While speaking in Vancouver, I met many fascinating people with some incredible stories, but one of them that touches close to home was Geraldine’s. She came up to me on the day after my TBEX talk and gave the most incredible account of her night before to me, so I insisted that she share it with my readers whenever she could!
Tell them all about it Geraldine!
I am a perfectionist.
If it sounds like I’m bragging, I’m not. Being a perfectionist in no way means that you are perfect – only that you are annoyed when you aren’t (which is basically all of the time). My quest for perfectionism generally leads to frustration, tears, and the occasional ill-timed temper tantrum (usually the night before a flight).
So when, a few weeks ago, I heard Benny provide his tips for learning a new language, one of which was “Don’t try to be perfect,” I immediately stood up and screamed, “YOU ARE A MADMAN.”
Okay, fine, not really. It was a crowded convention hall in Vancouver, after all. I couldn’t really pop out of my chair and start yelling. But I wanted to, because what he said sounded truly crazy to my perfectionist ears.
Benny went on to say that he didn’t try to speak a language perfectly – he just did his best. Even when he knew he was messing up, he didn’t let that deter him.
Fine, I thought. That might work for him. After all, he’s charming and Irish. That means that he can basically get away with anything (See Ferrell, Colin). I was pretty sure that I, as a neurotic American, could never have a conversation with someone while using the wrong tense of a verb. I was convinced native speakers would quietly ridicule me when I said something profoundly ridiculous. “My husband is a chinchilla”, I’d accidentally blurt out in broken Spanish. “We were married in a giant cheese!”
It would be mortifying. No, clearly Benny’s tactics were not for me. I’d rather not do something at all than do it incorrectly. I sighed, and decided my once-fluent español was gone forever.
My new amiga
Later that evening, I met up with my husband Rand (who I had mercilessly dragged along with me to TBEX 2011) and a few of his colleagues who happened to live in town. One gentleman brought along his wife – a lovely gal named Adriana (She’s with me in the photo above). She was originally from Mexico, but had moved to Canada after marrying her husband.
“Your English is fantastic!” I told her, sincerely impressed.
“No, no,” she replied modestly, “I make so many mistakes!”
I reassured her that wasn’t the case. Besides, who didn’t make a few mistakes here and there when speaking a second language?
And as soon as those words left my mouth, I realized something: I didn’t expect other people to be perfectionists when it came to language. So why did I expect it of myself? Was I really so afraid of a few grammatical errors that I was going to give up trying altogether? Because that truly sounded crazy.
Taking a deep breath, I figured I’d give it a shot.
“Yo hablo un poquito de español,” I said, rifling my brain for my long-forgotten high school Spanish. “Pero olividé casi todo.” I speak a little Spanish. But I’ve forgotten most of it!
Her eyes widened with surprise.
“How long have you lived in Canada?” I asked her, trying not to overthink the words I chose.
“Seven years,” she said. She proceeded to tell me how she and her husband met. I, in turn, told her how I met Rand, and a bit about myself. My words came slowly at first, and then sped up as we continued talking. If I couldn’t recall a certain word, I’d just rephrase what I was trying to say. I remembered more and more of Benny’s tips – using context to understand what words meant, taking my time, and above all, not giving up and reverting back to English.
Oh, and I might have possibly had a few sips of tequila to help jog my memory of the Spanish I once knew. (Legal disclaimer: that tip isn’t from Benny, but believe me: it worked.)
A “perfect” imperfect evening
After a while, I didn’t even realize we were speaking Spanish – we discussed things that didn’t require an extensive vocabulary on my part, but still managed to not be trivial: family, life, love, careers. We chatted on and on when suddenly I realized that everyone at the table was looking at us.
“You … you speak Spanish?,” someone asked.
“Um … apparently, yes.” I said, smiling.
“She speaks far better than you do,” Adriana admonished her husband. “His Spanish is terrible,” she whispered to me, confidentially, and I laughed and told her that up until very recently (like, say, twenty minutes ago), so was mine.
I had given up on Spanish, figuring that if I couldn’t speak it perfectly, there was no point. In the last 13 years, I’d barely uttered a word of it. I’d felt a little pang of sadness every time I heard it spoken; it was a reminder of a language that I had lost. I realized now that wasn’t the case. I didn’t need to speak Spanish perfectly to hold onto it – I just needed to speak it.
When the time came to say our good-byes, I hugged Adriana and told her to email me if she was ever in Seattle. She promised she would. I hope she does, because I need to thank her. Had she not been there that night, it likely would have been years (and maybe an expensive refresher class or two) before I tried speaking Spanish again.
As we walked away, my husband threw his arm around me and hugged me close. So engrossed was I in my impromptu foreign language class, that I had barely talked to him all night.
“How was your evening?” he asked, as we walked in the fading light of a warm Vancouver day.
“Just about perfect,” I said, smiling, and thinking that maybe, just maybe, Benny wasn’t such a madman after all.
I hope some of you see the benefits of just trying and ignoring unhelpful perfectionism. If Geraldine can do it after over a decade of never using or studying Spanish then there’s nothing stopping you!
Make sure to check out her blog for more of her excellent writing, and to leave comments below about her incredible evening!
Enter your email in the top right of the site to subscribe to the Language Hacking League e-mail list for way more tips sent directly to your inbox!
If you enjoyed this post, you will love my TEDx talk! You can get much better details of how I recommend learning a language if you watch it here.
This article was written by Benny Lewis
Comments: If you liked this post or have anything to say, please leave a comment! I love reading them
Just keep in mind that I’ll delete any rude, trolling, spammy, irrelevant or way off-topic comments. If you have a general language learning question, please ask it in the forums. Otherwise please use the search tool on the right for any other question not related to this post.
- I'm severely deaf and partially sighted, but have learned 5 languages. Here's my story (Very similar post)
- Learning Japanese in a year: Manga-style explanation! (Quite a similar post)
- Handcrafted audio for remembering what you learn (Quite a similar post)
- Case study: How Niall Doherty reached conversational competence in Spanish in 3.5 months (Quite a similar post)
- How to travel the world like Indiana Jones (Quite a similar post)
- The importance of experimentation over blind faith (RANDOM - Somewhat similar post)