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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?