Failure is your friend

The reason why is anybody’s guess, but most human beings living in the civilized stretch of this planet are mortally afraid of failure. For about 22 years of my life, so was I, which made my life hell because I just couldn’t seem to get anything right. Failure was omnipresent, and I had trouble finding out how to handle it until the day I very much accidentally stumbled across the revelation that would forever change the way in which I process experiences and learn new things: I realized that if I was really mindful of my friend Failure, it would pay back by reporting on what I had done wrong (darned kind thing of him to do, too).

All it takes is the first one.

I remember quite clearly my first actual language learning fail. It was such a simple situation that it still evokes facepalm-y feelings in me, only now it makes me grin cheepishly instead of cringe when I remember it. I was at a small Japanese restaurant and had just had a delicious bowl of ramen. I wanted to pay compliments to the Japanese cook, so I went to the bar and told him it what I had learnt in class to mean “thank you, it was delicious” (gochisousama deshita). I was even more thrilled to do this because it was literally my first time speaking out loud in Japanese outside my class.

Only, it didn’t come out like I meant it to. It came out more like “ç+∑#|Ω@|∂© deshita!”

The cook looked at me like I had suddenly sprouted another head and I, hotter at the face than usual, sprinted back to my table, paid my tab and left the restaurant at a speed that would’ve made Usain Bolt proud. Back home I still felt embarrassed, but I felt more infuriated than anything. Why had I failed to deliver such a simple message? What had been my mistake?

After cooling down and feeling slightly less embarrassed, I realized my mistake had been simple, so simple it was laughable. After replaying the scene in my mind several times, I realized I must’ve not been as enthusiastic as I originally thought because I had failed to open my mouth enough to properly enunciate this language I was still very green at. The cook was right in staring at me–he’d heard something but hadn’t understood a thing!

Leave the mistakes, take the experiences

After this mistake, I noticed that my shyness made it very hard for me to speak out loud; that when I had to speak with people I didn’t know, I barely opened my mouth. It didn’t take very long for me to realize that if I didn’t work to overcome this habit, I would never speak like I wanted to. The call I made after this is obvious (as I wouldn’t be here, writing this, if I hadn’t decided to get rid of my shyness!).

This wasn’t the only mistake I made while learning Japanese. However, this particular failure became such a learning experience that it stands above all others.

Mistakes can be crippling if you allow them, but the truth is that their sting lasts only a few seconds, while the lessons they provide can last your whole life. Don’t be afraid of mistakes; in fact, while you’re actively learning a language, you should aim to commit as many of them as possible! They are the hard-nosed teachers that you will appreciate having had once you’re up and speaking your target language like a pro.

Be prepared to “crash and burn”

While I don’t speak them all (I’m fluent in only 3 languages, two of which I grew up speaking) I’ve actually studied over ten languages, and can say, with a minor degree of embarrassment, that I’ve crashed and burnt in at last two of them, Russian and Chinese. By this, I mean I’ve messed up in a way that has kept me from continuing my learning of that language from that point onwards, although it doesn’t quite mean that I won’t take it up again in the future.

I like to consider these crashes out of a language mission as somewhat similar to the mistakes I mentioned a few lines back: only, this time, the lessons to be learnt are different. Whereas minor mistakes while making use of a language will lead you to discover how to use that language better, crashing out of a mission will teach you how to improve your learning routine. We’re all different in how we learn, process and use language: some people, like me, prefer short, intensive spurts of learning, while others do much better at long sessions. Some people prefer learning vocabulary through spaced repetition, while others retain it better through reading parallel text, listening to audio on that language, or even a mixture of all three. It is through small crashes and mistakes that we become better and refine how we self-learn, or even define how we like to be taught.

If you’re new to learning languages, you probably will experience a crash at some point. These can feel tremendously defeating, but you shouldn’t let them affect your motivation. I have a list of things to do after you recognize the ship is sinking, which I recommend using to your own discretion:

  1. Let it happen. It sucks to realize you’re failing, I will give you that, but flailing at the controls up to the last second will only mean you’re postponing something difficult. The more you delay it, the more likely it is to hurt your future motivation.
  2. Look for clues of why it happened. It’s a grim comparison, but aircraft accident investigators (yes, the people who investigate why flight accidents happen) have to go through every possible device, union, log, communication and bolt in a downed airplane to understand why these accidents happen, in order to make sure they don’t happen again. In this case, you’re your own investigator: sit back and think. What were you doing? Was it too much? Too little? Did you get bored? Why? Did any part of your routine just didn’t do it for you? Think about all these things, and start modulating what you think might’ve broken the camel’s back. If things just didn’t feel right at all, it’s okay to do an absolute overhaul of your learning routine–you might find you learn much quicker with another set of tools.
  3. Let some time pass. Don’t go back into the fray immediately. You’ll be tired and quite probably a bit fed up with that language. Take at least a few weeks to clear your head, doing whatever you want, even another language (although if the crash was too hard or it is your first time learning a language, I suggest taking a break from learning languages altogether until you’re ready).

One last thing to remember, whether it is a small mistake or a big crash, is that it has happened to everyone that loves languages at some point. I know, it’s little comfort when it’s happening to you, but it’s always good to take a step back and realize that if so many people have tumbled and gotten up, then maybe you can do so too.