Do you want the perfect English accent? Do you want to communicate perfectly in English? Would you like a perfect understanding of English grammar? So many language learners are searching for perfection, but this is not always a good thing. Today, I’m going to tell you why you should stop being a perfectionist!
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What is a Perfectionist?
In last week’s edition of the Economist magazine, I read an article called “The Perfectionist Trap” by the psychoanalyst Josh Cohen. Cohen describes how our society, and especially young people, are struggling to exist in a world that focuses on being perfect.
A perfectionist is a person who can not accept anything short of perfect: everything they do, make, or create has to be the best possible. Unless it is perfect, with no shortcomings or mistakes, they will not stop working to be better.
In the article, Cohen told the story of an old student he used to lecture at university. This student was by far the most engaged and talented student in the class. One day, the student asked for an extension as he did not think his paper was perfect yet. The student revealed that although he’d actually written the whole essay already, he did not want a professor to read it unless it was perfect.
The student eventually handed in his paper a day late, and despite his worries he still received the top grade in the class. However, over the next few years the student kept submitting assignments late – he was a perfectionist who did not want to create something that wasn’t perfect. The student later enrolled in the Master’s programme, but never graduated as he decided to delete his 20,000 word thesis rather than let his professor read something that wasn’t perfect.
Our world today focuses on perfectionism. On social media we see people’s perfect lives – TikTok and Instagram are full of videos of people’s perfect lunches, perfect makeup, and perfect vacations. On dating apps we search for the perfect partner; on LinkedIn we envy people who have the perfect career with the perfect salary.
And as jobs have become more competitive, we increasingly see people longing for the perfect resume. Studying for hours to get the perfect grades, volunteering at charities and doing numerous unpaid internships for the perfect experience, and spending hours crafting the perfect application is now necessary to stand a chance at getting the perfect job.
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Perfectionism and Language Learning
Language learners are not immune to perfectionism. Only two days ago I talked with a student about why he wanted a perfect native level English accent – I didn’t think it was necessary (his pronunciation is really good) but he wanted to be perfect. Language learners often want to be perfect in the way we speak, the way we understand the language, the way we use idioms, and the way we communicate with native speakers.
We want to be perfect speakers. I’m sure many of you want to be perfect at English. Perfection is often connected with fluency, accuracy, and overall ability. But, to tell you all the truth, language learners should not be perfectionists. And this is not just my opinion… There are academic studies, such as one from the Journal of Language Teaching and Research in 2011, that clearly demonstrate “how perfectionistic tendencies in language learners are associated with low academic achievement and poor performance in language skills.”
If you are a perfectionist when it comes to learning English, it is very likely that you will struggle to improve and progress in your learning. Perfectionism can, and will, hold you back from achieving your goals. As the studies show, people who want their English to be perfect tend to perform badly in both academic situations and core language skills. Why?
Perfectionism and Language Learning Don’t Go Together
Well, the key thing to realise is that there is no such thing as being perfect. There is no such thing as perfect English. I make English mistakes every single day. I start sentences using “because,” “and,” and “but”; I end sentences in prepositions like “in”; and I use too many words in my sentences…. All of these are mistakes.
Of course, you should try hard to improve your English ability, but aiming for perfection is not realistic or even necessary. You will not be perfect. You will make mistakes. You could prepare and prepare, but you will still not be perfect. And that is fine! It is ok!
Perfectionism can harm all parts of language learning, but in particular perfectionists usually struggle to speak in English. English learners often feel as though they need to be perfect to be understood: you need the flawless accent and intonation, and you need to use completely accurate grammar and vocabulary. And there is a worry that if you don’t have native level speaking ability you won’t be able to communicate effectively.
This ambition to be perfect puts so much pressure on language learners. I’ve known people spend hours and hours preparing for speaking exams… but all of their hard work is wasted because they are too nervous to speak. They don’t want to make a mistake. In fact, I taught Junior High School English in Japan for a few years. I was constantly frustrated by the fact that my students knew the correct answers but never put their hands up to answer questions… they didn’t want to make a mistake
In 1990, Randy Frost, an American psychologist, suggested that there were 3 types of perfectionists. First, self-oriented perfectionists – people who want to be the perfect versions of themselves. Second, socially prescribed perfectionists – people who care about what other people think and want to reach the perfection of other people. And third, other-oriented perfectionism – people who demand others to be perfect. The best example of this is the parent who insists their child achieve all A+ grades at school while learning English, playing the Piano, and joining sports clubs.
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Perfectionism is an Obstacle
Perfectionism is everywhere today. But, in language learning, it is an obstacle. I mentioned at the beginning an anecdote about a student who wouldn’t submit papers because he feared they were not perfect. This is incredibly common with language learners. I know so many people who refuse, or are scared, to use their English knowledge because they say they are not perfect.
Instead of using English, they worry that they are not good enough, and that other people will judge their accents, laugh at their mistakes, and notice the inaccuracies. But this rarely happens. Perfectionism leads to fear and nervousness – and this makes it incredibly hard for you to practice and progress your language skills.
Which do you think is better – spending 2 hours on one practice IELTS answer so that it will be perfect, or using those 2 hours to write 5 or 6 answers on different topics? Which do you think is better – being scared to join a language exchange because your English is not perfect, or joining anyway and speaking to hundreds of different people about a variety of topics?
I am not a perfectionist when it comes to learning Japanese. I didn’t really have the opportunity to be a perfectionist. I started learning the language while I was living in the Japanese countryside, so I was forced to be brave and use the limited words I knew every day. I would make mistake after mistake – I don’t think I’ve ever said a perfect Japanese sentence.
But it doesn’t matter! My life is so much better because I’m not a perfectionist. If I cared about having perfect Japanese, I never would never have made friends with people from my neighbourhood in Tokyo. I go to my local bar a few times a week – and I talk with the staff and customers exclusively in Japanese. Even though I’m not perfect, I can communicate, joke, debate, argue, and enjoy myself.
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Instead of Being a Perfectionist…
Instead of being perfect, you should aim to be hard working, brave, and enthusiastic. Why work hard? Well, learning a language is not easy. To become proficient in English takes a lot of time and effort. You will need to work hard to keep progressing and improving.
Why brave? Well, you need to stop being afraid of making mistakes. Do not fear being wrong. In fact, welcome the mistakes – accept them. You only know how to improve after making mistakes. Don’t be scared to speak in front of people – no one cares if your English isn’t perfect or you make a mistake. In fact, people will probably be impressed that you are learning a new language.
And why should you be enthusiastic? Well, rather than waiting for the day you have perfect English, you need to enjoy studying and be eager to use English. As I always say, I’m not the best at speaking Japanese. But I use the language enthusiastically – I will enter into complex conversations over politics, art, and economics without knowing any relevant vocabulary. If you come to my local bar, there is a good chance you will see me trying to explain the ideas of famous philosophers through a mix of Japanese and body language – and I do it enthusiastically!
What is my advice for all of you listeners? What can you do to avoid the “perfectionist trap” talked about in the Economist article?
The quicker you forget about the idea of being perfect the better. Forget about getting a perfect accent, a perfect understanding of English grammar, or a perfect command of English vocabulary. Instead, set yourself realistic targets or goals.
Second, make mistakes. And be happy about it. Write and speak as much English as possible. I’m actually about to launch an English conversation club for all my Patreon subscribers to give as many people as possible a place to speak and practice. But it doesn’t matter where you do it, just go out there and use English!
Language learners often make excuses over why they can’t use a language: they are not perfect, they are not good enough, they don’t have the opportunity. Instead, look for excuses to use the language – join a language club, download a language exchange app, visit a café run by English speakers!
And most importantly, enjoy yourselves while practicing! If you wait until you are perfect, you will miss out on so many possibilities and opportunities!
Some of you might consider yourselves perfectionists: you may want the perfect English accent, a flawless understanding of English grammar, and an excellent command of vocabulary. However, wanting to be perfect is often a major problem language learners face.
Perfectionists struggle to practice, improve, and progress their English skills. By waiting until your skills are perfect, and being embarrassed by possible mistakes, you are taking away countless opportunities to go out there and practice!
Instead of being a perfectionist, I think you should be brave, be enthusiastic, and work hard!
Are you a perfectionist? How about when it comes to language learning?