Dear fellow language learners,
I want to tell you what an admirable thing it is that you’re doing, learning a language. The world needs more people like you – those who are willing to be open to new perspectives (because as we all know culture is part of language). Even though academic institutions (at least those in the US) have been minimizing the importance of humanities in favor of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math), here’s why you should be extremely proud to be a language learner. Languages involve emotional aspects like identity & connection, the essence of what it is to be human. We need tools for connection and understanding even more than we need technologies of destruction. Don’t ever underestimate what a powerful and worthy thing you are doing by learning a language.
Not to mention, learning a language makes you a better person. Not only because you get to interact with those from other cultures, but also because it requires a great deal of personal reflection and gumption to succeed. In my opinion, language learning is one of the greatest forms of personal development.
Personal development covers activities that improve awareness and identity, develop talents and potential, build human capital and facilitate employability, enhance the quality of life and contribute to the realization of dreams and aspirations.
Language learning checks off all of these qualities of personal development and more. (Don’t tell my university professors, but I got this definition of personal development from wikipedia and I quite like it.)
Kristie from mammaprada.com recently asked me to share my thoughts on the benefits of learning a language. I’d like to expand a little more here in a three part series on the internal benefits of learning a language related to personal development. This is Part I: How to turn your language learning obstacles into opportunities.
I also want to share my biggest obstacle with language learning (maybe some of you can relate), and how I am overcoming (overcoming, rather than overcame because it’s something I’m constantly working on) this challenge and why it has become my mission for this blog.
My greatest language learning obstacle
Have you ever had a native speaker criticize your speaking abilities in the language you’re learning? (I’m not talking about constructive criticism, because that’s beneficial and helps us improve. I’m talking about comments that are just plain cruel and unhelpful).
This is what happened to me in France. I had not one, but several French people tell me: “You can’t speak French” and then cut off the conversation. No helpful scaffolding or encouragement. It can feel quite vulnerable to be a foreigner speaking a foreign tongue, and sometimes we desperately need a native to send us a rope to help us stay afloat. Being that my zodiac sign is Cancer and my personality type is INFP, my sensitive soul was absolutely crushed by my experience in France. So much so that I quit learning languages at all for nearly a decade because I was afraid of making any more mistakes. How could a culture that I had loved so much reject me just like that? (I believe that with access to native speakers through social media and not just classroom French, there’s a good chance I would have been more confident speaker. Yeah, I’m old…there was no YouTube, no language learning apps etc when I started learning languages many moons ago 😛 )
Side note: I just want to point out that I don’t think all French people are rude or critical (and who knows, but perhaps that is not what they intended). Please watch this powerful TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story” about why we should never stereotype a group of people and assume they are ALL the same. My French teacher in France was absolutely amazing and I credit her enthusiasm (along with my Italian teacher) for inspiring me to become a teacher myself. I also taught the most adorable, curious, and enthusiastic French students at an elementary school in France. One little boy who was always mischievous wrote me a letter on my last day with the words in English “I am sad” and a drawing of himself crying that I was leaving. I’m not sure if he’ll ever know how much that meant to me. So I do have good memories of French people as well. In regards to language learning though, I was extremely affected by the lack of compassion shown by many when I attempted to speak French. However, I can now see the gift of this experience by choosing to be more compassionate towards myself and others learning a language.
Learning Italian has been a different, more positive experience. Even though I have been encouraged by native Italian speakers and learners, I have still been afraid to speak Italian. I realized that my perfection was coming from a place inside that was desperate to avoid criticism (from others and myself).
The mistake I made was taking criticism personally. Sometimes it’s hard not to, but here’s what I would say if someone ever criticized my language skills again:
“I’m still learning.”
That is nothing to criticize. Don’t ever apologize for your language skills by saying “I’m sorry for my bad (insert language).” You are not bad, you are learning.
Always remember this: you may see people who have achieved fluency in another language. They speak so easily that it’s easy to assume the process of learning was easy for them too. But I guarantee that they can speak that well because they made so many mistakes along the way and learned from them.
How I’m turning this obstacle into my mission
I recently re-listened to The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday on Audbile. I highly, highly recommend this book if you are stuck or facing any challenge that seems insurmountable. The title says it all: the obstacle is also your solution. It got me thinking…
What is my obstacle to learning Italian? > Fear of speaking. > Fear of making mistakes. > Fear of feeling stupid or being criticized. > Fear of not being accepted. > Fear of not being good enough.
How can this obstacle become the path? The path to becoming fluent in Italian is speaking, making mistakes and learning from them. The obstacle is the way.
I have taught English as a foreign language for nearly 10 years now, and I’ve decided that it’s time to walk the talk. I tell my students constantly that mistakes are good because they are opportunities to learn. I am fiercely protective of my students and I want them to have a good experience in my country and with learning English. But I am just a hypocrite if I give them that advice but don’t practice what I preach.
This journey to learn Italian has been very healing by overcoming these fears that have held me back for so long. So you see, learning Italian is so much more than vocabulary and grammar. It’s about becoming a better, stronger person.
My mission is to inspire you to make mistakes when learning a language. Make lots of them. Feel proud that you are learning.
Most of all I want to say thank you to ALL OF YOU who have been so encouraging and compassionate towards me on my language learning journey. You make the world a better place.