Screwing Up: Learn to Love It Posted by Malachi Rempen on Oct 6, 2014 in Uncategorized
Language learning in a foreign country is hard. Not only do you have to wrestle with merciless grammar, call up vocabulary from the dusty depths of your memory, parse figures of speech and slang like in-jokes you aren’t in on, and even possibly learn how to read and write legibly in an entirely new alphabet, you also have to dive headfirst into public humiliation. Nobody likes that.
See, we humans don’t usually like to be made fools of. We like to fit in, we like to feel like one of the fellas, part of the team. We want the people in our society to accept us, to agree that we belong, and to welcome us into their midst as one of them. We like to feel right at home.
You have to give all that up when you talk like a toddler.
Little kids have it easy—they already talk like children, because, well, because they ARE children. No one’s going to give them grief about not knowing how to conjugate verbs correctly. They’re still getting over how adorable it is that they can speak in the first place.
We adults don’t have that luxury. Your friends might find it endearing if you mix up word placement or accidentally say a horrible swear word, but no one at the business meeting or post office or police station will. You’ll face impatient frowns, hard looks, spiteful laughter behind your back, even ridicule, often in public. Even if you don’t actually encounter these things, the potent, tangible fear of being treated this way can be enough to paralyze you completely. You think you’re shy in your home country? Try piling on top of that your inability to express yourself like a regular human being! It can be enough to make you want to throw in the towel. No language learning can be worth this kind of punishment! Right?
Well, my friend, I’ve got some good news and some bad news for you.
The bad news is, you’ve got no choice. You’ve got to climb every ladder from the bottom. If you want to learn that language, you’ll have to hack your way through a jungle of misunderstandings, faux pas, mistakes, and potential mortification. You’ll be at times frustrated, humiliated, tired, angry, and lonely. The road to language learning is fraught with peril, and There Definitely Be Dragons.
The good news is, immersion is the best way to learn a language. Why do kids learn languages faster than adults? Because they’re immersed in it! They spend 100% of their waking hours somehow practicing that language, whether trying to ask for food or reading picture books or trying to understand the TV. Adults don’t usually dedicate that kind of time on their own, so immersing yourself in the culture and making yourself vulnerable is the absolute quickest way to learn that language.
And there’s more good news: you’re not alone! Aside from all of us fine folks on the internet, if you’re not living in England or the USA, chances are pretty good that the people out there on the street are trying to improve their English. That means they’re just like you. If anything, they probably respect you for even trying their language.
But even if you’re not living in a foreign country, and your language learning is limited to skyping or meetup groups, the fear of screwing up can prevent you from talking, and that’s no good. You need to blab, baby. The best thing you can do is just accept that you will make horrific, sometimes hilarious mistakes, embrace the fact that you’re learning a new language, and dive right in. If you can be comfortable sounding like a toddler, or idiot, or idiot toddler, you will greatly reduce the amount of time it will take you to learn that language. You will actually feel very confident—and you will be communicating! Isn’t that the point of all this?
Next time I’ll talk about how to get comfortable with discomfort.
What about you? What do you remember about talking like a toddler in your adopted language? Are you still at that level?