Language learning obstacle: The need to get it right

I met with a group of Chinese immigrants to discuss language learning. This was a follow up to the research report that showed that Chinese speaking immigrants to Canada don’t improve in their English , even after seven years in the country, whereas Slavic speaking immigrants do improve. There are many possible reasons, including the greater similarity of Slavic languages to English. However, in our meeting, another major reason became obvious in our discussions.

These immigrants, mostly between 35 and 60 years of age, expected to understand what they read, sound like a native, remember words, and speak correctly.They stayed with the same lesson until they got it right. They disliked speaking because they sounded not right to themselves. Basically, after a while they stopped trying to learn. They concluded that they were no good at languages.

In fact, for a good long while in a new language I do not understand much, even when I listen over and over, and even after studying all the words. For the longest time,  I cannot pronounce properly and I cannot speak correctly. But I don’t mind, since I know that with enough exposure and practice, I cannot help but improve. I have done it many times.

These learners were too concerned with getting it right. What really matters is just doing it.

6 comments on “Language learning obstacle: The need to get it right


Indeed, perfectionism can be a barrier for acquiring any of a wide variety of skills. It’s something that I personally struggle with from time to time.You started this blog entry by noting that slavophone immigrants to Canada improve their English skills over time and sinophone immigrants don’t. Do you mean to conclude that perfectionism is significantly more common in sinophones than slavophones?Can you provide a link to the research report that you mentioned?

Steve Kaufmann

Here is the link to the article.–why-chinese-immigrants-struggle-with-english-fluencyThe slavic immigrants have an advantage in that their language is closer to English but that does not account for the Chinese immigrants making essentially no progress in English. A big factor is the much larger Chinese community here which makes English less of a necessity. Perhaps for that reason, but also for other cultural reasons, the Chinese are less interested in communicating and see English learning as an academic endeavour, or as a performance, something to do, and do well, but not as a tool for communication since they are less interested in communicating. Thus they desire for perfection or at least a good performance, and when that is not readily achieved, they give up, since their motivation is not very strong to begin with.

Agreed, and plenty of Westerners have this problem as well, we do have a culture of perfectionism especially in the United States, plus the fact that our society in general and education system in particular beat you over the head for making any mistakes. People learn by making mistakes, and yet we’re punished for it in schools, it’s an absolutely terrible system and no wonder that so many kids hate it. This sort of thing is just one of many negative side effects to it.The essence of learning is making mistakes, that’s HOW you learn to do it right! I’m reminded of a quote I just learned today (I love this):A man travels many miles to consult the wisest guru in the land. When he arrives, he asks the wise man:"Oh, wise guru, what is the secret of happy life?""Good judgment,” says the guru."But oh, wise guru,” says the man, "how do I achieve good judgment?""Bad judgment,” says the guru.Hehehehe. Yup :)Cheers,Andrew

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