Be kind to yourself

Language learning tip #7

When learning a new language, you’ll sometimes feel stupid – and that’s ok. These are learning moments: feeling stupid is actually a sign of progress, or the moment just prior to progress, and it’s important not to be too hard on yourself.

Things will not always go the way you want them to. You will encounter frustrations, losses will occur, you will make mistakes, bump up against your limitations, fall short of your ideals. This is the human condition, a reality shared by all of us. The more you open your heart to this reality instead of constantly fighting against it, the more you will be able to feel compassion for yourself and all your fellow humans in the experience of life.
 – from Definition of Self-Compassion, by Kristin Neff, Ph.D

Benefits of self-compassion

Be kind to yourselfPracticing self-compassion has numerous benefits related to learning a new language, including

Mental health: A study published in Clinical Psychology Review in 2012 found that self-compassion has a positive impact on mental health, leading to a decrease in vulnerability and distress, such as anxiety – something many students of foreign languages struggle with, especially when speaking.

Motivation: A 2011 University of California study discovered that students who practiced self-compassion seemed to be more motivated to study and to improve themselves.

Self-worth: A study published in the Journal of Personality in 2011 found that self-compassion led to higher self-worth – participants who didn’t berate themselves about their mistakes and shortcomings tended to feel better about themselves in general.

Practice self-compassion

Don’t beat yourself up about feeling stupid and don’t fall into the I’m-no-good-at-languages myth. It’s normal, and at some point, the light will come on and you’ll stop feeling stupid; instead, it will start to feel really good. You’ll feel comfortable and inspired and it’ll be like you’ve finally made it out of the cave of incomprehension into the sunlight of understanding. Somewhere around level B1,* the light comes on and it just feels so great to speak your new language. Before that, there are months of fog and confusion and long, dark tea-times of the soul, but then one day you find that even though you’re still making mistakes and missing words here and there, you feel a warm glow of satisfaction with how much you do know and understand.

We all go through this when we learn our first foreign language, and our second, and beyond. Even people who seem really gifted at languages go through this. But what happens is that after you’ve learned one language, you know what to expect, and so even though the exact same “I feel so lost and stupid!” phase comes along right on schedule, you’re ready for it the second time, which means it’s not as bad. You know it will happen, and you know you’ll eventually get through it. (And it’s even easier the third time!)

The bottom line

It’s very simple: don’t give up and don’t criticize yourself – just allow yourself to feel stupid and be kind to yourself about it. Throw caution to the wind and make mistakes, because if you’re serious about learning, the biggest mistake you can make is allowing self-consciousness to prevent you from using what you do know. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and it’s a lot of fun if you stick with it and give it everything you’ve got. And let’s face it: all the studying in the world isn’t going to help you if you don’t open your mouth and speak when you have the opportunity.

*B1 is intermediate on the CEFR language proficiency scale. To find out where you are on this journey, take our French CEFR test.

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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.

Comments: 3

Thank you Gruff and Laura for all the wonderful information and the tests. I love your site and I'm eternally grateful for the progress tests. One day I decided to take test after test to improve my score. I have retained much of what I learned that day and have been using my new knowledge quite often. Thank you again.

That's fantastic to hear, Stella! Bonne continuation!

I've been working on maintaining my proficiency in French while teaching myself Spanish for over a decade. I decided long ago that these endeavors are life-long hobbies, not a "course" that I have to pass. Thank you for the encouragement. I shall study these languages for the rest of my life. Gary