The recent death of popular YouTube polyglot, Laoshu (老鼠) has caused me to reflect on an issue which continues to afflict the language learning community: perfectionism.
Laoshu was an imperfectionist in the best possible sense of the term. The reason he was so popular and an inspiration to thousands of people around the world was because he exuded a laid back attitude which directly contradicted the message that mistakes are a sin for which you should be penalised and 100% accuracy from day one is the goal.
Laoshu felt unashamed of making mistakes and did so in public frequently. His mission was to engage in meaningful communication with native speakers in dozens of different languages and as his videos prove he often succeeded spectacularly. Switching from one language to another he would approach people in shopping malls, shocking them with his ability to speak their native tongue. The rarer the language, the more interested he was in learning it; in total he is said to have spoken over 50 languages including Mandarin, Cantonese, Hmong, Thai, Vietnamese, Hindi, Arabic and Hebrew.
In one of my favourite videos he films himself in a US hotel acting as a translator for a Chinese man who is angry at being quoted a different price on the website than in person. The interaction between them captures the essence of why I think language learning is worthwhile. Clearly moved by the assistance in helping him to communicate his message the man invites Laoshu into his room where he is stunned to discover the polyglot can also speak several Chinese dialects as well as Cantonese.
Laoshu’s approach was controversial. It does not take long when searching his name before you encounter forums alleging that his method is a scam. Many observers noticed that although he was able to converse with people in multiple languages his proficiency in the majority of them was relatively low. Moreover, they allege, even in his stronger languages, such as Mandarin, he made errors of tone, pronunciation and grammar. In other words Laoshu committed the sin of being imperfect and, even worse, of lacking any shame for it.
For his part Laoshu was always entirely open about his level and goals, never claiming to be anything that he wasn’t. His approach is also entirely consistent with loftier goals held by many learners of achieving high levels of fluency. In my case I was first attracted to studying Chinese by the idea that I might one day be able to converse with native speakers. The likes of Laoshu inspired me to believe that initial goal was possible and, having achieved that, I then set my sights on higher goals.
There remains an obsession among a small minority within language forums and in the comments underneath polyglot videos with ranking and rating each foreign language speaker’s proficiency, gratuitously nitpicking their errors while shaming and criticising their non-native inflections. In my opinion, this is an entirely worthless sport. Laoshu offered a powerful antidote against it and through his videos leaves us with a permanent reminder of what language learning looks like at its joyful best.
For that, he will be sorely missed.