I speak 8 languages. I used to be horribly bad at all of them, and I’m bad at all the other languages that are out there.
As pretty much anyone who’s ever tried to learn a language, at first you’re going to be very bad at it. Yes, even YouTube hyperpolyglots were very bad at languages when they started learning them. That foreign interpreter you see on TV, interpreting from a foreign language to your native language at lightning speed, once had atrocious skills and couldn’t string two sentences together.
Hard to believe, right? If they were so bad, how did they manage to become so good in the end?
There are two options:
- They were naturally good at languages, but didn’t know it back then. After all, anyone can learn any skill, but we’re all wired to learn certain things more easily than others. Does that mean that others can’t learn the same things? Absolutely not. It merely means we can learn them faster.
- They decided to work on their language skills despite being bad. They pushed through, even when times were hard. And, after a journey of ups and downs, they became very good.
Whatever option you pick doesn’t justify labeling yourself as “bad at languages” and giving up because of that.
If you have a burning desire to learn a language and you push through with practice, eventually you’ll become really good at it. Yes, miracles happen from time to time.
And if you really want to learn any language successfully, one of the first things you should do is allow yourself to be bad at it.
People often come up to me and tell me they’re bad at a language, or at understanding what native speakers say, or they feel they’ll never master speaking to natives. They become extremely worried because of that. They believe they should have been good at these things right from the start. That mindset is exactly what strips you of your inner drive and kills your motivation.
Being bad at the things you don’t know how to do is perfectly normal. There’s nothing wrong with recognizing it at first, as long as you can prevent it from leading you to a train of thought in which you end up believing you’re not good enough to learn any language and give up. That is unfair.
Think about your childhood. Weren’t you horribly bad at your native language at first? Did you ever let this stop you from learning your native language?
How about walking? Why no one ever says “I’m not good at walking?”, unless they want to become an actor or a supermodel? As a child, you probably struggled to learn how to walk, you fell down, yet you pushed through and got back up. Why not do the same with languages?
Probably because school got in the way, and you learned that if you do things wrong, you’re not good enough. Schools don’t teach you that failure is essential in learning and it shows you what to work on. They teach you that failure means bad grades, so it’s bad.
But failing is essential. Where failure is not welcome, no learning is possible.
The journey to fluency can be long, and at first you’ll have no idea of what works for you and how to go about it. If you succeed in it it’s because you’ll push through, try to get back up after a failed experience, assess yourself to see what needs to be changed, and move on.
Your only enemy is yourself and your unwillingness to get out of your comfort zone and communicate with native speakers even though you’re afraid you’ll fail.
Unless you’re willing to write or say something wrong, you won’t get to something correct.
When I realized that to become fluent in my target language, I’d have to do something related to that language every day, I just started to do that. I was bad at the language, even though I didn’t want to be, but I gave myself permission to keep trying new things and be bad at them, because there was no other way of making progress.
So I changed my mindset and the following sentence kept me going:
“Of course I’m bad at it now. I haven’t done it before! But I will become better. If others can do it, I can do it, too.”
I also add an extra line that gives me even more motivation.
“Even if I can’t do it just as well others do it, at least I know I can do it better than I do now, and I will work for that.”
Language learning taught me this approach, and I’ve since used it to learn other skills, too.
I spent most of my life thinking I’m not good at writing. It was when it became an important part of my job that I realized I love it and I’d like to practice to become better at it. Was I good at writing at the time? Absolutely not! In fact, I was insanely bad. Yet I pushed, worked hard, kept on writing as much as I could, as often as I could.
As a result, I finally added the missing links to finish a book I dreamt of writing for years. I’d started writing bits and pieces for it, but I felt I was too bad at writing, so they remained hidden somewhere in a dusty digital corner of an old external hard disk. But I became more and more confident with writing, so the book was finally ready. And that’s just the beginning; I want to write and publish a lot more books.
So, please allow yourself to be bad at the language. Allow yourself to try and fail, to fall down and get back again. To try different language learning tools, choose what’s best for you, and ditch what doesn’t work.
My book “Fluent For Free” helps you do exactly that: choose to learn a language, discover what free language learning tools you can find out there, find the best ways you can become fluent, and let go of any limiting beliefs that hold you back. Like the one about being bad about languages.
Let’s try and fail together until we somehow become good at languages!