I’ve been thinking about a piece of advice a colleague of mine used to give his students, many years ago: “f*&k the grammar” he would say, “and be yourself.”He had a point. We spend too much time worrying about our imperfections: the goal of ‘perfection’ is chimerical at best, a pointless and inhibiting distraction at worst. I had an American friend in Rome whose Italian girlfriend spoke odd but charming English. Once when she was gazing out of the window he asked her what she was doing and she said ‘Oh, y’know, thinking about.’ Had she said that in a lesson I might have been moved to point out that ‘think about’ requires its implied object. But why? What she said was idiosyncratic but expressive and clear.
There is a concept in Zen Buddhism known as wabi-sabi, which is untranslatable but means roughly taking aesthetic or spiritual pleasure in imperfection, transience. Nothing lasts forever; nothing is perfect, or perfected. In the West we have founded much thinking on Greek notions of Ideal Forms, or scholastic visions of the unmoved mover. In Japan – home of wabi-sabi – the inevitable decay of the physical world has been for centuries a source of melancholy insight.
Wabi-sabi was adopted some years ago as an explicit ethos by software engineers working to so-called Agile and Extreme methodologies, in which among other things you do not try to prevent error by planning the code, but instead build frequent working iterations of software and then test and de-bug those iterations. Wabi-sabi was a way of consciously coming to terms with the inherent, even necessary imperfection in any codebase (not easy for a profession which typically attracts perfectionists). All code is imperfect; all projects are flawed. It is a condition of life.
Of course natural language is much more tolerant of ambiguity and error than computer code. On the other hand, it usually needs to appear in the world in real time. And so teachers are accustomed think in terms of competence, not perfection. Competence can be improved, of course – it is why we are here – but it not a linear process. The state of our second-language competence waxes and wanes, sometimes by the hour. So in the end the best goals are limited and flexible: use the study of grammar to clarify or expand possibilities, not hamstring expression; see new vocabulary as a route to efficiency or even merely a pleasure in itself; otherwise make do with what lies to hand; enjoy the uncertainty; try stuff out; be yourself.