There’s this horrible loop that I have gotten stuck in more times than I count:
The worse I am at language, the more afraid I am of making mistakes in that language. And yet, the worse I am at a language the more I need to be making mistakes in that language.
So, about two years ago, I moved to Tokyo (I’m living in Bangkok now, but that’s beside the point).
It was my second time living in Japan, as a couple of years before that I had studied at a Japanese language school for six months in Shinjuku. The thing is, when I left that language school four years ago and moved back to California, I quit studying Japanese.
Then, here I was: in Japan again. And I met up with some former classmates who had kept studying that whole time, and they were way better at Japanese than I was.
Honestly, I was embarrassed.
And so whenever I went out with them and our Japanese friends, I was hesitant to say anything, because I didn’t want them to hear any of my mistakes. I was self-conscious every time I didn’t understand something people were saying. I knew that I needed to be making more mistakes, but that’s really intimidating when you’re surrounded by people who are better than you.
The reason I bring up this story is because, looking back at it now, I had no reason to be embarrassed. I’ve had these talks again and again with my Japanese students when teaching English, and I always tell them the same thing. I tell them what I tell myself every time I’m afraid of looking stupid, making a mistake, any time I’m embarrassed that I’m not as good as the people around me:
Think about how you feel when you’re around somebody who’s much better than you at [insert foreign language]. Does it make you feel good? Probably not.
On the other hand, think about how you feel when you’re around somebody who’s not as good as you at [insert anything]. How does that make you feel? Proud of yourself? Confident?
Finally, how do you want the people around you to feel? Most likely, you want to make them feel happy, proud of themselves, confident. And you can’t do that by being perfect. So don’t try to be perfect.
Being bad at something is an awesome opportunity to lift up the people around you, to make them feel awesome.
And you can ask them for help or advice and make them feel skilled and valuable. Stealing an idea from Benny the Irish polyglot, you can tell your Japanese friends that you’ll buy them a drink if they correct your broken Japanese five times. You give your girlfriend/boyfriend a kiss on the cheek every time she/he corrects you.
In stories, the best characters are flawed. But usually they have a good heart. I’d like to think that it’s the same in life, too.
So let’s speak some Japanese and look as stupid as possible, yeah? Let’s laugh at ourselves and have a good time. To build a bit of confidence, a good place to start is with a cheap teacher who will correct your errors. For example, on italki.
Aside from that, here are some posts I’ve written about mistakes in Japanese that I keep making over and over again.
Good luck with your studies, everyone.
p.s. Here’s some free Japanese, just for you: