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How ditching perfectionism helped me speak Spanish all evening for the first time

| 45 comments | Category: guest post, positive mentality

Today’s guest post is from Geraldine DeRuiter who writes at Everywhereist.

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!

***********************

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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.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002051544515 Fernanda Garcez

    Olá Benny (: 
    Pela primeira vez não tenho que começar com um “hi” kkk
    Como pode ver sou brasileira (e fico muito feliz que alguém tão legal como você goste do meu país). Ha pouco tempo tenho me interessado em conhecer outras línguas, e depois de ler seus posts e ver seus vídeos me interessei  mais ainda (principalmente pelo irlandês), espero um dia poder visitar a Irlanda.  Vou tentar dar meu jeito para aprender, mas você acha que da para adquirir o sotaque também?

    Beijos e muito obrigado pelos posts e videos!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Claro que dá! :) Se vc procurar pelo site vai ver que tentei falar a sua língua sem sotaque e consegui :D [Não mantenho bem fora do Brasil, então tenho sotaque gringo agora].

      Pra falar sem sotaque tem que deixar os professores ao lado e procurar um músico ;) Cante! :D Um Cantador pode te falar da posição da língua, o ritmo da frase etc. Escrevi sobre isso em outros artigos.

      Obrigado pelo comentário! Saudades do seu país!! Vou passar a tarde amanhã aqui em Istambul com uma brazuca!! ;)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Claro que dá! :) Se vc procurar pelo site vai ver que tentei falar a sua língua sem sotaque e consegui :D [Não mantenho bem fora do Brasil, então tenho sotaque gringo agora].

      Pra falar sem sotaque tem que deixar os professores ao lado e procurar um músico ;) Cante! :D Um Cantador pode te falar da posição da língua, o ritmo da frase etc. Escrevi sobre isso em outros artigos.

      Obrigado pelo comentário! Saudades do seu país!! Vou passar a tarde amanhã aqui em Istambul com uma brazuca!! ;)

  • Anonymous

    Loved the story! As a perfectionist myself, I can completely relate to that.

    Sad thing though, I’ve already learnt one language. English. But it was a long time ago, and I don’t remember how I learnt it, so learning a third language now seems like an impossible task, though I know I can do it.Haha

    - Perfectionist

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      The ‘im’ needs to be moved around.

      []Perfectionist: Everything is [im]possible
      Imperfectionist: Everything is possible

      • Anonymous

        So true!

        One quote from the movie Black Swan really stuck with me, though:
        “Perfection, is not just about control – it’s also about letting go”

      • Anonymous

        So true!

        One quote from the movie Black Swan really stuck with me, though:
        “Perfection, is not just about control – it’s also about letting go”

      • Anonymous

        So true!

        One quote from the movie Black Swan really stuck with me, though:
        “Perfection, is not just about control – it’s also about letting go”

      • Anonymous

        So true!

        One quote from the movie Black Swan really stuck with me, though:
        “Perfection, is not just about control – it’s also about letting go”

  • Anonymous

    Loved the story! As a perfectionist myself, I can completely relate to that.

    Sad thing though, I’ve already learnt one language. English. But it was a long time ago, and I don’t remember how I learnt it, so learning a third language now seems like an impossible task, though I know I can do it.Haha

    - Perfectionist

  • Anonymous

    Loved the story! As a perfectionist myself, I can completely relate to that.

    Sad thing though, I’ve already learnt one language. English. But it was a long time ago, and I don’t remember how I learnt it, so learning a third language now seems like an impossible task, though I know I can do it.Haha

    - Perfectionist

  • Anonymous

    Loved the story! As a perfectionist myself, I can completely relate to that.

    Sad thing though, I’ve already learnt one language. English. But it was a long time ago, and I don’t remember how I learnt it, so learning a third language now seems like an impossible task, though I know I can do it.Haha

    - Perfectionist

  • Anonymous

    Loved the story! As a perfectionist myself, I can completely relate to that.

    Sad thing though, I’ve already learnt one language. English. But it was a long time ago, and I don’t remember how I learnt it, so learning a third language now seems like an impossible task, though I know I can do it.Haha

    - Perfectionist

  • Anonymous

    Loved the story! As a perfectionist myself, I can completely relate to that.

    Sad thing though, I’ve already learnt one language. English. But it was a long time ago, and I don’t remember how I learnt it, so learning a third language now seems like an impossible task, though I know I can do it.Haha

    - Perfectionist

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for giving me the opportunity to guest post, Benny! It was truly an honor! :)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Thanks so much for sharing it with us :) I was so pleased when you told me the story, I couldn’t wait to get it on here!!

  • Anonymous

    I was always a perfectionist when it came to hobbies in my life, whether it be sports, music, or of course foreign languages.  The trouble with perfectionists is that we forget how to have fun.  While we are striving to make every basket, hit every right string, or conjugate every word correctly, the rest of the world is out there simply enjoying what it is they found so exciting in the first place.  Sure, I want to speak Spanish without a hint of an American accent, but the simple fact that I can joke around with my co-workers now in two languages is so much more exciting than knowing what the imperfect subjunctive tense is.  Any hobby that we embark upon should be fun as well as educational otherwise, what’s the point?  Great post….and of course thanks to Benny for continuing to inspire me on days when I feel I just can’t do it.

  • http://www.travelnlass.com/ TravelnLass

    Great post – needlessly worrying about sounding foolish trying to speak a new language is likely the single most common reason folks shrink from trying.  Like so many other dreams, its simply a matter of “Just DO it!”

  • http://mooncountry.wordpress.com/ Aidan

    Now that’s a really cool story. It’s nice to see that Benny’s tips can inspire people so much. Choosing to speak another language for English speakers is often a choice because so many people speak our language so well. You turned that comfortable situation on its head.
    I just came back from Poland and I can tell you that you would never ever speak Polish if you were waiting until you could say things perfectly considering all of the cases you need to know and the prepositions that use them. Instead most foreigners just jump in at the deep end and speak grammatically poor Polish which is readily understood. Sure you sound like a foreigner but that’s what you are …

  • http://www.neverendingvoyage.com Erin

    I love this story! I think the hardest part can be starting. Sometimes when you meet a native speaker and have the opportunity to practice your mind goes blank and you feel like you’ve forgotten everything. But if you just start a conversation it all comes flooding back. This has inspired me to make sure I don’t forget my Spanish and take all the opportunities I can to practice, even if it isn’t perfect.

  • Annette

    Geraldine, thanks for sharing your story!  It was very touching and inspiring.  Also you are a great writer.  I felt like I was right there.  :)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Why are you writing in Malay? I don’t understand it without Google Translate! Glad you liked the story!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Why are you writing in Malay? I don’t understand it without Google Translate! Glad you liked the story!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Why are you writing in Malay? I don’t understand it without Google Translate! Glad you liked the story!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Why are you writing in Malay? I don’t understand it without Google Translate! Glad you liked the story!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Why are you writing in Malay? I don’t understand it without Google Translate! Glad you liked the story!

  • http://www.budgettraveladventures.com/ Jeremy Branham

    Dang it Benny!  Why do you share stuff like this?!  Oh sure, it’s not enough you go around hacking up and carving up languages like a demented butcher but then you encourage others to do it and share their stories!  :)

    Fear and perfectionism – the two biggest things that hold me back.  Ever since my first trip to Estonia in the mid 90s, I have loved languages.  I spent 3 hours on a bus ride with a translator learning how to count and say basic phrases in a country I would probably never visit again.  I have no idea why – I just got sucked into it and just wanted to learn.  Yet I am fluent in nothing, will learn a few phrases when I travel, used one French phrase asking “what time is it?” and ended up spending the day with Lebanese girl in Paris, and yet I am afraid to try and speak a language.  I have friends who have lived overseas and have become fluent.  Yet these are the two things that hold me back.

    For all the language hackers and those afraid to try, thank you for being an example of sharing stories like this.  I’m not sure the next time I will utter a foreign phrase but I’ve taught my son to count to five in French.  At least it’s a start.

  • Anonymous

    More than 30 years ago, I had just moved to Mexico and knew no Spanish–not one word, not even ‘gracias’.   After three frustrating months, knowing I could never speak Spanish perfectly and believing that my Mexican acquaintances would make fun of me if I made mistakes,  a light bulb finally went on in my head.  “The only way to speak Spanish is to let go of your need to be perfect and  *speak* it, just open your mouth and say whatever you can.”   One word, one sentence at a time I was able to let go of the fear of imperfection that was holding me back.

    Mexico is still my home, and today I speak native-level-fluent Spanish, write in Spanish for publication, and work often as a Spanish-English literary translator.  Once in a while I still learn a new  Spanish word, but my vocabulary is larger than many native Spanish speakers.  Because I was able to let go of perfectionism (at least in this regard!), my life changed completely.   I agree 100% with Benny: let go of the need to be perfect in your second-or third, or fourth–language and just open your mouth, speak up, and watch for the wonderful changes in your life.

    Cristina

     

  • Anonymous

    More than 30 years ago, I had just moved to Mexico and knew no Spanish–not one word, not even ‘gracias’.   After three frustrating months, knowing I could never speak Spanish perfectly and believing that my Mexican acquaintances would make fun of me if I made mistakes,  a light bulb finally went on in my head.  “The only way to speak Spanish is to let go of your need to be perfect and  *speak* it, just open your mouth and say whatever you can.”   One word, one sentence at a time I was able to let go of the fear of imperfection that was holding me back.

    Mexico is still my home, and today I speak native-level-fluent Spanish, write in Spanish for publication, and work often as a Spanish-English literary translator.  Once in a while I still learn a new  Spanish word, but my vocabulary is larger than many native Spanish speakers.  Because I was able to let go of perfectionism (at least in this regard!), my life changed completely.   I agree 100% with Benny: let go of the need to be perfect in your second-or third, or fourth–language and just open your mouth, speak up, and watch for the wonderful changes in your life.

    Cristina

     

  • Anonymous

    More than 30 years ago, I had just moved to Mexico and knew no Spanish–not one word, not even ‘gracias’.   After three frustrating months, knowing I could never speak Spanish perfectly and believing that my Mexican acquaintances would make fun of me if I made mistakes,  a light bulb finally went on in my head.  “The only way to speak Spanish is to let go of your need to be perfect and  *speak* it, just open your mouth and say whatever you can.”   One word, one sentence at a time I was able to let go of the fear of imperfection that was holding me back.

    Mexico is still my home, and today I speak native-level-fluent Spanish, write in Spanish for publication, and work often as a Spanish-English literary translator.  Once in a while I still learn a new  Spanish word, but my vocabulary is larger than many native Spanish speakers.  Because I was able to let go of perfectionism (at least in this regard!), my life changed completely.   I agree 100% with Benny: let go of the need to be perfect in your second-or third, or fourth–language and just open your mouth, speak up, and watch for the wonderful changes in your life.

    Cristina

     

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    **Exactly what you would normally say anyway** are the most useful phrases to learn. ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Actually everything you say is STILL an issue with *perfectionism*.
    Stop hesitating to speak and just bloody speak :) Lack of vocabulary doesn’t stop imperfectionists from trying their best, but it will always stop the perfectionists. Reverting to English is NOT necessary. Be imaginative and work your way around it.

  • Nida S

    I just stumbled upon this blog and have only read the first couple of posts but its quickly becoming the first and only blog I will follow!

    I just wanted to know what you think about those language learning apps you can get on your iPhone or Kindle? Have you ever tried any? I just got a Spanish one from a place called Eton Institute and it nicely compliments my regular Spanish class so far. I really want to be fluent but I don’t have anyone to practice Spanish with so I just repeat the audio on the app haha.

    Looking forward to exploring your blog more!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Apps can AID in the learning process, but don’t make them central to it. You CAN find someone to practice with! I don’t know where you live, but Spanish is pretty hard to AVOID in many places, so you can easily practise it. If you live in a village in the mountains, but with Internet, then find a Skype partner. In that case, the main “language learning app” I can recommend for your iPhone is Skype :)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Apps can AID in the learning process, but don’t make them central to it. You CAN find someone to practice with! I don’t know where you live, but Spanish is pretty hard to AVOID in many places, so you can easily practise it. If you live in a village in the mountains, but with Internet, then find a Skype partner. In that case, the main “language learning app” I can recommend for your iPhone is Skype :)

  • Nida S

    I just stumbled upon this blog and have only read the first couple of posts but its quickly becoming the first and only blog I will follow!

    I just wanted to know what you think about those language learning apps you can get on your iPhone or Kindle? Have you ever tried any? I just got a Spanish one from a place called Eton Institute and it nicely compliments my regular Spanish class so far. I really want to be fluent but I don’t have anyone to practice Spanish with so I just repeat the audio on the app haha.

    Looking forward to exploring your blog more!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    Glad you liked the Weekend Sunrise appearance! But you saw me (Benny), not the author and guest post of this particular post ;)

    Keep up the good work and let go of perfectionism :)

  • kenpopaul

    Great inspiring story. The tequila bit made me laugh cos it reminded me of a trip to Mexico years ago. I had only listened to the Michel Thomas method before my trip so couldnt speak much Spanish. After two weeks in Mexico trying to speak every day one night we had a bit too much tequila, suddenly (it seemed) I was fluent. Had a crazy night chatting with locals, even ended up having my pic taken holding a bit, and really heavy, aligator lol

  • SamB_UK

    I love this story, thank you so much for sharing it!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=8218493 Mary Ann E

    wow awesome testimonial

  • Danny

    You don’t have to have the exact word, there are several ways to go around it. For example, if you are trying to say you are married and you can’t remember the word for married you can say “I have a husband/wife” or “I am not single” etc.

  • http://30something.ie 30Something

    Love this story. It is exactly how I am. I can read Spanish very well. I always could as I learned Spanish from books essentially. My problem was speaking and understanding it. My girlfriend (of 2 months) is Mexican and now my understanding is a lot better. My spoken Spanish is still stuck though. I can understand her and her friends pretty much perfectly but really struggle to speak cos I don’t want to make a mistake. And this fear of making a mistake stops me from speaking at all. I have even stopped speaking Spanish with my gf cos it frustrates me so much when I don’t understand or can’t express myself the way I want to. I’m going to start now. Just speak spanish and never revert to English just to get my point across. Great post. Thanks.

  • Tabitha H Croucher

    Cuando estaba aprendido espanol (porque no puedo el tilde? – o los acentos?), mi profesor requierido a nosotros que tenemos “conversacion” media hora cada semana. Necesitamos usar palabras como ‘como se dice…’ y ‘que es la palabra para…,’ y cuando queremos decir ‘um’ o ‘uh,’ necesitamos usar ‘e’ o ‘este.’ No me gustaba en el tiempo (y he olvido mucho, entonces mucho de esta gramatica y vocabulario pordria un poco loco – pero despues de casi diez anos, puedo comentar aqui, y no en ingles.

  • Lin Win

    Wow, increíble! Soy perfeccionista tambien (¡la perfección me huye!). En el pasado, hasta que…pues ahoramismo, mientras de leer lo arriba, el deseo de comunicar con hablantes en español lo habia dejado. Era mi miedo de los posibilidades negativas ie, hacer errores de sintaxis y gramaticales. ¡Ésta historia me ha dado esperanza! Todo que tengo que hacer es hablar y el propósito es comunicar!

  • Elizabeth

    I’m half Cuban and have a wealth of spanish vocabulary and grammar rules that have stuck with me through 4 years of spanish in High school, and a basic knowledge from my grandmother that only spoke in Spanish. I never spoke it at home, and felt shy about speaking up and using it, for fear of sounding ridiculous. This story resonates with me and shaking ‘perfectionism’ is the best advice I’ve heard to date. Thanks for this post!