Someone asked me what the the greatest handicap was for a language student. Lack of “talent”, whatever that may be? Poor study skills? A total absence of any knowledge of even basic grammar concepts? Poor hearing or poor memory? I started thinking about people I know who have lived here for at least a couple of years, but cannot or will not speak any Dutch, even though they have tried many times. What did these people have in common and why did they not succeed? I think it is because of their perfectionism.

For instance, I used to have a student, Katja (not her real name), from the Ukraine. A young and very ambitious corporate lawyer, who was anxious to learn quickly. She wanted to learn sets of rules she could memorize and this, she thought, would allow her to learn quickly. Within a couple of months, she assumed, she would be fluent. However, this was in complete contrast with her actual behavior, as she absolutely, positively refused to speak even one word of Dutch. Nothing. We spoke about it many times and she said she could not pronounce these sounds. I made her repeat words in syllables and she was fine. Reading texts out loud was also not a problem, but the moment she had to make her own sentences she would stay silent or switch to English. She kept saying she was struggling, but when we went over the grammar together, she understood everything.

As I got to know her better, I discovered Katja was an incredible perfectionist. She always looked impeccable, her handwriting was perfect, as were her notes. All the homework was always written out, changes covered up with white out. This for a woman with young children and a very demanding job. Katja was not being “difficult” and she was most definitely not slow; she was chronically insecure and terrified of being ridiculous. In spite of all her accomplishments, she felt she was a fraud if she was unable to achieve immediate and total perfection. Soon afterwards, she quit.

Dropping out feels bad for the student, but it sometimes feels just as bad for the instructor. Maybe I should have told Katja the following: I honestly believe that you should try and overcome your perfectionism as much as you can, once you have decided to study a language. Yes, you will be slower in another language, you will have an accent. Stop being competitive and stop comparing yourself to others. Studying a language often also means studying yourself, and maybe you will become a happier, better person if you were a little less perfect…

Do you need to understand every little word you hear and think the world will end if you don’t? Than this might be the right activity for you, You pick a song, see a music clip with the text, and have to fill in the blanks. After a certain amount of misses, you lose, the music stops and you will have to start all over again. Great fun, but you have to be fast, even on the beginner’s level, and understand every single little word 🙂