Should you focus on your flaws or your strengths when it comes to learning English?

How do you feel about your English-speaking ability? Do you think to yourself:

"Wow, I've come so far! I can speak English a lot better than I used to."

or do you think:

"Man, my English isn't very good. There are so many things that I don't know how to say."

I bring this up because I read two articles recently which seemed to contradict each other. One was an article in the Harvard Business Review – "How to Become a Great Finisher" – which says that people who focus on their accomplishments so far aren't as successful in achieving goals. The other was a blog post at English Harmony – "Focus on What You CAN say in English Instead of What You CAN'T!

Why you should focus on your flaws

The Harvard Business Review article is based on a psychological study. Researchers tested whether people were more likely to finish a task if they focused on how much they'd already accomplished, which the article calls "to-date" thinking, or how much they still had left to finish, which they call "to-go" thinking. 

The research shows that "to-go" thinkers are more successful at completing their goals:

For instance, in one study, college students studying for an exam in an important course were significantly more motivated to study after being told that they had 52% of the material left to cover, compared to being told that they had already completed 48%.

That's because thinking about how much more you need to do is a strong motivator. You spend more time and attention thinking about your problems than about things that are going well in your life, right?

Why you should focus on your strengths

On the other hand, Robby at English Harmony makes a good point as well. Focusing on what you can't say when you're trying to speak a foreign language can be a disaster. He gives an example:

Say for instance, you’re looking at some broken down machine with your English speaking co-workers in a factory you work in. You’re looking at all the levers; springs and others pieces of metallic parts and you want to point out that the ball bearings seem to be faulty. The only problem is – you’ve forgotten the words “ball bearings”… You have a feeling that you know those words, and they seem to be right on the tip of your tongue… Yet they keep avoiding you so it’s something you just CAN’T say.

If you're constantly searching for the "perfect" thing to say or write, you're going to miss out on a lot of opportunities to communicate in English. Isn't it much better to use what you have, whether it's perfect or not?

The right attitude to take toward your English ability

So what attitude should you take? Should you feel unsatisfied with all your English language weaknesses? Or feel confident with the language ability that you have? The answer is:


Specifically, you should train yourself to feel confident in the moment. When you're in the middle of a conversation in English, relax. Enjoy yourself. Don't be shy. Use the words and phrases that you know, and don't worry about whether you're being ungrammatical, or saying something offensive, or pronouncing things differently than native English speakers.

But after you're done with your conversation, think about your performance. What did you have trouble with? Write notes for yourself. Imagine what you should have said differently. Remember all the moments when your conversation partner laughed at something you said or seemed to be confused.

This kind of emotional balance is difficult to maintain. But the more you're able to separate English learning and English performance in your mind, the higher your motivation will be and the quicker you'll learn.

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