laptop and crumpled pages

On Hitting Setbacks in Language Learning

ElzetteAugust 29, 2019

I recently got a tattoo. It’s a very nice tattoo, but this is not the point of the story. About mid-way through the torture (um, artistic process), my tattoo artist mentioned that he lived in China for a few years. Aha! I had just identified a potential Mandarin speaker. I summoned up the courage to say a few words.

Now, I don’t know if it’s because my brain was too focused on the fact that someone was poking me with a sharp needle at the time, but this attempt at basic communication did not go well.

What I meant to say was: ‘That’s great! So do you speak any Mandarin then?’

What I said was: ‘So…mumble, mumble, mumble ma?’

He just blinked at me and calmly carried on with his work.

This failure to express a very basic question really knocked my self-confidence. I replayed this ill-fated non-conversation in my mind for days, growing more and more disheartened until, finally, I had to make a decision. I could choose to set up shop in negativity town and wallow in self-pity or I could choose to believe that I’m simply not great at speaking Mandarin while someone is stabbing me with a needle.

I chose the latter and got on with the job at hand.

Setbacks like these are an inevitable part of the language-learning journey. My blunder at the tattoo parlour was certainly not the first and definitely won’t be the last embarrassing moment on my path to Mandarin mastery. So, here’s what I’m telling myself (and now you)…

It happens

And it happens to everyone. Really, ask anyone.

Sometimes it’s not you, it’s them

In my awkwardness, I didn’t stop to think that maybe tattoo guy (not Asian, by the way) didn’t speak any Chinese and therefore simply did not respond to me. I made an assumption based on very little information and then beat myself up when things didn’t go as planned.

Often, we assume that a failure to communicate with others is a result of our own shortcomings and don’t consider that the other party may carry at least part of the blame. Communication is a two-way street, after all. Some people (myself included) are simply not great at understanding accents, some may be shy, or some may not be good at expressing complex concepts in simpler terms to allow for easier communication with a non-native speaker.

Whatever the issue may be, don’t be too hard on yourself or others. Chances are you won’t ever see that person again anyway.

Ditch the negative self-talk

We all have an inner critic. Sometimes that little voice can be pretty useful, allowing you to identify shortcomings and motivate you to overcome them. Other times it can be downright destructive.

When we hit setbacks, it can be easy to allow self-criticism to go into overdrive and give in to the urge to catastrophize (I failed at that one thing; I must be a failure overall).

Some language learners find it useful to repeat a set of affirmations when they catch their inner critic sharpening the claws. I don’t do this myself, but let me know if this works for you!

Just keep going

Learning a new language is in many ways an exercise in tenacity. The good news is that the more you persevere, the easier it gets. Find a way to track progress that works for you to see just how far you’ve come. I use my (many!) notebooks as a representation of all the hard graft I’ve put in over the years. It is very satisfying to flip through them and remember that time when I had a problem remembering how to write .

P.S. For those of you wondering, I have had successful conversations since tattoo-gate!

Have you encountered setbacks in your language learning? How did you overcome them?

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How to overcome setbacks in language learning

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