Posted by & filed under Multilingual identity.

A couple weeks ago, I got some criticism for my imperfect Russian in a Russian-language Facebook forum that had linked to my Russian language video about using music and media to learn languages.

Here’s my video in my imperfect Russian:

The harsh critique hurt at first because I didn’t think people would expect perfect Russian from me,  as I have had no formal Russian schooling and left the former Soviet Union at the age of three. The mere fact that children of Soviet emigrés in the US can speak Russian at all is quite a miracle given that speaking Russian during the Cold War was about as fashionable as being a relative of Moammar Ghadaffi’s in the US. My having demonstrated the courage to make an imperfect video, in any language besides English, my strongest tongue, should be an inspiration to others to not be afraid to talk. My goal is to make languages fun and for people to relax when learning and speaking, not to make people feel they have to be perfect.

The whole episode got me thinking about ridiculous ideas of perfection when related to language speaking and learning. Incidentally, two other language bloggers, Randy, of The Yearlyglot and Benny Lewis of The Irish Polyglot/Fluent in Three Months recently posted about the importance of not being perfect. Randy’s blog post, Do what you love, don’t worry about perfection and Benny’s video from the TBEX conference in Vancouver explain why being perfect actually prevents fluency and speaking. I totally agree. I am not perfect. Heck, I even make mistakes in English sometimes. But I do speak seven languages. People understand me. I get my point across and I am happy.

Having grown up in a Soviet emigré family and having worked and traveled in the former USSR, I’ve felt the hyper-critical, antagonistic and rude elements of Russian culture my entire life. The negative tendencies of the culture block people from pursuing their dreams and getting past their fears. In order to speak another language, one has to not be afraid of making mistakes. Perfection is non-existent. So give it up now!

I procrastinated for a month to make the Russian video for fear of making mistakes in Russian and getting negative comments. I finally gave up my closeted perfectionist, scarred by being mocked by my parents’ friends as a kid for my linguistic imperfections, and I had fun making the video, despite knowing that I was screwing up some of the declinations and other elements. My parents held the camera and my nephew and niece sang with me in Russian. So we made some mistakes. So what? The point is to have FUN!

Here’s another confession about my imperfect video: I was super self-conscious when I edited the video because I thought my eyes were not aligned. When I wear contacts, my strabismus (crossed eyes) is more evident. (I’ve had two surgeries but my eyes are still slightly asymmetric. Most people can’t tell at all. It’s my complex.) I’ve been doing vision therapy to straighten my eyes and improve my vision and it’s the most difficult task I’ve ever done because my brain is literally re-wiring itself. As a result, my brain gets overloaded and tired. Sometimes, I have trouble speaking any language and nonsense may come out of my mouth, in a Tower of Babel jumble. Making a video in any language can be tough because several of my imperfections are on display to the world.

I repeat: it’s not about being perfect. It’s not about speaking perfectly. It’s about speaking, period. Perfect, imperfect, speaking like Tarzan at the start, straight or crossed-eyes, just do it!

(I know my lighting in the video varies. I’ll be more careful in the future.)

  • Hi Susanna, thanks for the post. I thought Iu2019d share a fewnthoughts with you. When I first heard about these other articles you mentionnabout (im)perfection, I just dismissed it out of hand as all idle talk. Ofncourse nobody is perfect, not even native speakers of a given language. Perfectionnis not attainable, whether in language learning or any different aspects ofnlife. It does not mean, however, that we can forget about it altogether as itu2019snthe act of striving for perfection that brings us closer to excellence. Iu2019mnvery ambitious myself and have noticed a long time ago that perfection is anmoving target which both frustrates and motivates. I know how you feel aboutnpeople pointing out your mistakes; I have experienced it at first hand manyntimes when speaking English (not my first language). I learnt that itu2019s best tonjust smile and be glad that youu2019ve been made aware of your errors and willnprobably never make them again. u2018u2019Haters gonna hateu2019u2019 and thereu2019s nothing youncan do about it. Having said all this, I also must add that I deeply disapprovenof using the perfection unattainability as an excuse for not improving yournskills which I feel is often the case with people who, for various reasons,narenu2019t capable of becoming fluent in their target language. u2018u2019Oh, I canu2019t benperfect anyway, so I might just now stop tryingu2019u2019 (happy to be crappynideology). nnnu00a0

    • Anonymous

      Ewelina, Thanks for taking the time to comment. Of course, giving up on making an effort to learn just because one can’t be perfect is bad. I do understand that striving for excellence refines one’s abilities to speak and communicate and I definitely want language learners to make the effort to learn the language correctly. However, my problem is when one is beaten down with the ideals of perfection that prevent him or her from speaking. I know I could go and learn Russian grammar and improve my level in grammar but I’ve consciously chosen not to as I’d rather spend my energy and concentration on other activities, like helping others learn languages. I think I’m much more valuable to society helping others learn how to have fun becoming multilingual than if I perfect my declinations and spelling in Russian. You’re right to say that there will always be haters out there, quick to criticize at any moment.