Man. I’ve been a language failure with my last couple projects.
I had two big goals recently: pass the ATA German-to-English translation test and reach the A2 level in Tagalog in 15 weeks.
I failed twice!
Last weekend, a letter came in the mail saying I didn’t pass the translation exam. I had translated two passages, one general and one technical, and could only miss 17 points per passage to pass. I missed in the range of 36 to 45 points on each.
Meanwhile, I’ve been inching along in my Tagalog studies, making steady but very slow progress, and not reaching my goal.
The Coping Mechanisms that Aren’t Useful
Obviously, I was very disappointed–especially with the translation test, since I had dropped a few hundred bucks on it. And really, not being able to meet your goals is a blow to your ego.
So naturally I wanted to find some excuses.
I know the translation test was administered and graded fairly, so I don’t dispute the results at all. But I still told myself:
- The test is difficult, with only a 20% pass rate.
- The scoring is tough; you can lose 1 to 16 points per mistake.
- The test requires precision, and there are several ways to make mistakes–including being too literal, not using the right register, and not using the right English idiomatic expression.
- According to Internet forums, plenty of talented language professionals have failed this test.
With my Tagalog goal, my main excuse was that I’ve been extremely busy at work. It’s not so much that I can’t find time throughout the day, but more that I’ve been working at a breakneck pace with tough deadlines since about July, and I’m exhausted by the end of the day.
I think all of the above is true. But you know what? None of that is useful. It’s all external factors (mostly) outside of my control. I can’t control how hard the test is, how strictly it’s graded, and how busy I am at work.
If I focus on those external factors, I’ll focus on what the situation has done to me, and not what I can do to improve the situation.
What to Do Instead
Fortunately, I’ve had plenty of language-learning success in the past, so I know what it takes to do well. (In fact, my wife was laughing at me about my results because she’s not used to seeing me fail tests. Harsh!)
But I’ve also failed plenty of times in my life, and I’d say learning how to fail has been vital to the success I have had.
If you fail, focus on behaviors and mindsets that begin and end with you.
1. Take responsibility.
The person to blame for my failures is (*drum roll*)…me!
When you take responsibility, you can identify what you did wrong and where you can improve for next time.
With the test, I was about as prepared as I could possibly be for my current skill level. My test prep was on point, and doing timed translation again was like putting on an old familiar pair of shoes. But my overall German proficiency just wasn’t high enough. I was a strong B2/weak C1 in reading ability, and I needed to be more like a strong C1/weak C2, at least.
I also rushed into the test. That was a strategy to push myself, but in this case, it didn’t pan out. I had only been reading C1-level texts for a couple months before I took a test designed for experienced language professionals. (One note: I did make more progress than I would have without the goal, so rushing wasn’t all bad.)
With Tagalog, I studied vocab every day and worked sporadically with Pimsleur, but I just needed to stay more consistent with having the radio in the background, learning sentence patterns, and finding more engaging ways to interact with the language.
2. Acknowledge your wins.
Let’s say you sign up for a flag football league, with the goal of winning the league championship. But your team doesn’t win. Does that mean the whole experience was useless?
Of course not. You had fun, you exercised, you made friends. Your life improved, even if you didn’t win.
Now, before I get accused of handing out participation trophies, let me say that of course you shouldn’t water down your failure too much. If you set out to do something, you should give it your best effort and actually try to get the win.
But there are people who lose and let the experience destroy them, when they don’t realize how much good they accomplished.
In my case, I made great progress with German in a relatively short time period, having passed a tough proficiency test before being able to take the big test.
And I’ve been able to have very simple conversations in Tagalog with my mom on the phone, and I can tell she’s really happy that I’m learning more about a part of my heritage. And it’s cool being able to understand her when she speaks to me entirely in her native country’s official language.
This is good stuff, and it helps motivate me to…
3. Keep going.
A test–or even a goal–is simply a means to an end. Psychologically, I find value in focusing on a test or goal so that I have something tangible to work toward and a way to measure how well I’m doing.
But if you pass, that doesn’t mean total success, and if you don’t, that doesn’t mean total failure. If my ultimate goals are to learn German translation and learn conversational Tagalog, then why would I stop after this bump in the road?
There’s always another test and another goal. Yes, I failed, but the real failure would be to give up.
I don’t like the advice “Never quit.” That might sound funny to people who know me, because I’m very stubborn, almost pathologically so.
But there are times to quit, or at least to reevaluate the path you’re on.
In my case, I’m trying to figure out whether I want to continue with German translation or focus on more global skills, including conversation. I do know I want to continue learning German, and I know another test is in my future. I’m just trying to figure out if that test is going to be the ATA test again, or another one, such as the Goethe test.
And with Tagalog, I want to get past the beginner stages and let the language take root in my brain. So I’m going to continue down that path at least until the end of the year.
I’ll spend the next few weeks trying to fine tune what I really want to do next.
Every successful person has failed. Just don’t let the failure define you. Brush yourself off and get back on the horse.