How to Get Over Being a Language Failure

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!

Broken Eggs, Jean-Baptiste Greuze Image Source

Broken Eggs, Jean-Baptiste Greuze
Image Source

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.

4. Reevaluate.

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.

Wrapping Up

Every successful person has failed. Just don’t let the failure define you. Brush yourself off and get back on the horse.

  • Phil

    Great post, as usual, and I like the way you moved from looking for excuses to analyzing the situation and moving forward (and/or revising your goals).

    One thing that struck me as I read the post was that I had no problem when you wrote “I failed,” but seeing the noun “failure” bothered me. I know this is illogical: if someone fails, the task at which they failed clearly qualifies as a failure. So why would I be OK with the concept of failing, but not with the noun itself? I think it’s because the noun “failure” is often applied to a person, which I know wasn’t how you were using it at all. In fact, the context of your post made it clear that while the setbacks were discouraging, they didn’t do irreparable harm to your self-confidence. But still, the noun “failure” leapt up at me from the page, while the verb “fail” did not.

    I found this interesting from a linguistic point of view. Even with my own native language, I continue to discover nuances that surprise me, and what better place for that to happen than right here? So thanks for that!

    I also want to thank you for something else: when you decided some time ago to focus most of your language learning on German, your decision made an impression on me. I tend to be omnivorous when it comes to languages, which can be a lot of fun (things never get boring), but it has also kept me from reaching a level of mastery that I would like. I know a little bit about a lot of languages, but aside from one or two, I don’t know a lot about any one of them.

    I’m still not totally monogamous in my relationship with German and I take periodic breaks from deciphering long, convoluted sentences loaded with confusing compound words by reading or listening to Portuguese or Spanish (my “party” languages). But I’m making slow but steady progress in German and while I have a very long way to go, I feel good about it. I am not ready to take any sort of test, though, and based on this post, I will be cautious about not doing it too soon!

    Anyway, thanks again for a post that really made me think, and thanks for sharing your experiences in a way that is so helpful to others.

    • Ron G.

      I know exactly what you mean about failure. I noticed it jumped off the screen, too, which made me stick with it since it lends itself to post clicks. (The reality of blogging, hah.) But I did also want to “reclaim” the word in a sense, because yep, it shouldn’t define you.

      And LOL@”party languages”…man, I know what you mean, because that’s exactly how I feel about Spanish now. When I catch a Buzzfeed Espanol post or something on the radio, it’s always just fun and reminds me of why I started learning languages in the first place.

      As far as language monogamy, I’m trying to figure out that balancing act myself. I’m itching to jump back in to German, but improve my Tagalog, and also improve my conversational Spanish. Maybe that’s what I can work on in the new year.

  • Michael

    Agreed with Phil – “being a language failure” draws attention to the post, but it’s bothersome in a way. Given the content, maybe “How to get over not reaching one of your language-learning goals” or something similar / more brief would have been good.
    It’s true that it can be quite disheartening not to meet such a goal (not passing a formal evaluation, etc.) but you’re right: a) sometimes you find a different, more pressing or appealing language goal and (sometimes temporarily) leave behind the one you’re pursuing, b) it’s good to take a little break and then continue with renewed strength – and maybe c) you reevaluate your daily or weekly method after that moment of disappointment and find a path that’s even more efficient for you.

    • Ron G.

      Hi Michael, thanks for the support and the feedback. Definitely going to reevaluate my daily and weekly activities here for whatever is next.

  • Natalie

    I definitely don’t think you’re a failure due to all the languages you know! Yeah, you may have failed the exam, but as you said, a ton of seasoned professionals who translate full-time have failed that exam! I’ve actually read stuff online that questions how useful it is since getting full marks requires such precision, whereas in real life there’s at least a little leeway for translating. (I haven’t taken the exam, nor am I a member of the ATA, so I’m just repeating what I’ve heard.)

    And as for learning Tagalog, learning another language while working isn’t easy. I tried doing Spanish for a little bit last year, right after I started my job, and it was a disaster! I ended up so exhausted and didn’t have any fun, so I stopped. I’m convinced you can learn Tagalog—it just may be at a slow pace. Just keep up the work, no matter how slowly it goes.

    • Ron G.

      Natalie, thank you for the support (as always). I remember my time as a translator, and the whole experience was so different. That level of precision was rarely achieved, we used computer translation aids, and we had editors help us get the final product good enough. (We rarely had time for editorial, publication-quality perfection–just as long the text was accurate and achieved its purpose.) So I can definitely identify with what you said/relayed above. With that said, I do appreciate the ATA trying to keep the integrity of the profession and raise the bar. I have a lot of respect for the people who do pass the test.

  • Red/

    Exams can be tough… I will need still a long way to get to some certificates. It surprised me to read about the history of Cambridge English: Proficiency (CPE).
    The first version of this kind of test was very demanding, you can see the written and oral requirements:

    It is claimed indeed:
    “The first exam in 1913 was taken by just three candidates, who all failed.”

    And, still, to get at around a C2 certificate level, a lot of time to master the language is a needed part of the recipe. I am just getting more conscious of the time that it takes to set everything I need. :-(

    • Ron G.

      LOL…that CPE sounds like it was a rough test. I can see how a C2 exam in any language can be tough. I’m a native English speaker, with a BA in English and professional writing experience, and I had to take the ACTFL’s English writing exam to qualify for the ATA exam. I scored at the C2 level (phew) but I still had to exert some thought and effort to write carefully in the time limit. (In fact, I almost ran out of time.) I really did wonder how someone could get that score without being a native speaker–unless they spent several years studying intensely in an English-speaking country.

  • pablomaz

    I feel you, bro (please let me use this; I keep listening to this on TV, but I’ve never had the opportunity to use.hehe)
    As you may remember, I started the year with this WILL of learning Russian (the reason I got here, in the first place). I was still very excited with Spanish and Russian became a side project. Well, it all fell apart. It’s almost summer again and I speak Russian as well as a toddler (i.e., I don’t) and Spanish is boring me to death (classes are, at least). Now, to the excuses.
    I used to live with my folks until June (please don’t judge me: we Brazilians usually live with our parents until we get married or something like that, which is my case). I’m living with my girlfriend now. She’s 100% supportive with my hobbies, and she’s a language enthusiast as well, but having your own place steal a lot of your time with all the cleaning, buying groceries, cooking etc. Before that, I was having my new apartment renovated… And the whole thing took me 9 months, a very stressful process. On the other side, I work in the oil industry and 2015 is being a very weird and tense year for this industry. Layoffs, capex reductions… a nightmare. I’ve been using the same excuses for not hitting the gym since May.haha
    So I have to agree with you, Ron. Step 1 is the hardest, but I’ve already took it (In fact, I’m on step 3 right now) and so do you.
    One more thing: very nice of you to learn Tagalog to speak with your mother in her native language (I guess I never commented on that post). When you decide to learn some Portuguese to talk with the Brazilian tourists that infest Orlando, you can count on me, my friend (speaking Spanish, you already know 80% of the language. It will be like a walk in the park).
    Keep going, keep this blog going. It’s an inspiration. Now let me grab my Assimil to take another baby step in Russian.

    • Ron G.

      Pablo, thank you for the kind words. No judging from me! Best of luck in your career. Balancing work, relationship, and taking care of your own place–and language learning–is definitely tricky, but worth it.

      I took my family over to see my parents tonight and while playing cards, I had another little conversation with my mom, and it was fun. I made a joke that made her laugh out loud. I said, “Araw-araw mayroon ako bungang araw” (Every day I have heat bumps–possibly with messed up grammar.) So that was pretty funny.

      You can do it with Russian! And I might take you up on your offer. I love the Brazilian tourists here. A lot of them are young and I can tell this is their vacation to have fun away from their parents. They get rowdy, but I was young once too, lol. If you ever come up this way, let me know and I’ll buy you a beer (or soda, if you prefer).

      • pablomaz

        ​​Thanks, Ron! ​​There’s this expression in Portuguese that says​ that​ “o mar não está pra peixe” (“the sea is not favorable to the fish”, meaning that “these are hard times”​). It certainly isn’t, but it will be​, eventually.

        ​Yeah, man, we definitely know how to party. Specially when we are teenagers and away from our​

        Most of those kids speak some English, don’t they? When it comes to Brazilians, if you grew up in a big city, are 40 or less, middle class or up, you probably know some English. It became mandatory beginning in the eighties. A slowly growing middle class started enrolling their children in English courses (as well as judo or jiu-jitsu classes for boys and ballet for girls).

        Count on me with the Portuguese practice, Ron. Anytime.

        Soda? Homebrewer here, my friend. Show me some decent, local, craft beer and I’ll be pleased. Or some industrial lager, I really don’t care much, as long as it’s a Well, when I finally follow my countrymen and go to Orlando, I’ll let you know. I’m going to Orlando, eventually. Some of my cousins been there earlier this year, a couple of friends during the winter (summer up there) and my brother is going in January. It’s inevitable. hahahaha

        Take care!

        • Ron G.

          Let me know! I’ll take you to this place that just opened and it’s really good…still a neighborhood place, so you’ll get to brag to your countrymen that you got an authentic local craft brew experience away from Disney and I-drive:

          • pablomaz

            It seems nice! I’ll let you know.

  • Tante Leonie

    Hi Ron:

    I’m so sorry about your disappointment over your results. I know it must be a bitter pill, especially because you worked so hard and wanted it so much.

    From the tone of your post, it seems like you might be tired, stressed and maybe burned out.
    At the least, you don’t seem to be getting much fun or joy out of your studies.

    Maybe a short break from them would do you good and refresh your mind and spirits?

    After all, if you don’t need your language for work or survival, you can afford to take a breath for a bit and not feel guilty!

    • Ron G.

      Hey, thanks for the note and the encouragement! I didn’t mean to sound glum–I of course wanted to pass, but I’m pretty okay with everything and I have a plan for going forward. I was trying to both grab attention and be playful with the title, but I realize now it didn’t read playful to most people.

      I’m definitely getting burned out from work. It’s one deadline after another, plus I had to pick up someone’s work when they got transferred.

      Language learning is giving me joy, but it’s difficult to devote energy since I come home drained. BUT…I have some strategies to try and deal with this. Maybe that’ll be my next project–figure out how to deal with non-language-related mental exhaustion.

  • Kerstin

    Lovely article, Ron, thanks for sharing how it went. I’m really sorry to hear that you weren’t successful in the exam this time, but there’s always more time and another chance. Don’t give up! You chose ATA for a reason, and now you know the exam you can work towards it much better.

    I failed my first driving test, you know, due to being so keen that I got overexcited. That was a terrible blow to my ego, still I truck along fine.

    • Ron G.

      Thank you for the encouragement, Kerstin. It really means a lot to me, especially considering how much admiration I have for you and your site.

      Coincidentally, about two minutes ago I was irritated when I saw how in an online polyglots group, native English speakers were tearing apart a new member’s English. I realized that the worst part of the language community are the people who try to bring others down, and the best part are the people who bring others up. Everybody’s doing their best with languages, so some encouragement from others is vital. (So thank you again.)

      • Kerstin

        Isn’t that so weird!! I’ve been incredibly fortunate with my Welsh attempts so far, in that the native speaking community must be very used to learners and they are the most generous lot I’ve ever come across. It’s amazing!

        • Ron G.

          Very cool!

  • Roman Shinkarenko

    In my case, it’s something like “don’t set timed goals”.

    • Ron G.

      It’s funny you mention that, because I’m starting to head toward that mindset. Kerstin’s written about this lately, and it might be the way to go. I’m starting to think that focusing on the day to day habits, rather than the end goal, results in the “zen” of language learning.

  • Agnieszka Murdoch

    This is a great post Ron – sorry to hear about the test result but well done on your attitude. It’s great that you can see the positives in this situation. Good luck with considering what you want to do next. I’m sure that whatever it is, you’ll be successful (or at least learn something along the way!).