It’s ok to feel stupid

Language learning tip #5

Being self-conscious about making mistakes is counter-productive, so don’t be.

I know that’s easier said than done – I’ve been there. I’ve struggled to find the right word, I’ve blurted out complete nonsense, and I’ve cringed upon seeing the wrinkled brows of the poor victims of my linguistic massacres. But you know what? Looking stupid really doesn’t matter. At least I tried, and every time I tried, it got a little bit easier.

You know what doesn’t get easier? Feeling stupid when I don’t speak the language at all. I hate, hate going somewhere where I can’t at the very least say a few words like "hello" and "please." I feel lost and helpless, and that’s far worse than messing up a conjugation or using the wrong word. At least when I make a mistake, I’m making a genuine effort to communicate, and despite what you may have heard, the vast majority of Spanish-speaking people—all people—truly appreciate that effort. In Greece, even though pretty much everyone speaks English, I learned just enough to carry on a two-minute conversation in Greek (hello, how are you?, this is my first time in Greece, I’m American, I live in France, I’m a writer), and every single person I met was absolutely delighted with this small effort, and bent over backwards to help me do/see/eat/drink whatever I wanted after that.

Allow yourself to feel stupid

Of course you’re going to feel stupid: you’re used to being able to communicate without any effort at all, and now, suddenly, you’re thrust into this world of strange new sounds and convoluted grammatical constructions. It’s all just so confusing and illogical and complicated compared to the simplicity of your native language. And not only do you have to understand these odd sounds, you have to create them yourself by twisting your mouth into bizarre new shapes that make you feel like a caricature of Inspector Clouseau or Pépé le Pew. Sometimes—frankly, when you’re starting out, a lot of the time—you’ll listen but not understand, and you’ll speak but not be understood, and this is perfectly normal. It happens to all of us. And if you can try to keep that in mind, that all of us language learners are struggling and that we all feel stupid sometimes, you can hopefully get past feeling self-conscious about it and just concentrate on using what you do know and continuing to improve.

So allow yourself to feel stupid, and be kind to yourself.

If that language you feel stupid about is Spanish, be sure to sign up for a Kwiziq account to get personalized study recommendations and start eliminating some of those mistakes!

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Author info

Laura K Lawless

Laura is a French expert and Kwiziq's Head of Quality Control. Online educator since '99, Laura is passionate about language, travel, and cooking. She's American by birth and a permanent ex-pat by choice - freelancing made it possible for her to travel extensively and live in several countries before settling permanently in Guadeloupe. Laura is the author of Lawless French, Lawless Spanish, and other websites and books on French, Spanish, Italian, English, and vegetarianism. She spends most of her spare time reading, playing with food, and enjoying water sports.

Gruff Davies

[Follow on Twitter: @gruffdavies] Despite the very Welsh name, Gruff is actually half French. Nowadays, he's a tech entrepreneur (and some-time novelist) but he used to be a physicist at Imperial College before getting hooked on inventing things. He has a special interest in language learning, speaks five languages to varying degrees of fluency and he often blogs about language learning, science, and technology. As well as co-founding Kwiziq, he is the author the Amazon best-selling SF thriller, The Looking Glass Club and the inventor of the Exertris gaming exercise-bike and Pidgin, a free online tool that makes drawing flow charts and relationship diagrams as quick and easy as describing them in pidgin English.