Language, fear, and childishness

Courage comes from recognizing fear

Languages have made me braver.  Here’s how I was before I got into languages.  In high school, I tended to sit at the back of the class.  I was smart and I knew the answer most of the time.  I didn’t study much, but I got good grades.  I didn’t take risks.  I didn’t do anything that had a try-out, like sports or performing groups.  I joined the Concert Choir because my friends were in it and they were desperate for boys.  I didn’t like to compete, so I dropped out of band and debate.  I was into fencing for a couple years, but when my coach pushed me to compete more, I dropped out.  Standing out in a group and failing terrified me, so I got out.

I excelled in languages like other academic subjects–but then I went to France as an exchange student my approach to risk-taking changed.  In the beginning, I continued my MO, so in my host family, I was able to sit quietly at meal-time, and then disappear to my room.  On my first day of school, however, I had to change fast.

I was lost.  We had to copy down our class schedule as our teacher explained it–it was not pre-printed–and my French was not so great.  I had to ask a charitable classmate for help.  So I got through the introductory “lesson.”  On the actual first day of school, I couldn’t find my first class, and I was wandering around–the new kid on the After School Special.  Palms sweating I had to ask a teacher for directions, but perhaps because of my brusqueness, she kept on walking.  At this rate, I was going to fail from not showing up.

A change of tactics was necessary.  I stopped and said to myself, “I will be in France 5 months.  In that time, if I sound like an intelligent 5-year-old, I will have succeeded.  Heck, it takes French people five years to get to that point!”  At that, I approached the next teacher I could find, explained my situation extremely slowly and deliberately, and she led me by the hand (literally) to the office to get my schedule and to my first class, already in session for a while.

What did I learn?  I saw that fear would not get me what I needed.  Taking a deep breath, admitting my childishness, and jumping into the water of French language would get me where I wanted to go.  I sounded childish and foolish, I had to stand out, and I succeeded as a result.  I had to keep at it.  After those months, I became fluent in French because I got used to being afraid of sounding dumb–and overlooked the fear to get to my goal.  I don’t think I overcame fear; I learned to set it aside.

Fast forward a few years when I started school in Kiev, Ukraine, and confronted fear and failure again.  Though I was a high-school senior in France, I was a college junior in Kiev.  On most days, I would walk from my apartment to the closest subway stop, where I would meet a couple of classmates who helped me navigate the subway and tram to arrive to campus.  One day, they didn’t show up.  Not knowing the street, address, or even the name of the campus, I had to swallow my pride and ask directions in broken Russian to my own school.  I managed to do it, though I ended walking more than I ever had before, and arrived at least a half-hour late to class.  My teacher’s response to my arriving half-way through class was surprised and unhappy: “Что это такое?!”  (“What is this?!”)  The students who had stood me up stood up to stand up for me.  “He’s our American student and he is still learning how to get here.”  I guess this helped me.  I went from looking careless to just looking stupid.  But I got there as sweaty and stupid as I was.

While I learned that these classmates weren’t terribly reliable, I learned that my own scrappiness got me what I needed.  Sounding like a child, I asked a lot of directions, not sounding so smart, walked a long way, and made it.  I looked bad in my professor’s eyes, even when it worked at as well as it could.  By the end of the year, and after getting lost countless times, I became fluent in Russian (and Ukrainian).

Through language, I learned resourcefulness.  I learned how to tap into all the knowledge I needed: the people around me.  I sounded like a child, but people around me were kind and helpful.  (Except one guy–that’s another story.)  I did not learn how to sound smart–I learned how to deal with sounding stupid, sounding like a child–and that opened me up to volumes of knowledge.

When did you face fear down?  What did you learn?  How did you get over language self-consciousness?

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8 thoughts on “Language, fear, and childishness

  1. This is a great post! You’ve described one of the most important points we have to face while learning a new language: face fear. And never fear to sound stupid or dumb! Surely you did act very smart! Thanks for posting this!

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  2. Pingback: What I learned about language-learning: 2012 « Loving Language

  3. I think we could have been the same person in high school! You totally described ME! I always wanted to do things perfectly, or not do them at all. Definitely NOT a good approach to language learning, where mistakes are necessary and unavoidable. I still have a hard time getting out of my comfort zone, but I notice that every time I stretch myself, the zone expands and I learn something. This post is a great reminder of how the road to fluency always takes us through that awkward beginner phase of hacking together slow and poorly constructed sentences in an attempt to communicate. Definitely inspires me to keep going and pushing myself past the fear.

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    1. My boss at work told me, “As soon as this job is easy, it’s time for me to get another job.” He doesn’t believe that work is supposed to be easy, that we’re supposed to know everything about a job. He inspires me because he hates comfort zones. He’s always avoiding his, and pushing his employees out of theirs. He’s taught me a lot in a job where I started out knowing nearly nothing.

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