HOW TO START SPEAKING RUSSIAN WITHOUT FEAR
Is fear of making mistakes keeping you silent?
You can’t say much in Russian yet and at the same time you are dying to approach native speakers, speak and connect. But your fear stops you. What if they think you’re weird?
Sometimes you don’t even allow yourself to open your mouth. Or you restrain from speaking much because your Russian is not flawless.
And you know what? That’s so human. Many Russian learners feel the same.
In fact, as a recovering perfectionist, I know that feeling too. That’s the reason I didn’t blog for such a long time. I was comparing myself to great bloggers and thinking that my writing was “not good enough”.
If you don’t fight with it, perfectionism can silence you, prevent you from learning and growing your skills.
The following is what I’ve learned while working on my perfectionism. I hope it will help you too.
WHY TRYING TO BE PERFECT IS NOT IDEAL
perfectionism, noun: refusal to accept any standard short of perfection
First of all, congratulation on having high standards. I think it’s great that you aim at speaking impressive Russian one day.
However, here are 3 reasons why perfectionism is not helping you reach this goal.
Reason 1. Perfection is not attainable.
Sometimes I too wish we didn’t make mistakes. I wish we were perfect. But we are humans, and no human is free from mistakes. Language learners make mistakes. Native speakers make mistakes. Russian teachers make mistakes too.
If you’re perfect, you’re either a robot or made of stone.
So why waste your energy trying to reach something that doesn’t even exist when you can focus on doing your best work and enjoying the process?
Reason 2. If you focus on being perfect, you limit your learning opportunities.
When you’re a beginner learning Russian, you’ll inevitably make mistakes because 1) you don’t know the language system, and 2) you’ve just started developing your skills.
If you want to be perfect, you avoid anything risky, anything that might “reveal” that you’re “not good enough”: you speak as little as possible and you don’t experiment with what you’ve learned.
But the irony is that you can only learn to speak by speaking. To become a master, you have to practice from the state of “imperfect”.
Reason 3. Speaking awesome Russian right from the start is not realistic.
You wish you spoke smooth, fast, flawless Russian. Right from the start. And you beat yourself up when you don’t. But how fair is that?
It’s like me, a beginner blogger, comparing myself with established authors who speak English as their native tongue and thinking that I don’t have the right to write if I’m not as good as them. Of course, I have! In fact, that’s the only way to learn.
You need to embrace the “imperfection” and bravely walk through the gap that separates you-now from you-future.
Keep a journal or do free writing focusing on your feelings. Face your fears. Listen to your inner critic’s arguments and then question them:
- What’s the standard you’re comparing yourself with?
- Is it attainable?
- How realistic is it that you compare yourself with that standard and not with yourself yesterday?
If your perfectionism or fear stops you from speaking, reflect on the benefits of allowing yourself to be imperfect.
WHAT IF PEOPLE JUDGE ME?
“I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo, What the hell am I doing here? I don’t belong here…”
What people really think about your Russian mistakes
Well, we have to admit that we can’t know what people think or will think unless we ask them.
But considering our life experience backed by science (see normal distribution), we can expect the following:
- Most people won’t care how you speak. Some of them might not even notice your mistakes. It’s because they focus on your message, not on the form.
- A small group of people will love how you speak even if you make mistakes. They might pay compliments on your efforts. They might like your accent or something about your personality.
- A small fraction of people will not like how you speak. And this is not something you can control or change. It’s just the principle of normal distribution.
What about people’s negative feedback?
If you’re learning Russian, there will always be a bunch of people who will correct you. In Russian culture, it’s not a bad thing. In fact, usually people mean it well: they would like to give you some feedback so you can improve your skills.
Some people (haters) might be irritated by your mistakes. But does that mean that you’re an unsuccessful learner? Does it strike-through all your efforts and achievements? Of course not. Nobody’s opinion or no single situation can define you as a person.
Imagine a chef who would close his restaurant because a certain Ivan Petrovich didn’t like his new salad. Tastes differ, so you’d better ignore the haters and if you feel hurt by them, try re-reading this post.
What’s the worst thing that can happen?
If you’re still not so comfortable starting to speak Russian, ask yourself:
- What’s the worst thing that can happen?
- What impact might it have on your life, realistically?
- Can you handle it?
Make a plan how to deal with the worst outcome.
(Most probably you’ll realize that nothing disastrous will happen, you will survive and forget it in a week.)
- Join HiNative and ask some Russian speakers what they would think about you if you made a mistake. Collect minimum 10 responses. Is it like what you’d expect?
- Challenge yourself to do something that you’re afraid of. Talk to people in Russian (even if in tiny bits) and see what happens. That’s the most powerful step! Because it’s inaction that helps our fears grow.
HOW TO SHIFT THE FOCUS FROM PERFECTIONISM TO HEALTHY STRIVING
“Why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better? Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them? <…> And why seek out the tried and true, instead of experiences that will stretch you?”
There is a difference between healthy striving and perfectionism: perfectionists focus on being perfect and not “losing face”, they try to avoid mistakes and risky situations, while people who strive for excellence take risks, see mistakes as feedback and are focused on learning from them.
My friends’ son who is a toddler is a good example. He started walking not so long ago. His moves are slow, not well controlled, sometimes a little awkward. He usually makes a few steps forward and then he falls. He’s “not good enough” – compared to someone with a lot of walking experience. But it doesn’t define his personality. And it doesn’t stop him from trying again and again.
It’s the same with your Russian.
Even if sometimes you think you’re “not good enough”, it’s not a personality trait. You just haven’t developed the skill. Yet. As long as you don’t quit and keep practicing (including speaking!), you’ll eventually reach the level you dream of. If you see no progress, you might change your tactics, but you should keep going to achieve your goal.
- When a Russian speaker corrects you next time, say “спасибо” (thank you) and, if it’s important, make it a plan to learn from this feedback. Figure out what the mistake is about: is it something you didn’t know? Is it something you always forget? Practice deliberately trying to eliminate that one single mistake from your speech. Don’t give up until you see progress.
- If you want to know what to expect on your way to speaking great Russian and how to go about growing your skills, check out my Beginner Russian Grammar and Speaking Roadmap.
LET’S WRAP IT UP
Perfectionism pretends to be our friend but in fact it’s our enemy. It can stop us from speaking out, learning from our mistakes and improving our skills.
It can lead to missing out on great experiences because we don’t allow ourselves to live the life we want.
The good news is that we’re in control. These annoying voices in our mind are just our thoughts.
Lack of feedback from the real world feeds our negative fantasies. But we can question them and get in touch with reality.
Taking the challenge and speaking more will help build up confidence. Inaction strengthens our fears. Action not only weakens them but also gives us a chance to improve our skills.
I’m absolutely sure that having high standards is a great thing. As you keep learning Russian and speak more, you will inevitably get closer and closer to your ideal of an *experienced* and confident Russian speaker.
I would love to hear from you. What are your thoughts about perfectionism? How do you deal with it? Please share in the comments.
P.P.S. The photo was made in Moscow, Russia by Alexander Popov