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Screwing Up: Learn to Love It Posted by on Oct 6, 2014 in Uncategorized

Language learning in a foreign country is hard. Not only do you have to wrestle with merciless grammar, call up vocabulary from the dusty depths of your memory, parse figures of speech and slang like in-jokes you aren’t in on, and even possibly learn how to read and write legibly in an entirely new alphabet, you also have to dive headfirst into public humiliation. Nobody likes that.

Itchy Feet: A Travel and Language Comic by Malachi Ray Rempen

See, we humans don’t usually like to be made fools of. We like to fit in, we like to feel like one of the fellas, part of the team. We want the people in our society to accept us, to agree that we belong, and to welcome us into their midst as one of them. We like to feel right at home.

You have to give all that up when you talk like a toddler.

Little kids have it easy—they already talk like children, because, well, because they ARE children. No one’s going to give them grief about not knowing how to conjugate verbs correctly. They’re still getting over how adorable it is that they can speak in the first place.

We adults don’t have that luxury. Your friends might find it endearing if you mix up word placement or accidentally say a horrible swear word, but no one at the business meeting or post office or police station will. You’ll face impatient frowns, hard looks, spiteful laughter behind your back, even ridicule, often in public. Even if you don’t actually encounter these things, the potent, tangible fear of being treated this way can be enough to paralyze you completely. You think you’re shy in your home country? Try piling on top of that your inability to express yourself like a regular human being! It can be enough to make you want to throw in the towel. No language learning can be worth this kind of punishment! Right?

Well, my friend, I’ve got some good news and some bad news for you.

The bad news is, you’ve got no choice. You’ve got to climb every ladder from the bottom. If you want to learn that language, you’ll have to hack your way through a jungle of misunderstandings, faux pas, mistakes, and potential mortification. You’ll be at times frustrated, humiliated, tired, angry, and lonely. The road to language learning is fraught with peril, and There Definitely Be Dragons.

The good news is, immersion is the best way to learn a language. Why do kids learn languages faster than adults? Because they’re immersed in it! They spend 100% of their waking hours somehow practicing that language, whether trying to ask for food or reading picture books or trying to understand the TV. Adults don’t usually dedicate that kind of time on their own, so immersing yourself in the culture and making yourself vulnerable is the absolute quickest way to learn that language.

And there’s more good news: you’re not alone! Aside from all of us fine folks on the internet, if you’re not living in England or the USA, chances are pretty good that the people out there on the street are trying to improve their English. That means they’re just like you. If anything, they probably respect you for even trying their language.

But even if you’re not living in a foreign country, and your language learning is limited to skyping or meetup groups, the fear of screwing up can prevent you from talking, and that’s no good. You need to blab, baby. The best thing you can do is just accept that you will make horrific, sometimes hilarious mistakes, embrace the fact that you’re learning a new language, and dive right in. If you can be comfortable sounding like a toddler, or idiot, or idiot toddler, you will greatly reduce the amount of time it will take you to learn that language. You will actually feel very confident—and you will be communicating! Isn’t that the point of all this?

Next time I’ll talk about how to get comfortable with discomfort.

What about you? What do you remember about talking like a toddler in your adopted language? Are you still at that level?

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About the Author: Malachi Rempen

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian wife and German cat. "Itchy Feet" is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.


  1. Katie:

    One of my favorite mess-ups happened during my study abroad time in Germany. I was trying to be braver in trusting my German knowledge and to try and follow my gut instincts more often. I had spent the night with a group of friends (Germans and Americans) and I woke up before everyone else. I didn’t want to wake anyone, but I had to get back to my apartment to take my thyroid medication. Despite my efforts to tiptoe out of the apartment unnoticed, I woke one of the Germans.
    The conversation went like this:
    Him: Wo gehst du? (Where are you going?)
    Me: Ich muss wieder nach Hause gehen und Tabletten nehmen (I have to go back home and take medication.)
    Him: Warum? (Why)
    Me: Wegen meiner Schildkröte. (Because of my thyroid)
    Him: *uncontrollable laughter*

    It was then it hit me. The word for “thyroid” *does* start with the word “Schild-” but I had attached the wrong word to the end. The world “Schilddrüse” means “thyroid”. The word “Schildkröte” means “shielded creature”, aka: “Turtle”.

    Despite having studied German for almost a decade, I had told my friend that I needed to take medication because of my turtle.

    Let me assure you, I will never make that mistake again– BECAUSE it was embarrassing. The embarrassment cemented the two words in my memory for the rest of my life. It the mistake proved both comical AND useful.

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Katie That’s hilarious. Actually, that’s a really good point – making mistakes IS how you learn. You remember that it was wrong, and you try differently next time. That’s the definition of learning!

      Sometimes, though, I mess up so often and get corrected on the same thing that I forget which was the right and which was the wrong. In Italian I still don’t know whether it’s “vado in bici” or “vado á bici” – one is “I’m going by bike,” and one is “I’m going to a bike.”

      Dumb but important.

  2. Haydee:

    I so like this article. This is exactly where I find myself to be…hesitant, feeling like a moron and unable to put all the grammar correctly so I don’t look a stupid minority in a world of white people.

  3. Valerie:

    One of my fav mistakes: I was headed out the door to meet some friends to go play squash when I ran into one of my housemates.

    Her: wohin geht’s du denn?
    Me: zum Sportplatz. Ich spiele mit einigen Freunden Squash, aber leider habe ich keine Rackete.

    Didn’t know at the time that the term for “racket” was “Schläger”, and she found it riotously hilarious that I was lamenting my lack of rocket for playing squash.

  4. peter:

    None of that. Speak loudly and slowly with a parody accent!

  5. Xenia:

    English turned me into a very shy student… I did an English Major, and I felt like my English was below par compared to my fellow students (which was actually) so I never dared to ask questions or comment in class (at least the first three years) on my last year, after my Erasmus in Edinbrugh, my confidence built up, and I felt much more comfortable.
    Now, I’ve got big issues with French. I live near France, and we visit very often, but I tend to speak either SPanish or English, cause when I try French, they look at me as if I were speaking Chinese. Either that, or they say something in French and then it’s me who thinks they are speaking in Chinese!

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Xenia I’m pretty sure that in France, you’ll get that look even if you’ve been speaking it for 30 years. Even the slightest accent can alienate you, I’m afraid.

      That’s why I suggest learning French in a Francophone place – Quebec, Morocco, even Belgium or Switzerland. That way you can avoid the harsh looks due to your accent! (Of course, in Switzerland, you’ll endure harsh looks for everything ELSE…)

      • Erin:

        @Malachi Rempen I can vouch for that happening in France and Switzerland! After spending time in both countries, I was looked at oddly in Switzerland and laughed at in France. Back in the US, I met several folks from France who told me my accent was perfectly fine and that I’d been laughed at per status quo of the areas.

        One funny story is that in Italy, I mixed up the word for husband with the word for wife. I’d accidentally answered I was married and had a wife rather than a husband. My answer was met with some interesting responses and it wasn’t until I got back to the US that one of my Italian friends informed me I’d reversed the gender of my spouse! Live and laugh 🙂

  6. Retta:

    Hmm.. I never really was shy using my foreign languages, but there is one point I’d like to add.

    Do you know this feeling, when you understand quite a lot of a language, but you just don’t know how to express yourself?
    I experienced this when I was in Italy without speaking Italian but already knowing French and Latin; it was horrible! That’s how I imagine being comatose; you are alive, but you’re not an active part of the society/ group of speakers, you’re somehow powerless.
    It matches with what you’re saying about humans wanting to fit in.
    The good thing is: once you get out of this “language-coma”, it’s so easy..

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Retta I’m exactly there with German. I can say most of the usual things pretty easily, converse normally, but when it comes to really expressing unique ideas or feelings that I have, I start to waver. I start to search for words, and the conversation becomes in danger of breaking down.

      Still, you gotta be there to move forward! And I can feel I’m slowly slipping into the fluent phase. Taking its sweet time, though!

  7. Catherine:

    As for me, I quite like this state of being ‘an idiot toddler’ in the languages that I start to learn, because thus I have lots of happy memories, remember the correct ways of saying this or that and simply make my foreign friends, who I practice the language with, laugh! 😀 The first example that comes across my mind is when I was speaking with a friend in Turkish and I remember we were arguing about something, and then I said: ‘Ok, stop it, I don’t feel well, I think my blood pressure has gone down’. In Turkish the word for blood pressure is ‘tansyon’ but instead of it I somehow used ‘istasyon’ which means ‘train station’! So, basically, what I said was ‘My station has fallen down’ 😀 At the moment of speaking my friend didn’t point out that mistake, but the next day we were both laughing so hard at it! 🙂

    The situation changes completely if we speak about languages that I have been learning for a very long time – in this case I don’t like making mistakes, even stupid ones, though, again, sometimes they can be very funny 🙂

    P.S.: Thank you for the interesting article!

  8. Nicole:

    If you don’t want to stay at the toddler stage for a long time choose to study a language like Esperanto in which there are no irregular verbs, etc. Furthermore as no one (or nearly no one) is a native speaker you are both speaking in a language which is not your mother tongue. But fluency can be reached in a reasonable amount of time unlike what happens with national languages. Esperanto is used much more widely than many people assume.

  9. Brianna:

    I just found this site on g+. And I love all of your writtings. They’re always so true. I have a german friend who is so encouraging about it all but I am so nervous to mess up that I just speak english instead.. >.<. Thank you for this awesome advice. and keep writing I love reading them!

  10. KT:

    I’ve made the entirely too common (for native english speakers) mistake while speaking in Spanish in Madrid, Spain. I was asked by a group of guys at a bar one evening why I wasn’t partying as much as everyone else. I tried to tell them that I was embarrassed because my spanish wasn’t very good. “Estoy muy embarazada porque no puedo hablar español bien.” The all died laughing. Embarazada is a false cognate. Basically I said “I’m pregnant because I can’t speak Spanish very well!”

    After the laughter died down and they pointed out my mistake, I actually had a great night!

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