When Benny Lewis released his book, Fluent in 3 Months: How Anyone at Any Age Can Learn to Speak Any Language from Anywhere in the World, into the wild, I couldn’t wait to read it. These kinds of books always give me a huge burst of motivation, even when I don’t feel like I’m learning all that much.
With Fluent in 3 Months, however, things were different. After literally buying and reading it twice, I’ve actually used what I read to fine tune my language learning with great results.
These changes have allowed me to have more fulfilling conversations in both Spanish and French this year than the last two combined — so I decided to share with you the three main lessons I took from Fluent in 3 Months personally, and how I’m putting them into practice to become a better language learner.
Here’s lesson two.
Perfection Isn’t Real
One of Benny’s favorite bits of advice for language learners is to speak from day one. The whole point of this is to get you comfortable actually speaking the language as soon as possible — no, scratch that. The point is to get you comfortable making mistakes as soon as possible.
Being a perfectionist with your new language is absolutely incompatible with this. Hell, it’s incompatible with speaking from day 100.
Why is this? Well, it’s because no-one speaks a language perfectly.
My English isn’t even perfect — I mess up my own native tongue several times a day, knowing that in a casual environment it really doesn’t matter.
Are you a lawyer? Okay, maybe you should be a bit careful with your wording. Are you running for president of the United States of America? Oh, wait. Politicians fumble their words all the time.
Sure, it seems simple enough — but this line from Benny’s book made me think twice about how I was going about things.
Realizing your limitations is essential, because aiming for perfection is a fool’s errand. … There is never an end point at which you can say your work in learning the language is done.
A fool’s errand, eh? Well, that couldn’t be good, considering I was using the fact that I haven’t finished the Duolingo curriculum as an excuse for not going out and having conversations in French.
I knew I could speak well enough to hold a conversation, but I was still holding myself back with an “I’m not quite ready yet” excuse. Sure, going through the Duolingo curriculum is a noble goal, but one mustn’t confuse mastering Duolingo with mastering a language. Like everything else, it’s only a small part of a much bigger picture.
I was afraid. What of, exactly? Well, I was afraid to make mistakes, given how much I work at learning languages. I was afraid of not being as good as the last learner someone talked to. I was afraid of not being as good at French as I am at Spanish, even though I know it takes time.
A lot of it was simply me comparing myself to other hypothetical people and even myself, and being afraid to find out that my French simply wasn’t as good.
Comparing yourself to someone else (or even yourself in another language, in this case) is very dangerous. Comparison kills creativity, and it does the same thing to motivation. The abilities of other people have no effect on your own potential, and your own potential is the only skill level that you should be concerned with.
In addition to comparisons, the fact that I have a language learning blog certainly didn’t help. I felt as if I had to be absolutely perfect or I would somehow appear to be a fraud, even though I’ve never claimed to be perfect at anything on this blog or anywhere else.
Thinking back on what I read Fluent in 3 Months, I recently decided to mix things up a bit. Instead of just doing French lessons in Duolingo every night, I jumped straight into having weekly conversations in French, like I was already doing with Spanish.
Was it scary? Hell yes. I had my first conversation in French in a long time.
That conversation was probably the most intense mental strain I’ve felt this year. It was an hour long, and I only resorted to saying something in English twice near the end, where one of the things I said was along the lines of “I can’t think of what to say — I did understand you, but I’ve been working so hard to do this all in French that I feel a bit disoriented at the moment.”
Luckily, I was near the end of the hour, so in about half a minute or so I found the strength to get back to French until the end, when I switched back to English because I forgot how to say “you, too!” Yeah, it’s a simple phrase, but I don’t even blame myself for forgetting it — I was exhausted, and I had earned my rest.
Don’t get me wrong — it was one of the most fulfilling things I had done in a long time. Facing my fear of failure was absolutely worth it, and I’ll be doing it again roughly once a week for the foreseeable future barring some unexpected catastrophe.
Let me close this off with a quote from a very wise man (bonus points if you know who said it).
I don’t believe you can ever learn all of anything, let alone a language.
I’m still learning, just like you and everyone else on this wonderful planet. Let’s keep it that way, shall we?