It is important to note that a perfectionist trait can be either good or bad, depending on how you react to it. It is the difference between being willing to move slowly on as against insisting on standing still. 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 learned 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. 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. As someone said, “The acquisition of a new set of language learning skills seems to involve a certain amount of wrenching of cherished and deep-seated habits”.
Tolerance of Ambiguity
The person who gets frustrated with ambiguity – “There must be a clearer explanation for this grammar point if only I could find the right teacher or textbook to explain it properly” – and allows their frustration to overly upset them, will find that this will have a serious negative effect on their progress (and well-being!).
In the early stages of learning Chinese when your vocabulary is fairly limited, you need some imagination to search out alternative ways of expressing your thoughts and ideas in Chinese. The person who can think of only 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 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? As one person said, “The good language learner feels that frustrations are somehow inevitable, occasionally even helpful, and frustrations motivated them to learn harder in order to overcome them”.
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 time talking with children and noting how we adjust our speech in order to simplify the content so that the children understand our 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.
Overcoming the Psychological Barriers 2: pdf file