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6 Tips on Learning to Love Screwing Up Posted by on Oct 15, 2014 in Archived Posts

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

As I argued last week, if you want to learn a language, you’re going to have to learn to love screwing it up. As someone from the comments last time pointed out, you learn by making mistakes! It’s the only way! So learn to be at ease with making a mess of things.

But how?

Easier said than done, right? Nobody enjoys acting and sounding like a fool (if you do, then you don’t need any help from me). So I came up with six tips for you to get comfortable with discomfort while learning a new language.

1. Start with an easy language

Part of the difficulty with starting a new language is the steep learning curve. With most languages, you need several hundred words before you’re feeling confident speaking about the most basic things. My solution: learn an easy language first, get used to making mistakes in that language, then learn something more difficult. By the time you graduate to harder tongues, you’ll have no problem butchering it.
“But wait!” you say. “There’s no such thing as an ‘easy’ language.”

Wrong: there’s Esperanto! It’s so easy to learn, it’s suspicious. Benny the Irish Polyglot recommends learning Esperanto for this very reason. I’ve heard of people learning it fluently in months—because it’s constructed to be easy (if you’re a western speaker, you point out. True, Esperanto won’t be that easy for someone who only speaks Thai, for example. But this article is written in English, and you’re reading it, so…).

Another reason why Esperanto is so great is that it’s not a native language for anyone (okay, maybe like three people), or an official language for any country. That means you can…

2. Speak with someone for whom it’s a second language

Learning a new language can be a lot harder if you have to communicate with native speakers all day long. As I’ve mentioned before, learning a language from people who’ve learned it as a second language can be a great way to reduce stress on your end. You don’t have to worry about your accent, or biffing the word order, or offending them by accidentally swearing. They don’t care—it’s not “their” language!

That said, remember that you only learn by speaking with someone who is better than you. You have to be okay being the one at a lower level, so perhaps you might as well…

3. Find a helpful native speaker

I’ve got a friend here in Berlin, a native Berliner. He speaks perfect English, as Germans tend to do. But he knows I’m learning German, and I’ve asked him that when we hang out, we speak German together. This doesn’t always work—my own German father finds it really difficult to hold a conversation with me in German when we could just be speaking fluent English together!

But if you can find someone who speaks your desired language as a mother tongue and will help you, you won’t be worried about screwing up, because they’ll be expecting you to screw up. And if you biff it badly, they’ll correct you. That’s ideal.

But you don’t need to limit this to language learning. Why, if you’re going down this road, why don’t you just…

4. Practice screwing up in other areas of your life

We don’t like messing up while speaking a language because we don’t like messing up doing anything. We like being competent! Well, if you can get comfortable making mistakes in every aspect of your life, you can get comfortable making mistakes in a new language.

Ruined the roast for the dinner party? Laugh it off. Wore mismatched socks to work? Say it’s what all the cool kids are doing (they probably are). Dropped your friend’s guitar and broke it? Now you know what to get him for Christmas.

Nobody’s perfect, my friend, and that means you. So what if you make mistakes? As long as you can accept responsibility for them and get on with your life, you’ll be fine. All you have to do is…

5. Love yourself

Speaking of easier said than done, am I right? But honestly, this is pretty much the key to success at anything (who knew this article was going to be a pep talk on life?). Confidence, attitude, charisma, popularity, achievement, beauty—all of these are aspects of love thyself. And the best part? You don’t need any tools, or anyone else, and you can start right now. Just think of all the aspects of yourself that you love. That’s easy. Now start to love the aspects of yourself that you dislike. Harder, but definitely possible. Practice makes perfect. If you can love yourself, warts and all, you will succeed in anything you put your mind to, and that’s a fact.

But let’s say you can’t manage to love yourself, or find willing native speakers, or learn Esperanto—darn it, you just want to be a bit more relaxed when speaking a foreign language! Well, there’s always…

6. Alcohol

Yep! We all know alcohol is a social lubricant. A little bit of beer or wine does wonders for speaking a new language. As long as you can drink responsibly, the words will flow from your mouth like the wine flowing into it. It gives you the confidence to try new words, laugh off your mistakes, and just generally be easier on yourself. You forget that you don’t know things, and you don’t overthink it, which is key. Just know your limits—if you’re slurring your words, they’ll be unintelligible and unattractive in any language (if you’re pregnant, or unable to drink, or a teetotaler, kindly see tips 1-5).

What about you? What tips do you have for those trying to be at ease making mistakes?

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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. Kunar:

    “Another reason why Esperanto is so great is that it’s not a native language for anyone (okay, maybe like three people)”

    I am a native speaker and know several dozens of other native speakers. But the advantage of Esperanto is another one: You have a real chance to catch up. I have seen it so many times: Within one year of learning, it became the best foreign language for people who learned several other languages at school. No chance to beat this (without living abroad).

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Kunar Amazing! You’re one of the three! Seriously though, you’re the first native Esperanto speaker I’ve talked to. Where are you from? Why is it a native language for you?

      • Kunar:

        @Malachi Rempen I am from Germany. My father learned Esperanto some years before my birth and thought it would be a great idea if his children grew up bilingually. So he spoke to me only in Esperanto during the first 12 years of my life. We had a lot of foreign visitors – at 11, I had seen people from every continent (ok, except Antarctica) at our home. During the holidays, we often participated in the international events.

        I could go on and tell you about a lot of things but I do not want to bore you. Just ask me. 🙂

      • Kunar:

        @Malachi Rempen P.S.: Even during my summer holidays in Hungary (two months ago) we were about 10 or 12 native speakers. Nothing special for us. 🙂

        • Malachi Rempen:

          @Kunar That’s really interesting. So how many languages do you speak?

          • Kunar:

            @Malachi Rempen German, Esperanto, English, Italian, some French and Russian. For the holidays I studied several other Slavic languages but the last one tends to cover the knowledge of all others. Apart from that, some Hungarian.

            It’s an interesting situation: The average Esperanto speaker and/or polyglot will put me into shame immediately. But at home, people think that I am a “language genius” although I deny it. It’s just putting some effort into it.

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