a tiny typo lurk somewhere? Here we have a typical victim of their own inner stickler.

The first contact with native speakers of the target language is the worst. Overcoming the fear of speaking when one’s vocabulary is still incomplete and grammar less than impeccable is a succession of many agonies, and a crowd of fellow language learners yelling “Just do it – don’t be afraid of your mistakes!” is really not helping! Even if the crowd in question is located on the web and quite dispersed, it is still a lot of pressure and very little assistance.

On the bright side

But is this syndrome really so bad that it could potentially block a language learner from success? Far from it; actually, the majority of members in linguistic communities, judging by their spelling and punctuation, are rare perfectionists, meaning that this type of a language learner is probably the most likely one to see the checkered flag. Why is it so? Well, for a perfectionist language learning doesn’t make sense unless he or she can reach C2; while for many it’s just the usual “I am going to learn this language to the level, at which I can speak to a waiter or to a ticket collector and be understood, and that has to be good enough for me”, for a perfectionist it’s a shocking thought. It has to be everything or nothing.

Therefore, a person with the perfectionist syndrome will always be a model student in any linguistic school with their homework always thoroughly done, no matter how much of it the teacher had set. There will be no need to ask the advice of others on how to keep motivation at the high level necessary to continue the studies: perfectionism is the best motivation unto itself.

The problem and the solution

So how do we tackle the problem of the fear of speaking imperfectly? Simply yelling at the perfectionist, “Do not be afraid of your errors!” is of no use. Psychologically, it will only make things worse. A much more subtle approach is needed – actually, the best way to deal with all this is to leave such a person alone and let them do it in a comfortable way, unless the language, for some reason, needs to be learned very fast. We have grown accustomed to doing things in a hurry – all due to the speedy ways of the modern world, no doubt. But sometimes it makes sense to stop and look around – and then proceed at a comfortable pace without pushing the events too hard.

A prolonged silent period filled with reading and listening activities is the best way to prepare a perfectionist student to the stage at which speaking and writing come into play. There is no rush – it takes months for self-confidence to grow. The time will come when even the worst pedant among us will feel the strong urge to use the language skills acquired through so much hard work: this will be the right moment to come out of hiding and just do it, despite all the horrors and all the shivers.

This process will be a lot more effective when it is smooth and gradual: instead of making the hermit speak at once to a shouting crowd, a short Skype conversation with a kind and considerate tutor trained to work with all kinds of language learners would be a much better option. And the same goes for writing – the support of a professional proofreader will give a perfectionist writer a lot of confidence about publishing an article or a blog post in a foreign language.

Before actually registering and making the first post on an online forum that uses the perfectionist learner’s target language, this particular learner will probably lurk for months reading hundreds of posts and getting acquainted with the proper style, preferred idioms and the overall parlance of the community. This is not procrastination, but a normal process of overcoming the hurdles of the perfectionist syndrome and acquiring quality at the same time. Once the fear of initial contact is broken, the forum will receive an active, helpful and highly valued member.

Where is the real issue?

The real problem of language learning is not the perfectionist syndrome, but stereotypes and generalization, the irresistible urge to tar everyone with the same brush and to insist that everyone approaches language learning in the same way. The tendency to speed things up too much can also be quite harmful: not everyone needs to be fluent tomorrow and not everyone wants it this way. Fluency acquired too quickly is at risk of being lost just as quickly anyway, which has to do with the inner mechanisms of the brain. But we are suffering from the common issue, which was brought about by the internet and general easy availability of all kinds of information. The same way it has become true for every sphere of human life, language learning is now riddled with bad advice that stresses out the beginner learners who don’t know the ropes yet. Thus, the idea that a language just has to be learned quickly is, to put it mildly, not the most helpful one. It puts a lot of unnecessary pressure on a learner and results in all sorts of pseudo-effective approaches, of which precious few really work.

Therefore, people who already suffer enough from their perfectionist syndrome should not be made to feel guilty about it. We like to think of the 21st century as the age of tolerance, which in the context of language learning means that we have to accept each other’s peculiarities and different approaches. If the perfectionists among us prefer to make sure that everything is perfect before opening up, we let them do so. People who believe that the 98% rule is important are welcome to observe it, but those of us who don’t care for it should not be told that they are wrong, because, in fact, it is not a must. If some people prefer to speak from day one, that’s great and they shouldn’t be abused for their mistakes, but commended for their courage. And so on.

The day when we all accept with our whole heart the fact that we are all different will be the day when language learning becomes much more harmonious and less stressful, and the learners much happier. Even those who have the perfectionist syndrome.