How to Look Stupid

My Chinese is horrible. When I left the country three years ago, I could flirt and tell bad jokes. Now I have a hard time putting a sentence together and can write maybe two dozen characters, including Marissa’s name. So, as an experiment, I wrote my usual email to her entirely in Chinese, liberally using Xiaoma Cidian and my grammar guides. The result is … almost but not quite incoherent.

Therefore, I also proposed that I write a short essay a week, in Chinese, at my leisure, taking time to get it right. She’ll review it and correct me. I learned in China that this was the best way for an adult 老外 to learn to write the language, if s/he’s fool enough to try. This will involve a lot of looking stupid in front of a woman I respect.

And that’s how you get good at a language: fail a lot. You have to be absolutely willing to trip over your own tongue and look like an idiot or you’ll never get good enough to be eloquent and look like Joe Cool. It’s like a workout at the gym: Success through failure. You keep pumping iron until your muscles fail and give out, then you let ’em heal and you do it again. A language is exactly the same thing: you try to express yourself as best you can, and you go until you can’t find the words or put them in order any more.

Daunting, yes, but doable. And some things make it easier. If you have a lust for the language, like you’re learning Japanese to watch anime, something you’re really passionate about, you’ve got the motivation to really dig in and try to figure out how it works. Some education in linguistics helps, too, so you know what’s going on even if you’ve never seen it before. Chinese was easier for me than a lot of other people because I know what an isolating language is, what kind of features it usually has, and how it theoretically works. Same with being pro-drop and tones. And, of course, after the third tongue it’s all downhill from there, because you know how to learn.

The most important thing is to be willing to look godawful stupid, though, and no mistake.

But, I still remember the six most important words: 我爱你,巫燕婷.


About R. Jean Mathieu

They say he speaks five languages, was conceived on a chess board, and once seduced a tong boss' daughter and lived to tell the tale. All we know is, he's called Roscoe. You can find more scurrilous lies at and buy his books at View all posts by R. Jean Mathieu

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