Real Language Stories: Becoming an Imperfect Language Learner
Upon moving to Italy, Heidi Lovejoy wanted to learn Italian, but her perfectionism was a bigger obstacle than anticipated. Making progress required a major change of mindset.
Note from Elise
This post is the second in the “Real Language Stories'' series, in which real language learners share their journeys with their first foreign languages in their own words.
Have a story you’d like to share? Email firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.
My husband and I had been trying to get to Europe for years for his job, and it was finally happening to us. We were moving to Italy. What a dream! But as friends raved about the food and wine I’d enjoy, gave recommendations for which city to see first, and silently planned their own vacations to visit us, all I could think about was the language.
I was 33 years old, and although I’d always wanted to learn a second language, growing up in the United States, there weren’t many opportunities to do so. My first opportunity to take a foreign language course was in high school, so at 16 years old I took my first Spanish class. After four semesters studying vocab and grammar in order to pass exams, this bright-eyed, straight-A student was left disappointed with how little Spanish she could actually speak.
But now I would have immersion. Living in Italy was going to be my ticket to fluency in another language. I couldn’t wait to arrive and jump right in.
Our first week in Italy was a mixture of language excitement and fear. Walking around the supermarket, I was thrilled to see words I understood because they were close my native English or to one of the few words I remembered from Spanish class all those years earlier. I felt a distinct thrill when saying “grazie” to a waiter. I remember passing a father and his young son at the mall and hearing, “bagno,” which I recognized as “bathroom,” and immediately turning to my 4-year-old daughter to teach her this very important word.
Yet as I eavesdropped on the conversations going on around me, I noticed that I couldn’t tell where one Italian word ended and the next began. I started to realize how much I needed to learn just to be able to order food and pay the bill in Italian. How would I ever learn enough to speak with my kids’ school teachers, go to a doctor, or make friends?
I felt overwhelmed, but I pushed down the paralyzing fear and let my motivation to learn Italian lead the way. I found Duolingo, of course, and set to work finishing as many lessons as possible every day. There was also a local Italian as a Second Language (ISL) course offered to English speakers in my area, and I signed up as soon as I could. I often used Google Translate to look up words I saw on signs and to discover how to say certain useful phrases.
I was eager to try out my new vocabulary everywhere I went, but the people I spoke with didn’t always meet my attempts to communicate with the same enthusiasm. In restaurants, the servers often spoke English and would promptly switch as I stumbled over proper pronunciation. At stores, I still couldn’t understand when a cashier told me the price of my goods, and transactions always took longer than they should have as I struggled to figure out the Italian numbers before finally surrendering and just checking the cash register screen to see the price.
Every day brought both victories and defeats. Once, in a bookstore, I asked if they carried the book “1984” and the store clerk clearly understood my question. But my fleeting moment of pride quickly waned as she responded in rapid Italian – I didn’t catch a single word. I clearly needed to do more than learn vocabulary and grammar, because just speaking the words I learned wasn’t enough to get around. I also had to understand when others spoke to me, but I had no idea how to work on that.
About six months into our new Italian life, I started to feel a new, distinct feeling of being overwhelmed by the prospect of learning Italian. I was making progress, but it was slow. Much slower than I had anticipated.
I could speak at a comfortable mid-beginner (A1) level, but I wasn’t able to express my thoughts perfectly, add my intellectual opinions to conversations, or fully understand others’ responses. It left me in a constant state of doubt and unease. I was making friends, but it was difficult for me to practice Italian with them because their English was so advanced that we always communicated in that language in order to make deeper connections. One of my daughter’s preschool teachers started asking me if we were speaking Italian at home, and I wondered if I should be able to speak fluently by now. Duolingo told me I was 25% fluent in the language (thankfully, they abandoned this metric in later years), but my day-to-day interactions with the language told me that fluency was still completely out of reach. I made so many mistakes, froze without words on my tongue, and feared judgment for my lack of conversational ability.
To add more pressure to an already strained situation, I was starting up graduate school courses again and had to study for the formidable comprehensive exams required for graduation. My son, 18 months old at the time, was also walking more and napping less, so I had significantly less time to study Italian (or focus on any other responsibilities, for that matter). And my daughter wasn’t speaking Italian at preschool yet, which I couldn’t help but see as a failure on my part to do more to help her.
Under this pressure, I decided I needed to try something new. I was desperate for anything that might force Italian into my head, so I went to an online search engine and typed in: “How to become fluent in Italian fast.”
To this day, I still cringe at my expectation to find the perfect program that would be responsible for my language acquisition. Yet, in my naïve desperation, I found Rocket Italian, a rather expensive self-paced program that had hundreds of reviews praising its time-effectiveness and raving about the fun users were having with their language learning. I quickly purchased lifetime access to the program, and with renewed vigor, committed myself to doing Rocket Italian lessons for at least 15 minutes every day.
I kept this commitment to myself for about two weeks, but I didn’t find this program to be the magical tool I had expected. As with Duolingo, I started from the beginning, despite the fact that I already knew that one-third of the program would just be review for me. I completed every single task in order until I earned a 100% rating, even if the only mistake was a typing error or my microphone simply didn’t pick up my speech. Instead of pulling anything from the material that was new and interesting to me, I flew through the lessons as fast as possible just to finish them.
Progressing in the program — finishing one lesson after another — was, to me, a sign of progressing in the language. Yet all I needed to do was step outside my home and be confronted with real-world Italian interactions to see that I wasn’t progressing as fast as I thought. I felt like I was failing.
Over the next year, I continued searching for the perfect tool. I started listening to Italian music, obsessing over translating lyrics and trying to understand every single word. I bought Il Diario (The Diary of Anne Frank), thinking it would be an easy read and then got frustrated at the number of words and phrases I didn’t understand. I gave up on Rocket Italian because it wasn’t making me fluent, yet I ignored the fact that I’d only reviewed things I already knew and didn’t spend time internalizing the information but instead simply finishing the tasks. I tried listening to Italian podcasts in my sleep at night. I made flashcards and became fixated on drilling decks until I didn’t miss a single word.
Even as it became clear that it wasn’t working, I kept approaching the language from an all-or-nothing, perfectionist point of view. If I didn’t understand everything, I was failing. If I didn’t remember a word, I was failing. If I was too exhausted to grind through a lesson, I was failing. If I could just do more, and do it perfectly, then I would reach the fluency that immersion was supposed to give me.
I reached a breaking point about two years into my journey with Italian. I was constantly stressed. And worse, I realized that my stress had started to creep into my now 6-year-old daughter’s own language challenges at school. I was so focused on my mistakes, failures, and wasted time that I doubted everything. I started to believe the lies I’d heard about language learning. I’m too old to learn a language. I don’t have the right kind of brain for it. I didn’t learn it as a child, so it’s impossible for me. I’m not gifted in languages. Immersion is only useful for young people with no other obligations.
This internal breaking point arrived at about the same time that COVID-19 found its way to Italy. Seemingly overnight, I went from having a few hours of quiet study each day while the kids were at school to no time alone at all while we were all locked down. Like so many others, I felt lost as I tried to figure out how to support my daughter’s schooling (in Italian) from home, maintain some sense of normalcy and sanity, and also find time for graduate school and language study.
It was all too much, and I finally acknowledged that I simply couldn’t continue as I was. Something had to give. But instead of quitting or putting tasks aside, I decided to set aside my perfectionism.
I realized that the problem wasn’t me or the resources I’d tried. The problem was my expectations.
Going back to the very beginning of my journey with Italian, I expected immersion to make me fluent automatically. I expected to see fast progress, preferably being “fluent” in one year. I didn’t expect to make mistakes once I’d learned something. I expected others to be patient and slow down their spoken language for me. I expected Duolingo, Italian classes, Rocket Italian, and every other tool to give me the language. I definitely expected too much of myself. I thought I could do it all – language study, grad school, parenting, travel, friendships — and now, in lockdown, being my children’s Italian teacher. And in all of this, I allowed no room for errors.
In the 2+ years since lockdown began in 2020, I’ve seen more progress with Italian (and now with German!) and more personal growth than I ever truly thought possible. Confronting and changing my expectations were the only magical tools I needed. Not only did I stop expecting perfection of myself, but I also allowed myself to see the flaws in the way I had been approaching language learning.
Completing the Duolingo tree or flying through a Rocket Italian lesson wasn’t proof of progress, and in operating this way, I was completely missing the point – the language itself. Being afraid of making mistakes cost me the experience of having interactions with others, and it left me focusing inward instead of appreciating the connections I was making with the amazing people around me. Thinking I should be able to do more, speak more, and understand more only reinforced a fixed, never-good-enough mindset.
Overhauling my expectations worked. No longer fearing mistakes, I’ve stepped out of my comfort zone and maintained frequent conversation lessons online in Italian. I’ve jumped at every opportunity to practice my beginner-level German since moving from Italy to Germany one year ago.
Realizing that the intentional time I spend studying a language is more effective than simply completing tasks, I’ve returned to some of my original resources (such as Rocket Italian, Duolingo, reading Italian books, and listening to Italian podcasts), and I use them in a way that’s beneficial to me, studying with purpose and squeezing from them what I need. I’ve discovered other resources and books with no expectation of them making me fluent, and I guiltlessly set aside anything that just doesn’t work for me, my personality, my time, or my goals.
The difference has been incredible. Not only am I speaking Italian at an intermediate level and understanding even better, but I’ve also discovered deeper relationships with the native Italian speakers in my life, connected with other language learners working to define their own language paths, and set a healthy and realistic standard for approaching knowledge and education that my kids are emulating.
It’s not perfect. I still struggle with feeling overwhelmed by language learning, especially as I realize how much more there is to learn. I still have a voice in my head telling me that I’m too old or not talented at languages. I make mistakes and get frustrated with them. But the new version of myself – the one that sets realistic expectations, focuses on what I have accomplished, and knows what I’m capable of – that version always wins now. She grounds me. She speaks positivity. She moves forward with her head held high.
Aiming for perfection was hard. It gave me a false sense of achievement and stirred up destructive spirals of self-doubt and self-loathing that eroded my mental health and held up real progress. Learning to aim for “good enough” was somehow harder – until it wasn’t. It took time and conscious effort, but shifting my mindset worked. “Good enough” turned out to get a lot closer to “perfect” than perfection ever could.
Heidi Lovejoy is a U.S. American living abroad with her husband and two children since 2017. She began learning languages at age 33 and quickly found herself feeling crushed under the pressure of perfectionism. Through a journey of personal healing and growth, Heidi changed her mindset and developed her own methods for mastering perfectionism in language learning. She shares her story and insights on her blog and podcast_, both titled “Love, Joy, and Languages.”
You can find her on Twitter at @LoveJoy_Lang
This post is the second in the “Real Language Stories'' series, which tells the real stories of how language learners of all stripes (and all levels) learned their first foreign languages. Have a story you’d like to share? Email email@example.com to learn more.