Speak Fearlessly – With a Little Help From Your Friends Posted by on May 25, 2015 in Archived Posts

Itchy Feet: Le Linguistíque Nerves

At the end of April I was fortunate enough to attend the Polyglot Gathering 2015, where I heard talks from many luminaries in the language-learning business, made scores of new multi-lingual friends, and for the first time ever, met fans of Itchy Feet in the flesh. Who knew that this goofy little bug-eyed bean-shaped stick figure was recognizable around the world? Apparently all you commenters out there are not just robots living in my computer, you have actual limbs and hair and teeth and are very friendly.

The best part about the Polyglot Gathering, however, which I imagine applies to any meetup in which learners of languages can get together, is that nobody was afraid.

We’ve all been there—you study, you practice, you take classes, you have tandem partners, you Skype, you practice some more, you drill—but still, sometimes even after years, getting up the nerve to speak to strangers in a foreign language can be so frightening as to be debilitating. It’s sort of like skiing. I’ve always maintained that the hardest part of learning to ski or snowboard is getting over your fear of the mountain. Once you’ve conquered that, learning to ski is a breeze.

Why do we freeze up? Why do we get cold chills or stutter or go beet-red?

I think it comes down to the purpose of language, which is simply to communicate (no points for that one, Malachi). Kids soak up languages like sponges because language is critical for survival, even at an early age. Who wants to get to know someone who can’t talk, write, sign, or communicate? We desperately seek common ground through communication in order to function properly in society. So when we open our mouths and sound like a dopey child, it’s embarrassing. It’s socially painful. We might as well be wearing bear skins, grunting in the wilderness and clubbing one another for all the good we’re doing.

That’s what our brains tell us, anyway, and it leads to fear. Our terror of looking ridiculous in public leads us all to make an astonishing variety of bizarre decisions (following the latest fashion trends is a double-edged sword, people), but with language learning it clogs our throats, plugs our ears and tucks our tails firmly between our legs. I’ve lived abroad for five solid years now, and I still get the jimmies when I open my mouth at the supermarket.

And that, my friends, is what was so wonderful about the Polyglot Gathering: everyone there was fearless about speaking languages. The laws of society and keeping up appearances did not apply. Like lovers of Dungeons & Dragons at a comic convention, free at last to flaunt their twelve-sided die and character sketches without risking mortification by an unforgiving outside world, I was among friends. Better still: I was among allies.

I learned that even the greatest, most prolific polyglots do not speak all their languages fluently (of course! Seems obvious now), they’re at a wide variety of stages with each one. When they spoke, it was rarely perfect, and occasionally it was worse than I can do. But they spoke, and they weren’t afraid. Together, we encouraged one another to avoid English or native tongues and try something stranger. We sought not the easiest language between us but the most difficult, that we both might get better, learn more, and have a good time—stutters, fumbles, and all. It was delightful.

How about you? Have you found a group of people with whom you can practice your languages, without worrying about upsetting the delicate social balance? Or do you not care about that balance, and have the courage to barge into any conversation, linguistic warts and all?

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About the Author: Malachi Rempen

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian wife and German cat. "Itchy Feet" is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.


  1. Sorcha:

    For me the crippling fear arises when speaking a foreign language with people I’m close with. I have no fears speaking to strangers because I don’t care if they judge me for my babyish German skills; I’ll never see them again! But when it comes to speaking with, say, my boyfriend or my classmates (native Germans, to clarify), that’s when I freeze up. Very frustrating, as they’re the people I could potentially practise with most!

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Sorcha Ooh, that is tough. Are they pretty encouraging and understanding, and you’re just making up the embarrassment in your head, or do they laugh at your mistakes?

  2. Dave:

    That cartoon is, alas, very true to life.

    But what the heck is the female character supposed to represent? A misshapen heart? An underwater pillow with breathing tubes? Some French foodstuff that baffles simpleminded Americans?

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Dave Hah! Yeah, back in the day, before it was called Itchy Feet, the comic was called “Le Spleen en France,” and the little main character was supposed to be a spleen. All the other supporting characters were also body organs – hearts, brains, pancreases, eyeballs – but it grew too tiring and pointless to keep up, so I just made them all misshapen bloblike creatures.

      • Dave:

        @Malachi Rempen Aha. I thought the hero was a walking bean … which makes no more sense than a walking spleen, I suppose.

        You should develop a deep explanation for your characters that you can discuss while wearing a black beret and sipping Pernot at a cafe along the Seine – “It’s a metaphor for the confusion inherent in the body politic” ….

        • Malachi:

          @Dave “It’s a subtle visual homage to fat, spindly-limbed, bug-eyed people everywhere.”

  3. Cindy:

    Sometimes I freeze, mostly in “small talk” situations – but I’m an introvert and really have to be in a good energy place to do small talk in any language. What frustrates me is when I am following a conversation and dive right in, then become self conscious because I’m slowing it down.

  4. Alejandro García:

    True Story.

    It’s harder when in a full class your German’s native teacher keeps calmly staring at you waiting for an answer with a strange smile drawed in her face until you say something… no matter how much time could be needed ._.

  5. Barbara Kurtz:

    When I read your blog, I was inspired by your enthusiasm for language learning, and by your courage to try a language even when you get nervous. My students and I have talked many times about fear and about risk taking, and I want to help them to face that fear. Many students questioned your use of “fearless” (“everyone there was fearless about speaking languages”), especially after you explained your fears in the previous paragraph. I think I understand, though. Sometimes fear prevents you from doing things. Other times, you face those fears and step up to a challenge—you’re “FEARLESS” even though you have fears. Some people would say that this is the very definition of “COURAGE”. I hope that my students and I can learn this type of FEARLESSNESS.

  6. Maddie and Ella:

    I get very nervous when I am in social situations where English isn’t other people’s primary language. This article helped a lot, thank you!! How did you find out about the Polyglot gathering? And are there any other polyglot gatherings I could attend?

  7. Kailani:

    I’ve traveled to different countries but I’ve never had to speak their language. I was able to pick up some of the language through natives, even though most countries speak English. Outside of classroom environments, I get nervous to speak and am unsure how to start a conversation. Do you have any advice for this?

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