Updated: Oct 20, 2020
One of the biggest struggles for most new language learners is the feeling that comes with learning and making mistakes. The first attempts to speak a new language are usually not pretty. You feel small, self esteem crumbles, you become super self-conscious. Some people make an incredible progress once started, while others take classes for years yet won’t even order a coffee. What is that?
Fear of embarrassment
It’s the fear of embarrassment. It can be so overwhelming that your whole system just shuts down and blanks whenever you want to say something in Dutch. Not many people enjoy making mistakes, but some people struggle with this more than others.
If you are a perfectionist, then you are probably used to working hard to perform highly. Why then is it not working for you this time, why are you struggling with Dutch?
Feedback through trial and error
Well, that’s because the intrinsic nature of language learning means that you are required to make mistakes, in order to create a feedback loop: you try something, it doesn’t work, now you know what word/sentence/grammar rule you need next time. Without trying things out, you miss out on crucial feedback and there is no chance of making any progress. You might end up excelling at workbook grammar exercises or reading short stories in Dutch, but there is no other way to fluency than real life interaction and the road of trial-and-error.
Your worst judge
Your worst judge – it isn’t the people around you, but most likely you yourself. Nobody will be as harsh and judgemental about your intents to speak Dutch and your progress as you. So the first step on the trial-and-error road, is to understand what communication is really all about. You might not be able to quieten your inner judge, but if she at least knows what the laws are in this new type of courtroom, she might become a bit more cooperative and supportive.
What is communication?
Any languages’ main purpose is communication. Communication can only exist when there is contact between the two parties that wish to communicate. Successful communication starts with building a connection that makes it possible to exchange information. 50% of that is your job, and 50% of it is the other person’s job.
Recognize these experiences? You try to explain something to your partner, but they are too angry to listen. Or you try to have a nice conversation with the plumber, but they are too busy to pay attention.
You might be doing your half of the connection-making, but if the other person is unwilling, no communication is possible. When the other person has no interest in speaking with you, don’t take it personally. It probably isn’t about you!
Now let’s talk about your 50%. Let’s say you are trying to order in a restaurant. The perfectionist in you might already start with self-scrutiny even before you open your mouth. Tension builds up. You go over the words in your head. You start to sweat. The waiter asks you what you want and you don’t even look at them: you are too busy talking to yourself.
If you are mostly focused on yourself and your grammar, you are not paying attention to the other person, and you are doing exactly the opposite of what communication is: you are letting them dangle while you are busy with your own inner dialogue.
How can I get out of my head?
There is a way to escape your perfectionism. Try these three exercises:
1. Keep track of what you feel, think and experience, any time you (try to) speak Dutch. Do you feel that you are looking at yourself through other people’s eyes? Do you feel like you have left your own body and are now looking at yourself struggle, thinking unkind and judgemental things like “they must think I am so stupid” or “I should be able to do this by now”?
2. Now that you are aware of what happens in your head and your body when you (try to) speak Dutch, try something new. Focus on building a connection by really looking at the other person you are talking to. Invest in your 50% of the connection and use your body language and your eyes to tell them what they need to know. Look for the connection between you and the other instead of building this perfect sentence that would pass the imaginary test that you have set for yourself. Focus on the message more than the words.
3. What about the words – the grammar and vocab – then? Grammar and vocab are step three. When you manage to connect and to speak, the next step is to pay attention to the words that you lack to express yourself. When people give you feedback, your grammar knowledge helps you to understand how you can improve.
So, in short– Circle of Feedback
Step 1: Create a connection. Smile, gesture, look the person in the eye. Use eye contact, facial expression, body language, intonation. Remember: connection, not perfection.
Step 2: Communicate your message any way you can, but keep track of the words you miss. Listen to any feedback and try to connect that with what you know. If you don’t understand or can’t fully express yourself, no worries. Be proud that you took this step outside of your comfortzone! Congratulate yourself for your intent!
Step 3: Look up words or grammar that you feel you missed, and try to incorporate what you have learned for your next go! Make a point of testing something new out and seeing how it goes.
And repeat, repeat, repeat!
We hope these tips will help you to change your mindset and to become more positive about making mistakes as part of the process of learning a new language.
Check out these links for more advice:
Remember, learning is about doing what you enjoy! Lýdia Machová TED talk: The Secrets of Learning a New Language
Be aware of your own mind traps! Joska’s video on mindset: https://vimeo.com/146145561 (Password: mind traps)
Focus on ‘not yet’, not ‘I can’t’. Carol Dweck (Professor of Psychology at Stanford University) : Developing a Growth Mindset