Stop Worrying About Language Perfection
Stop Worrying About Language Fluency has been transcribed from Steve’s YouTube channel. You can download the audio and study the transcript as a lesson at LingQ.
Hi there, Steve Kaufmann here. I just came back from my 10-day trip to France. I was there selling cedar shakes and shingles. These are consumed in France primarily in the mountains in the Savoie area. I was in Macon the first night, then we were up in Bonneville and Annecy in that area in the Savoie and we ended up down in Valence because we have a customer in that area. I had a wonderful meal and, of course, I was speaking French every day and having a great time really enjoying myself. I didn’t have time to study any Korean, of course.
One interesting thing that happened to me, I was in Paris and there was a meetup of the Polyglot Group. They advertise themselves on the Internet, Polyglot.com, I think. Vasseau, who is the founder or at least the organizer, was there. I have communicated with him, but this was my first chance to meet with him. There are up to 100 people who, once or twice a week, gather to speak different languages.
When I was last in Paris, I also happened to be there at a time when they had one of their meetings and, at that time, we had different tables with flags on the tables so you could float from a Chinese table to a Spanish table to a German table to an English table and so forth, but this time most of the people seemed to be interested in learning English, obviously, very enthusiastic people. Most of them were French, but there were also people there from Japan, Jordan, Spain, I’m trying to remember here, China, U.S., different people exchanging languages, but very heavily oriented towards English, people who very much wanted to improve their English, very motivated people.
Then I came home and, of course, I bought some books in French and I’m reading French. I bought a book on the biography of François Premier who was the king in the 1500s and very much involved with introducing the renaissance to France. I read a few other books in French, one on the economy of happiness which was kind of interesting, but I have this Korean lurking in the background that I want to get back to. I’ll have to write something in Russian on our forum at LingQ and I struggle to use it and I refer to Google Translate to help me get going on this thing. So I really would like to spend more time on my Russian, not to mention my Czech. Even at this meetup speaking in German or Spanish, I realized that there are gaps in my knowledge of these languages.
I was in a bookstore in London because I visited in London. My son and his family live there and I always like going to the bookstores there. I was looking at what they’re doing in Arabic and, of course, the first obstacle in Arabic is the writing system, which I would have to get a handle on, I think, before I started studying Arabic at LingQ. Then I said gees, if I take on Arabic, I haven’t even gotten as far as I want to get in Korean. I still want to improve my Russian and Czech, not to mention all my other languages.
With every language you take on, it’s more and more difficult to take any of your other languages up to a higher level, which I would also like to do. There are only so many hours of the day and I, typically, only have an hour or so because I also like to read on different subjects and so forth. So, the question is, how much do you want to be a perfectionist?
Now, obviously, someone who needs say English for their work can’t afford to be a dilettante. I’m more of a dilettante, so I’ve kind of decided I’m not going to allow myself to feel pressure. I’ll speak those languages as well as I speak them, period. There will always be people who criticize me and say that my ‘whatever’ language is no good. They do that on YouTube regularly, so that’s fine. But as I often say, language is for us, so I derive tremendous enjoyment from all of the languages that I speak, from being able to understand, from being able to communicate, albeit with mistakes, so I’m happy. I achieve what I want to achieve, I get back what I put in and I think that’s good enough.
So for those of us who study more than one language or who are doing it as a hobby, we shouldn’t feel pressure. I think we shouldn’t feel this pressure to be perfect, nail down the grammar and make sure we understand everything. I often get emails from people or comments here at YouTube. Oh, I’ve been studying such and such a language for so long and I still can’t understand the movies or I still make mistakes or have trouble expressing myself. I think we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be sort of hounded by this inability to be as good as we would like to be. That’s always going to be there. You’ll always have this feeling, as I have in all my languages that I could be better and if I had the time I would devote myself to trying to get better.
I mean Japanese; I’d like to get reading Japanese literature and expand my vocabulary in that direction. There’s no end. I have 12 languages that I claim I speak and Korean would be the 13th and in every one of them I could improve if I had more time to spend on listening, reading, noticing, gathering phrases and so forth. However, as long as you’re just a dilettante like me and you’re doing it for fun, you can quite comfortably say I don’t care what people say. I’m happy, the languages work for me for what I want to do with them and I don’t allow myself to get frustrated by the obvious shortcomings in my ability to use these languages.
What about if you need it for work? There’s no question that if you are a professional, let’s say if you’re an immigrant to Canada and you’re accountant or an engineer, you have to speak English and write English very well. I know many non-native speakers who write better than the average Canadian in English, who speak, although with an accent, and express themselves better, more eloquently than the average native-speaking English-speaking Canadian. That can be achieved, so for those people what do they need to do? Well, obviously, they need to concentrate.
If I were to move to a country, let’s say the Czech Republic, Russian, Spain, anywhere where I had to do business in that language, that was the main language of business that I was sending out letters or emails, then I would totally focus on that language. I would read a lot in that language. I would, obviously, save words and phrases, review these words and phrases. I would probably get a teacher to correct my writing; again, not because I’m going to immediately improve after the correction, but because it helps me to focus in on areas of weakness and look for those things when I’m reading and speaking.
I believe that if I had the luxury of focusing on Spanish or Chinese or Czech that I could take it up to a very, very high level. I deliberately choose not to do that because I’m interested in exploring other languages, but there’s a limit. Maybe Arabic and Turkish, but then I may just stop there or maybe just kind of explore some of the others, much the way Moses does. Moses McCormick explores a variety of languages and it’s all good. It’s all a matter of what we want to do. It’s a matter of whether you want to be an expert in a small number or you want to travel, see and experience a variety of languages. Those are all valid goals.
I guess my conclusion is that how perfect we need to be depends on your goals. If you are working in a language where you need the language professionally, you have to devote yourself to becoming as good as you can be. You have to become very attentive. You have to see and notice excellent use of the language in others when you’re reading and listening and you have to, therefore, see and notice when you yourself are not using the language as effectively as you could.
This is not a matter of accent. I don’t think accent really matters, I’ve said it before. My father, as I’ve mentioned, who handled himself very well here in English always had a strong accent. The accent I don’t think is a big issue, but you can train yourself to notice what is good usage, effective, efficient use of the language by the natives and you can get very close to imitating that yourself if you focus on that language. But if your desire is to know a number of languages because you like to travel, you like to read in different languages, watch movies in different languages, be able to communicate with people that you come across in your travels, then don’t get upset because you don’t achieve perfection in three or four different languages.
Again, as I always say, just pat yourself on the back for what you are able to do and derive enjoyment from it. Enjoy it and don’t allow yourself to feel frustrated. I say that and, yet, I must admit, at times it bothers me that I’m not better in some of the languages that I claim to speak, but I just don’t have time to achieve a higher level in some of those if I also want to find time to learn new languages, not to mention leading the rest of my life.
So how perfect do we need to be? It’s entirely up to us. It depends on what our goals are, but if we need to be very good in a language we can do it, as long as we don’t have unrealistic expectations when it comes to accents and we accept the fact that we will make the odd mistake.
Thanks for listening, bye for now.
You can listen this post’s transcript on LingQ