Why Perfect is the Enemy of Good in Language Learning

This morning I had a much needed break from work and discovered a truth about life in general and language learning specifically.

Even though I live in Germany, I work for an American company that follows the American holiday schedule. Today is the American holiday of Labor Day, so I got to stay home while my German neighbors were at work.

I decided to enjoy the cool morning weather and take a bike ride. It was great. There were paths that cut beside farmland and ran along creeks, there was plenty of fresh air, and I got exercise without it feeling like exercise. It was a lot of fun.

Here’s the thing: I bought my bike last year and today was the first time I took it out.

Why? A couple reasons.

First, I bought the bike at a department store instead of a bike shop, and I had insisted to myself that I needed to take it in for a tune up before I rode it.

Second, my coworkers are bike enthusiasts who go out and bike 60+ miles on a Saturday. I’m not in that kind of shape so I didn’t think the half hour or so of riding I’d do would be even worth it.

In other words, I hadn’t taken my brand new bike out because things weren’t perfect. I missed a year of bike riding for absolutely no good reason.

That’s what we do with languages too, right? We don’t speak to people, or read books, or watch movies because our skills aren’t perfect. We might study, but we don’t actually use language for its intended purpose. And then we get discouraged and give up because we’re not seeing any payoff for our hard work.

Voltaire said it best in his poem “La Bégueule”: “The best is the enemy of good,” or alternately translated “Perfect is the enemy of good.” Having to be spot on paralyzes us and keeps us from trying, and then we don’t get anywhere.

So how do you fix this situation? Start using your language. Don’t just study it, but get out there and:

  • Make small talk with a stranger
  • Read comic books
  • Watch a movie
  • Laugh at YouTube comments written in your target language
  • Ask for recommendations from your server or bartender

Whatever you do, though, don’t treat this like a chore or a “lesson.” Of course you’re going to improve your language doing this, but that isn’t the goal. The goal is simply to put your imperfect language to use to make friends, be entertained, or whatever else floats your boat.

Right now I’m reading the German version of the first Harry Potter book. I do not read it with a dictionary. Instead, I’m trying to follow along as best as I can, even if I miss whole paragraphs. I’m usually able to get a gist of what’s going on and figure out obscure vocab words (like “wand”) from context. And I’m rewarded with an interesting story.

Don’t make the mistake I made with my bike. Get out there with whatever language you have and start enjoying it today.

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