Confronting Perfectionism: The Anxieties of Language Learning

As a musician, excellence has often been demanded of me. From a young age, I entered exams and festivals, and was marked on how close to perfection I could play a piece. How well could I express an emotion that would make the audience laugh or cry? How fast could I play a piece without making any mistakes?

As a result, I’ve got good at expressing emotion in music. I’ve gotten good at playing fast. And I’ve also got really, really good of demanding perfect results from myself.

Perfectionism has plagued me for a long time. Instead of challenging me to improve, it cripples me. I can physically feel myself getting stressed if I make a mistake. My face goes red. I feel itchy. I get hot. For a long time, criticism really, really stressed me out. I thought it was a reflection of my embarrassing, cringey inability to do something. I thought it was better not to share than to share and be criticised.

Avoidance, I’m aware, is not the best coping strategy. So, I decided to do something about it. Maybe if I tried something new, I could try to enjoy the process of learning without worrying about being good at it.

That something new was Korean.

Korean is a language with a different alphabet from English. A different word order from English. Different pronunciation. Different idioms. Different cultural norms. Different… everything.

There was absolutely no way I would be good at Korean immediately. I had to relearn everything I knew about language in order to even crack into the Beginner level. I was learning alone in my room, with minimal input from a couple of friends, an online syllabus, and Naver Dictionary on my phone.

There was no escaping it. For a while, I would have to be content with being bad at Korean.

And so off I went. Every morning, I would get up, have a cup of tea, and study. I learnt Hangul (the Korean alphabet system). I launched into TTMIK’s online resources. I systematically, slowly, quietly worked my way into the Korean language. At first, it was great. I was learning loads of new things really quickly, and felt myself improving at a rapid rate. Suddenly, I could read subtitles on Korean shows and music videos. Ok, so I didn’t understand what they said and I was reading super slowly… But I was reading it! I was constructing sentences, and remembering them.

Then, I signed up to Leo Kim (My Korean Dic)’s lessons on Patreon. Here, I could send in sentences and audio to a real person, and have him mark it for me. Which meant… criticism. I would have to face into criticism. My new, precious, personal little challenge was going to be observed, judged and (constructively) criticised by someone. Not only was he going to mark my work, it was going to be in a communal review video anyone could watch. The perfectionist alarm bells started ringing.

When I get the notification that my work has been marked, sometimes I still feel hot and anxious. But, I make myself keep submitting homework, keep watching the feedback. And, you know what? Nothing bad has happened. No one (as far as I’m aware…!) has laughed at me. Leo’s advice has been so helpful.

Every time I submit a video or piece of writing, I am standing up to the fear of not being good. The fear of being embarrassing. The fear of being misunderstood. Now I am really challenging myself – can I be content with not being perfect, even when other people are witnessing the journey? Can I be happy with myself, even if other people see when I make a mistake? Can I believe that I am no less of a person just because I’m not perfect every time?

It’s a work in progress, just as my Korean skills are a work in progress.

I saw a quote that said “every time you hear a foreign accent, you hear courage.” This quote hits home for me. Every time you hear an accent, you hear someone fighting the fear of failing.

So, let’s celebrate foreign accents. And let’s celebrate confronting perfectionism, one grammar structure at a time.

2 thoughts on “Confronting Perfectionism: The Anxieties of Language Learning

  1. Fantastic Rosie, a real example of not being afraid to look over the horizon. Well done and keep at it. You’ll never be perfect but seriously, don’t worry about it. That’s a lesson I’ve learnt over many years. Love you. Dads xx


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