It is important to note that a perfectionist trait can be either good
or bad, depending on how you react to it. The student who says, "I
will press on until I get it right" displays a good attitude. Their
goal is to achieve as near native-like pronunciation as possible. They
therefore continue to work at perfecting the sounds and are willing to
take repeated correction until they get it right. However, the student
who says, "I will not move on to the next lesson until I have mastered
this one perfectly" does not understand that languages are not learnt
in that way. Once they have grasped the major point of a lesson, they
should move on to the next; grammar structures will become clearer as
they receive more input and gradually intuitively comprehend the communicative
point of the grammar pattern.
Learning a language requires a tremendous amount of flexibility and the
willingness to try out different methods of learning. It also demands
a tolerance for ambiguity during the early months when much is unclear.
The student who insists on 'doing it my way' and is unwilling to accept
the advice of others may find their progress to be extremely slow. For
instance, the married couple who insist that they have no time to practice
because of their need to spend quality time with their children in their
apartment may not get very far in the language. They need to realize that
'quality time with the kids' need not be restricted to the home, and that
taking the children to the local park will afford lots of opportunities
for language practice as well as enabling their children to mix with the
The person who gets frustrated with ambiguity -- "There
must be a clearer explanation for this grammar point if only I could find
the right person/textbook to explain it properly" -- and allows their
frustration to upset them, will find that this will have a negative effect
on their progress.
In the early stages of learning Chinese when your vocabulary is limited,
you need some imagination to search out alternative ways of expressing
your thoughts and ideas in Chinese. The person who can only think of one
way of expressing their ideas is at a considerable disadvantage over the
student whose agile mind is able to think out alternative ways of expressing
the same concept. For instance, when asked by a Chinese friend, "Where
do you go each day?", and wanting to reply "The Chinese Language
Center", the unimaginative student may find themselves stuck for
the right word. The student with an agile mind, on the other hand, might
reply, "The place where I learn Chinese". The result is that
the unimaginative person remains silent, uses English, or feels frustrated
and embarrassed, while the creative student gets their meaning across
adequately and feels the thrill of communicating in Chinese!
Frustration can be very debilitating. One person sees the task of learning
Chinese as a challenge to be grasped, whereas someone else is quickly
overwhelmed by the enormity of it all. The vital factor is not whether
you are able to cope with the volume of materials to be studied (because
slowing down one's pace a little by hiring a tutor instead of going to
classes is a possible alternative). Rather, it is: are you able to cope
with your feelings as to how you are doing? Or is being frustrated too
much to handle?
Connected with coping strategies is the obvious need to be able to stick
at the task until one's goal is reached. As the task is such an enormous
one and the time needed to attain a reasonable level of proficiency so
long, any lack of stickability will cause the learner to give up long
before reaching their goal. Donald Larson in 'Guidelines for Barefoot
Language Learning' says, "People who fail to develop competence in
another language do so because they fail to go at it with sufficient intensity
to reach the point where they can use the language well enough to continue
learning it from the local people".
How can the language learner be helped in the above areas? Try a change
of approach? Yes, because what you really need is advice on how to go
about learning a foreign language.
The perfectionist needs to be told that their errors
are probably the most valuable source of information about the language.
You learn through making mistakes -- even if it hurts your pride! The
over-rigid person needs to be supplied with alternative approaches to
learning a language and strongly encouraged to try them out to see which
ones suit them best. They must be told that continually asking "Why?"
questions about the language is not helpful, but rather learn to ask "How?"
questions, and wait patiently for things to clarify.
The unimaginative student would benefit from spending
a little time teaching English-speaking children and noting how they adjust
their speech in order to simplify the content so that the children understand
their meaning. We must learn to do the same thing in our early stages
of learning Chinese. The person for whom the enormity of the task is so
overwhelming that they find it difficult to cope and hence become frustrated
with their apparent (or real) lack of progress needs to be helped to divide
the whole language course into smaller sections. Then they will regularly
feel the thrill and satisfaction of having completed yet another section,
thereby recognizing that they are making progress, even though they might
not feel so. And those for whom perseverance is a problem, self-evaluating
progress charts should prove helpful (see the article 'Measuring Progress').
Students who fail to master Chinese often try to justify
themselves and their approach. They seem unwilling to acknowledge that
their approach is not the best one. The student who succeeds has a childlike
teachableness, open to the advice and counsel of others.
Motivation During Language School