For a long time, I have struggled with perfectionism and placing too much importance on the accuracy of my message rather than just communicating despite mistakes. I still remember, however, my first trip to Europe when my high school French teacher took us to Geneva for a week and we made a brief side trip to Aosta in Northern Italy. I spoke no Italian at all, though thanks to my French and Spanish studies I could understand a little. Upon returning to our hotel on our first full day in the town, I was quite thirsty, but had no idea how to ask in proper Italian, “Could you give me a glass of water, please?” What I was able to say, though, at the time was, “Acqua, per favore!” The hotel staff quite easily understood what I wanted and didn’t bother to ask me to rephrase my request. It was one of my first lessons in results-oriented, effective communication.
Another similar experience I had just a few days before was in the Frankfurt airport while waiting for our connecting flight to Geneva. After having just learned a few months’ worth of German at the local community college, I was eager to practice what little knowledge I had and to see if people would actually understand me. I went up to any stranger I saw with a wristwatch and asked, “Entschuldigen Sie mich. Haben Sie die Uhrzeit, bitte?” Much to my dismay, everybody understood me, but nobody said a thing and only showed me their watch because they probably realized that my German was very limited and that they would probably be wasting their time speaking when a visual aid would have sufficed.
A few years later when I visited Mexico City for the first time, I could speak basic Spanish because I had learned it for about 6 years, but surviving in the country where a language is spoken can be quite intimidating and especially without the safety net of a language teacher or host family to guide you. So when I started hanging out on a daily basis with my wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, I became a bit too dependent on her to repeat and rephrase whatever fellow native speakers tried to say to me. I knew that I should have been less nervous and more confident with my listening skills, but basically I stopped actively paying attention to what waiters and taxi drivers said, and just waited for my girlfriend to repeat it in Spanish or translate it into French for me.
And back to that first experience in Geneva, despite my year’s worth of basic French and my motivation to practice it with my Swiss host family and other French-speaking high school students, their higher level of English and their merciless way of telling me, “Just say it in English”, finally convinced me to give up and just spend most of the time speaking English, much to my annoyance. The only people who weren’t able to say that to me were my host’s younger brothers who only knew French, so that by default was our only language to communicate in, and for me that was perfect for actually practicing my limited French.
Flash forward about 9 years after that first trip to Europe and I had lived in Paris for 6 years and had traveled to England, Ireland, Italy, Germany, Spain, and Switzerland, and before deciding to move to Mexico, we wanted to visit Central Europe: Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia. Though many people told me that everyone likely spoke English in those countries, I was a bit reticent to trust that advice, so I spent about 6 months before our trip teaching myself conversational Hungarian, Czech, and Polish. I unforunately completely ignored Slovak and we had a surreal experience when first arriving at the bus terminal in Bratislava.
My only source of vocabulary or expressions was my Lonely Planet phrase book, and it was a true test of my instant immersion skills. Our cell phones had no local service and we knew absolutely nobody. There was no map of the city in the bus terminal and nobody spoke English or any other language I enquired about. So the only way to get from the terminal to the historical city center was to very quickly learn essential Slovak. My mind raced between map…where are we….where is the city center…where is the train station…exchange bank… Finally, I located the exchange bank and converted my Hungarian Forints into Slovak Koruna, then at the kiosk purchased a map, then proceeded to ask questions about where everything was located. I kind of understood that we had to take a bus to get to the city center, and luckily outside some good Samaritan who noticed that we were completely lost was able to explain in English how to buy a bus ticket, get to the train station, and to the city center. To my surprise, at the train station I somehow managed to buy our tickets to Krakow in Poland on the next overnight train and even with a student discount.
Those scary, intimidating, real-life situations in foreign countries have always forced me to remember how difficult it can be to start speaking in a foreign language either from the comfort of one’s home over Skype or in the lion’s den in a foreign city, which is why when teaching foreign languages I try to keep things practical and focused on results because when you are in an either sink-or-swim situation, nobody cares about theory or how to properly conjugate the subjuntive form of a verb. You quickly find the way to summon your inner dormant language skills when it means that your ability to board the next train depends on it, or you’re famished and want to buy some food, or you desperately need to secure some lodgings for the night when all the other hotels are fully booked.
When teaching as well, I’ve had to ignore my inner stickler and grammar pedant for the benefit of my students because too many corrections at such an early stage of learning will decimate their confidence and motivation to keep trying. Over the years I have seen several cases of overwhelmingly confident language learners who make a ton of mistakes, but are able to make themselves understood. The worst thing I could do is destroy their confidence and make them start second-guessing everything. If I had to choose, I would say I much prefer that type of learner instead of a shy perfectionist who is afraid to make mistakes with regard to grammar, spelling, or pronunciation. The communication skills of that group of students is shaky and the language lessons are more about confidence-building, learning to let go, and to stop being afraid of mistakes. As a result, those students have also taught me to value communication over perfection because it is more effective at getting real results when you’re in a real-life situation.