Speaking a foreign language when you’re an anxious perfectionist

After putting it off for way, way too long (more on that in an upcoming post), I jumped into trying to speak German semi-regularly about 8 months ago. I started using the Tandem app, chatting with folks, and making fairly regular phone calls. I’ve since made some great friendships with a number of people, many with whom I chat (text) with or talk to daily. I can’t understate how much this has helped my German. (If you take one thing away from this post, let it be this: if you aren’t communicating a lot with native speakers of your target language, start right now. It will help – promise.)

There have been a lot of bumps along the way, though, mostly caused by my perfectionism. I’ve known on some level for a long time that perfectionism is actually a bad thing, but the past 8 months have really put that fact in the spotlight for me. I wanted to share some observations I’ve had about how I’ve felt and thought, and how to approach those issues:

“Maybe I’m not ready for this. I need to study more and then I will be ready.”

Perfectionism and the performance anxiety that comes along with it is tricksy (yes, like hobbitses), in that it can drive you away from doing the very thing you need to be doing – in this case, speaking your target language more. When I first started sending voice messages and making phone calls with native German speakers, my initial gut reaction was “I can’t do this!” I instantly started running into every day words that I just didn’t know, grammar structures I was clueless about – it was so uncomfortable. I wanted to run back to the safety of studying alone, where I didn’t feel pressure or discomfort.

For me, explicit study is the swimming pool, where I can control the depth of the water I’m in; speaking to a native speaker is the ocean, with me frantically treading water a mile from shore. There’s a time and place for explicit study, certainly – but it’s no replacement for really using the language. And that’s the key point regarding this: no amount of studying will make you ready. There will always be words you don’t know, grammar you stumble over, and that’s fine. While there is definitely some link between passive and active skills (reading and listening might help your writing and speaking a bit), the fact of the matter is, to improve your speaking, you have to speak. A lot. And then some more. And for a while, it’s going to suck, and that’s okay. So, don’t be like me and put it off forever and a day! It’s okay to make mistakes, and that’s a good thing – because we all make them.

“I don’t want to hold up the conversation, so let’s just switch to English!”

Now here’s a funny one. With Tandem and other similar apps, the whole point is to exchange languages – I help people with their English, they help me with my German. With one of my tandem partners who I call for a few hours weekly, I kept finding that I would get anxious and switch to English, usually after struggling to find the right German word or being unable to express myself how I wanted to. I kept doing this and couldn’t quite figure out why, because I really wanted to force myself to stick with German, even if it was uncomfortable. Then it struck me, what I was doing: I was the anxious guy in the grocery store when other people are trying to look at goods on the shelf.

Hear me out…

The grocery store holds a shared experience for a lot of people who are naturally anxious, or who don’t want to “inconvenience” other people. You’re looking at something on the shelf, and another person walks up, wanting to see something in the same area. What do you do? Well, if you’re an anxious person, you get outta’ the way, even if you aren’t done looking. Sometimes you just leave the aisle altogether, thinking “this is fine, I’ll come back later.” Why? Because you didn’t want to be in someone else’s way.

I caught myself doing this with my language partners. Despite the fact that I had sought these people out to help me with my German, I felt bad for holding up the conversation by fumbling for words.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but that’s just dumb, yeah? I’m allowed to look at the canned vegetables just like everyone else. Whether you are speaking with a language exchange partner or a tutor, the fact of the matter is, they expect you to stumble and fumble and use the wrong words. That’s how this all works – make mistakes, get corrections, learn. You aren’t inconveniencing them, and if they feel like you are – well, you might need a new language buddy or tutor!

“My language partner is going to think I’m stupid because of my speaking ability.”

No, sorry. Not going to happen. I found that, for me, what this really boils down to is this: I feel like my spoken German is terrible, therefore I expect that other people will think that and judge me for it (spoiler: they won’t). There are a few things at play here:

  1. Based on my experiences over these 8 months, most people are really bad at judging how good their usage of a foreign language is. Most Germans I’ve spoken to have bemoaned their “terrible English.” I’ve stated dozens of times that I think my German is pretty bad. Guess who has been right? None of us. Pretty much every time I’ve said something negative about my German, my speaking partner has told me that I’m crazy. And, in turn, I’ve said the exact same thing about their English – more often than not, their English is quite good, but they just can’t see it. If you’re a perfectionist, this feeling is much more amplified, because.. well, your L2 isn’t perfect. Set impossible goals, win no prizes, right?
  2. The second thing is, if your German or French or whatever is bad – so what? Chances are, your speaking partner still isn’t going to think poorly of you, because you’re learning. Mistakes are expected, sometimes a lot of them. As a perfectionist, I hold myself to unrealistic standards, standards to which no one else really holds me to. Furthermore, they’re standards I don’t apply to other people. To break myself of thinking my friends were judging me based on my German, all I needed to do was flip the scenario around: when my German friends make mistakes in English, do I think less of them? Do I think they’re stupid? Of course not. So why would they do that to me based on my German? They wouldn’t. Bingo.

Ultimately, one of my German friends with whom I’ve discussed my perfectionistic tendencies with, gave me a nice, summarized solution to these problems: “Josh, you need to get out of your way.” That really does sum it up. It certainly is not easy, but it is the solution. Perfectionism is detrimental in general, and downright catastrophic when it comes to speaking a foreign language, as it breaks the loop which you need to be in: speak more, get better at speaking. By expecting perfection, you’re already set up to fail the moment you open your mouth – and then you won’t want to do so. And if you don’t speak, your speaking isn’t going to get any better. So, if you’re like me – get out of your way.  Übung macht den Meister. (Practice makes perfect.)

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