How to finally deal with criticism as a language learner

November 20, 2019

I once eavesdropped on my father talking to another family member. He said about me: “When Maria Inês was learning how to speak, she would get upset whenever we corrected her.”

Many adults feel this way when it comes to speaking a language. They’re young, big-eyed Maria Inês just trying to make it in a cruel world that keeps correcting their past participles!

But seriously. Dealing with criticism has been a crucial part of my learning process as a human being. It’s ongoing. I’m incomparably more confident today than I was ten or even three years ago. Hell, dare I say…six months ago? But that confidence wasn’t inspired by positive affirmations. It was the result of exposing myself over and over again, looking stupid, learning that looking stupid is okay, and then exposing myself some more.

Let me tell you about a few things that have changed my outlook on criticism completely. Hopefully, they will help you get the best out of your own situation, too!

1. Realize feeling hurt over criticism is a biological plus, not a personality flaw.

When you’re an overthinker, it’s easy to feel like you’re constantly fighting against your own brain. You wish it would shut up for a while. Why does it keep reminding you of that time someone made fun of your accent? Or the time someone laughed at your awkward choice of words?

But give your gray matter a moment here. Try reframing your feelings of hurt over criticism as a precious defense mechanism, rather than a flaw. That’s right! Good moments can teach you gratitude, happiness, balance and positivity, but embarrassing memories are way more valuable for us as a species. Negative memories teach us what we must improve to avoid living through the same crap ever again.

So when your brain invites you to relive hurtful moments, it’s trying to protect you as a friend, not trying to make you loathe yourself. Wanting to feel accepted and valuable is a natural part of being human. It’s perfectly normal to feel uncomfortable with criticism! So no, you’re not an idiot or a sensitive flower, like others would have you believe.

This perspective was crucial for me to start from scratch and develop my confidence because I stopped seeing myself as someone who was weak, fragile, insecure and powerless. I was just someone healthy who had to find the right tools to manage feedback.

2. Get comfortable with being silly.

Here’s what I think about looking like an idiot: I think it’s lovely.

Thinking back, the moments I felt stronger and more confident were moments in which I started out looking like a dumbass, but I made it through and grew so much stronger and brighter that I could only feel proud of myself. The core message? Get comfy with the fact that you’ll be uncomfortable.

Learning to speak a language isn’t comfortable. The problem is, we’ve gotten so used to staying in our comfort zones, in the warmth of our bedroom with our apps and our notes, that we instantly feel anxious about something as simple as saying hi.

Learning languages is discovering and displaying another facet of the self you used to know. Talking to someone else, putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and sometimes going through meetings that make you blush. Those moments will inspire you to look back and think “Wow…I actually did that!”. Take that stamina and rejoice.

3. Ask yourself: “Is an obsession with perfect results damaging me?”

Language learning has been infected by a ridiculous obsession with productivity and instant success: “Learn a language in 2 months! In six! Become fluent right now”!

It’s misleading, it’s disappointing and it’s crap. While results do matter and we want to learn languages efficiently, part of the problem is that this mentality inspires us to obsess over failing results with a black and white mentality: “I couldn’t keep up with the conversation. I’m a loser!” instead of “Wow, I actually managed to get 60% of that right.”

When we look back and realize the amount of words and expressions our brains have already had to consume and produce until now – sometimes in several different languages – we learn to be thankful for how much work it is doing for us.

4. Don’t try to eliminate fear of criticism – manage it and understand the reasons behind it.

I would sometimes feel overwhelmingly hurt and sad whenever I was severely criticized. Now, I feel my relationship with criticism is more human and balanced. And that became my goal. I stopped wanting to change my innate human need for acceptance and started trying to understand why I was so afraid of criticism and how I could manage that.

I’ve exposed myself so often and so shamelessly to new situations in which I felt awkward, that the feeling of making a mistake, standing corrected and receiving instructions (in a respectful way, of course) no longer feels horrible or even memorable. It’s just another moment in which I smile, say thank you and become better next time!

5. Join forces.

When it comes to criticism, isolation is your enemy. The more isolated you are, the more you lose awareness of how others are doing. All you see is what they put online or what achievements they share. But what if you realized that dozens (or hundreds!) of other people out there are having the exact same struggles? Or that they make similar mistakes? What if you met other people who’ve been criticized for their accent, their lack of vocabulary, their shaky grammar? And what if they felt sad, too?

Don’t underestimate the importance of connection and meeting other language learners who’ve been through the same. You’ll be surprised!

  • Reply
    David Guy
    December 15, 2019 at 4:54 pm

    I try very hard to accept criticism and use it as an opportunity to improve and not let my pride get in the way of learning. However being corrected is often counter productive. Specifically I find flow in a conversation very important and corrections break that flow. After someone corrects me I find it hard to get going again and become more self conscious and self critical. At the same time I need the feedback. It’s a tough balance.

    • Reply
      Maria Inês
      December 17, 2019 at 2:28 pm

      You’re absolutely right, David! It’s one of the most difficult things we have to learn as language teachers or tutors: when and how often should we correct students? I have personally started noting down one or two persistent mistakes I hear my student / language partner make, and then let them know at the end when we’re ready to go home. This way, I’m not constantly interrupting the person, but I also don’t let them walk away without any feedback!

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