Do you remember that day in kindergarten when you got to color for the first time?
You had your fresh box of crayons. You had your coloring book.
You were a 6 year-old genius. All kids are geniuses.
You were creative, enthusiastic, and excited! You sat with your friends and you began coloring.
After 10 or 15 minutes of putting all of your heart into your masterpiece, you ran up and showed your teacher.
Maybe she looked at it and frowned.
Maybe she said, "This is nice, but you went outside of the lines. Why don't you try again?"
You saw your classmate get a sticker because she had colored inside the lines.
At that moment, your view of the world changed.
That moment affects how you learn English today.
Why does it affect the way you learn English today?
Because you were taught that making a mistake is wrong, is bad, and should be avoided at all costs.
Of course, your teacher was only trying to teach you motor skills, but you didn't know that. The damage was done.
So what can you do?
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How to "color outside of the lines" when you learn English
1) Do NOT seek perfection, especially with grammar
Perfection is overrated.
Grammar doesn't matter as much as you think it does.
I have seen students with excellent grammar who sit in class and don't say a word because they are afraid that they won't say it "perfectly."
I have seen other students speak out in class every day and make more mistakes than I can count, but they speak.
Which kind of student are you?
You should try to be the kind that speaks without fear of making mistakes.
Perfection will ruin you. It will paralyze you.
2) Be aware of your inner critic
Your kindergarten teacher is still inside of your head. She tells you to color inside the lines.
You have internalized her (or someone else who told you something similar) as your inner critic. Sometimes there is a whole "committee" of voices telling you not to make a mistake or not to try something risky.
I have worked with hundreds of English students and I have seen how the inner critic can destroy any chance you have at becoming a better English speaker. How does this happen?
You get invited to a networking event and you realize that you can't pay attention to the conversation because you are listening too closely to your own inner critic. He or she is saying things like, " My English isn't good enough to come to this event." or "Maybe I should leave now before anyone finds out how bad my vocabulary is."
Sound familiar? The inner critic will hold you back personally and professionally with your English.
Don't let it.
3) Increase your tolerance for mistakes
Stop defining yourself based on your level of English. Just because you make a mistake, it doesn't mean that you are a mistake!
Recently I met an entrepreneur who told me that he actively seeks out situations where he can take a risk and where he knows that he will get rejected. He knows that the person will not say "yes."
I think he has a good idea. He has built a tolerance for rejection. You can build a tolerance for mistakes. How can you do that? Put yourself into situations where you know you will make a mistake.
Go to a party and make small talk with native English speakers. Make as many mistakes as you need to. Gradually you will build a tolerance for your mistakes. You will start making mistakes and saying "oops- no big deal." You will correct yourself and you will move on. You will not get stuck as often as you do now.
4) Figure it out as you go along
You might think that you need to know every business vocabulary word in the dictionary before you apply for that promotion at work.
Maybe you spend hours each day memorizing phrases and American English expressions so that someday you will be ready to attend a networking event.
Will that day ever come?
Stop waiting to be prepared and go to the event tonight.
Procrastination is usually a result of fear.
Stop preparing for your "English-speaking life" and start living it.
5) Language learning is messy...deal with it
If you are an accountant or a surgeon or a mathematician in your day job, I have bad news for you.
While you may love things that are precise, accurate, straightforward, and measurable, language is not that way.
Language is not precise because language is about people. It is not about grammar rules or dictionaries or punctuation or perfection.
When you make 5 mistakes in a short conversation and the other person has to ask you to repeat, it is messy.
When you live in a diverse community like Cambridge, MA, do you think you will hear the same accent from native English speakers? Of course not! You have British people, Californians, Texans, Aussies, Canadians, etc.
What about culture? When you speak with other English learners, they will form their sentences based on their cultural norms, and the sentence structure from their native language.
This might be hard to understand!
Language learning is messy. It is ambiguous. Allow yourself to color outside of the lines.
Here is the ironic part: when you start doing the things I just talked about, you will begin to improve your English, but not before then. So try a new approach. Loosen up. Every time you make a mistake it is an opportunity, not a tragedy.
Thank you to my student for giving me the idea for "color outside the lines" post!