“I’ll never learn another language”

A note on binaries and absolutes.

One of my best friends from high school is currently living in a small town in France called Rouen. She moved there about four years ago with nothing more than grit, passion, and a few Duolingo sessions, and has now studied and practised to the point where she lives and works fluently in the language.

I’m so proud of her my breath catches in my throat when I think about her. But, I’m ashamed to admit, that hasn’t always been the case.

When my friend first left Perth, I was seeing a psychologist for my anxiety, and I remember complaining on her couch one day about how my friend could now speak this other language that I don’t, and I’m so dumb and lazy and why can’t I speak French and what’s wrong with me and my mother is a French teacher forfuckssake and why does she get this opportunity and not me and —

“You’re not learning another language,” my therapist interjected, gently. “Yet.”

I looked up.



“Just because you’re not learning a language now, doesn’t mean you won’t learn one in the future,” she reminded me. “You have the time. If you want to learn a language, you can.”

Typing that out now makes that truth embarrassingly self-evident — of course I could. And now I am learning another language.

But I forget that.

I don’t speak fluent Tetun, so my binary mind categorises itself as not knowing another language. I can speak fine and get by,  but my listening skills are still limited (although truth be told, this is a problem in English as well) — so my mind’s convincing itself that I still am, and always will be, monolingual.

When the tyre on my car blew on the beach road I asked a Tetun-speaking friend to get it replaced for me, using the loan of the car as an incentive for tackling the conversation I didn’t know how to have.

I felt defeated and disappointed as I walked home. “You’ve been here six months and you still don’t know enough Tetun to ask for a replacement tyre,” I berated myself as I walked. Idiot. I mentally filed through all the foreigners I know here who could have landed that conversation. I thought of my friend who’s been here barely six months longer than me who skillfully translates Tetun workshops. Of the trilingual Europeans who pick Tetun up in weeks. Of how screwed I’d be if my helpful friend had a car of their own.

Apparently, now, it’s not good enough for me to just be learning another language — despite it being everything I wanted four years ago.

A clever friend quoted Elizabeth Gilbert to me yesterday, telling me that perfectionism is fear in fancy dress. She’s right. My perfectionist mind trades in absolutes and black-and-white: know a language or no? Have completed that check-box or no? But am I doing that because I’m scared of the space in between?

It’s suffocating and maddening and leaves no space for the messiness and colour and anxiety and trailing joy and richness learning a new language necessarily requires.

Another aphorism, from the noted Instagrammer, Epicurus: do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.

I suspect I’ll be learning Tetun for the rest of my life, in a way.



What a joy.

Header photo: something I once hoped for. Living in the inner-north-east suburbs of Perth, the city both me and my French-speaking friend call home. 

5 responses to ““I’ll never learn another language””

  1. […] decided to return to Tetun school, and reflected here on my perfectionism and fear of getting the language […]


  2. […] Despair over the thought that I’ll never learn another language […]


  3. […] A reminder no fluency doesn’t mean failure, nine months in […]


  4. […] A perspective on language-learning perfectionism […]


  5. […] A few months into my time in Timor-Leste I wrote a blog post about how I once cried in my therapist’s office, thinking I’d never learn another language. […]


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