When Practice Doesn’t Make Perfect — Overcoming Perfectionism in Language Learning

by Mary Lynn Kindberg

So I decided to memorize this little joke my language helper had told me. It wasn’t too long and had a lot of repetition, so I figured it was in my wheelhouse as a beginner learning Spanish in Costa Rica. I thought it was a great idea to have something up my sleeve to say at those interminable family-and-friends’ fiestas when my conversations pretty much fizzled soon after that first ‘hola.

Armed with both text and recording from my language helper, I was on it, doggedly determined to flawlessly recite the funny tale of the dim-witted Pedro who unknowingly pronounced silent p’s. So both silently and aloud I practiced and practiced (and practiced!) with build-up drills and backwards drills, honing pronunciation and intonation—and, well, yes, driving my husband to distraction.

Show time was so-and-so’s birthday party coming up in two weeks. I dreaded what was likely to last for hours.

I must have rehearsed that dang joke at least 100 times, but still I was scared. Spitless. Now at the party I kept going over and over it in my head, nervous and afraid to launch the opening line, afraid to screw up, afraid to get laughed at. I would be the joke, not Pedro.

But thanks be to God, I did manage to spit it out and even tell it to multiple people at the party. With mistakes? Of course. Mixed reactions? For sure. But I felt proud, and the joke served me well on many, many occasions.

Did my sweaty fear of making a mistake mean I was a perfectionist?

Not necessarily. Fear in language learning is a given. If we’re honest, none of us really likes to make mistakes, period, not just in language learning. And yes, perfectionism certainly does have to do with how high you set your standard of performance. But even more importantly, perfectionism is how you react to mistakes.

My new son-in-law loves (and I do mean loves) the English professional football (i.e. soccer) club Manchester City. For good bonding and a mother-in-law gold star, I, your resident non-sports lover, have started watching City games and actually enjoying them.

This year the club contracted a hot-shot striker who just hit a Premier League record. In one game, however, he missed several goal attempts and just couldn’t score. But to my surprise he seemed totally nonplussed out there on the pitch! In post-game chit chat with Stephen I commented on the player’s nonchalance. His reply? “Hey, what distinguishes a good striker is his ability to shrug off an error.” Hmm.

In contrast to Mr. Striker’s response, negative post-mistake reactions might well be telltale signs of perfectionism.

After landing in Chile for our second assignment in Latin America, I needed to adjust my pronunciation to that dialectal pattern infamously called ‘eating your s’s.’ Soon after arriving I was out riding in a car with both American and Chilean colleagues. Joining the conversation, I attempted to expertly eat, i.e drop, the –s before consonants and at the end of words.

But the more I tried, the more I became increasingly and visibly frustrated. Argh! Joan, my new co-worker, looked me squarely in the eye and said: “Good grief, Mary Lynn, you’ve only been here two whole days!”

That kind of post-production frustration over unrealistic performance standards could indicate perfectionism. That constant self-criticism can grind you down into depression, anxiety, and anger. Let’s be honest. Have you ever said aloud or to yourself ‘stupid language helper,’ ‘stupid shop owner,’ ‘stupid language,’ or even worse, ‘stupid me’?

Consider other possible post-mistake reactions:

  • procrastinating
  • avoiding people and events
  • difficulty completing tasks
  • giving up easily with a why-bother attitude
  • blaming others for your mistakes

You can see from this list that perfectionism certainly is the great enemy of progress. (That’s from Winston Churchill, by the way.)

But hear the good news! The Holy Spirit can certainly help us expose and confront our perfectionism. Like Isaiah, we may cry, ‘woe is me’ and then longingly hope for a burning coal to touch our language-learning lips.

But then what?

Bottom line, in the aftermath of our mistakes, in that mire of perfectionism, we beseech God for holy humility, to plant our feet on solid ground. It is indeed the most righteous response. In his book Humility, Andrew Murray says, “Humility is not so much a grace or virtue along with others, it is the root of all [virtues], the chief mark of righteousness.”

On my Language on Purpose podcast for global workers learning languages, I interview my friend Karen in Episode 23, Attitude Check. She has trained beaucoup ministry workers in language acquisition. I love how she wisely connects humility in language learning with a much-needed learner posture. Here’s what she says:

“A learner posture requires the humility of actively seeking and inviting correction instead of reacting negatively when you are corrected after a mistake. If you come across as wanting to learn and not as a know-it-all, you show respect and appreciation for the people as well as for their language. You must come in as a child—a child who is willing to explore, ready to discover and notice new things.”

So then, if you’ve identified some perfectionism in your own language learning (maybe with some embarrassment and chagrin), I beseech ye, brethren, to consider it a golden opportunity for God to grow you in incarnation-like humility. After all, humility is one of the fruits of the Spirit.


Mary Lynn Kindberg has worked in three indigenous languages plus Spanish while living in Latin America for 20+ years. In addition to hosting the podcast Language On Purpose, she currently helps train and coach global workers in language acquisition. Her two adult children are gratefully bilingual.

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A Life Overseas is a collective blog centered around the realities, ethics, spiritual struggles, and strategies of living overseas. Elizabeth Trotter is the editor-in-chief.

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