What am I afraid of?

young amazed woman in casual wear covering mouth while keeping secret

Fear stalked me for a long time in language learning. When I started learning French as a teenager, I was extremely self-conscious, battered down by criticism of my appearance, and desperately afraid to speak in public. This was not conducive to practicing a new language, where mistakes are inevitable. I limited my utterances to the minimum required and kept up with easier tasks, like vocab quizzes and rote grammar rules.

The obstacles lessened when I went away to college and started to accept and even like myself, but the habit of defining myself exclusively through success was strong. It was not appealing to go through a stage of sounding foolish or to make my misunderstandings public knowledge. I didn’t see any value in such lapses, and so I stopped short at the limits of my capability, unable to make the leap that might have carried me into real fluency.

Now, after a thirty-year gap I’ve ended up having to learn languages again, this time not just for school, but with real-life stakes. And I find that with time and maturity, my fears have lessened. I’m not so afraid any more of being criticized, of appearing stupid, of making mistakes, or of recognizing the limits to my understanding. The need to start over again with “beginner’s mind” has helped me to shake off those old fears even more.

I’ve realized that making relationships is more important to me than bolstering my solitary self-image — and that requires communication. So I stumble along, and the good thing is that with a decrease in fear comes a notable increase of fun. I’ve gotten better at plunging into conversation and going for the gist, focusing on what I do understand rather than obsessing about what I don’t.

It helps that there are a lot of kind and patient people in my life who don’t jeer at me when I use the wrong past participle or mix up my articles. Ultimately, I think that my fears were fears about being spurned and rejected by other people, of relationships being cut off because of my mistakes — but I have enough experience of forgiveness now to know that need not be the case.

In time, I hope I’ll get to more accuracy. For now, I settle for making the effort, and appreciating the way confidence grows when perfection no longer haunts my dreams.

What fears get in the way of learning for you? Have you found that they lessen with age, or experience?

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13 thoughts on “What am I afraid of?

  1. Congrats! I am iso mpressed by your progress. The no-choice method of language study! Reading is always easier for me than pronunciation, so I sympathize with your shyness about speaking. I’ve always thought I’d do best by communicating through post-its.

    1. The written word is safer, though I’ve come to the point where speaking in German is easier for me than reading — those long words and consonant clusters strike me like a wall. Need to get through that hurdle next.

  2. It’s great to hear that you’ve managed to conquer these particular fears! I was exactly the same when I first moved overseas – I definitely felt that same self-consciousness that you mention in your post. Even though I wasn’t a teenager any more, I hadn’t managed to rid myself of that particular fear. But as you said, it’s about being brave, and not being afraid to make mistakes. I’ve yet to meet someone who actively judged me for making mistakes while speaking (although it is interesting to see the various ways that people react to mistakes – subtle hints, repeating your words back to you, fighting back tears of laughter when you unintentionally say something that sounds extremely rude in that language).

  3. I think the thing that has helped me the most is spending time with people whose English is their second or other language, including colleagues when I was at the library, clients who send me work to edit or transcribe, a yoga teacher who managed to teach a class with very minimal English: they could make a LOT of “mistakes” before I was literally unable to understand them. So if my Spanish tenses slip, someone will still know what I mean, and I’m OK with not being perfect. I’ve always been fine about speaking languages (unlike my husband!) which is odd considering I actually have a pretty bad French accent, my first non-English language!

    Well done to you and more power to you!

    1. Yes, good point — I know how inessential it is to speak “correct” English for understanding, and that has helped me to get over some hangups as well.

  4. Among my students, the ones who take longer to improve are exactly the ones who are afraid to make mistakes when they talk. The ones who just seize any opportunity to open their mouth and talk (in French), improve very fast. I even had a student who didn’t have much opportunities, so everyday, he would talk to his cat in French! Listen, read, and talk every day, very important. Taking care of the mistakes is easier once you get your confidence and practice in

  5. Yes to daring to sound silly! I can only read a bit of Italian. I would really like to learn to speak it by the end of this decade.

    1. Good luck with that project! For learning to speak when you can’t do a spell of immersion, I do recommend the PImsleur method. It’s expensive, but sometimes can be found at your public library. It is an all-oral method and gets you speaking quickly.

  6. When my brother was living in Italy for several years, he put the 3 year old in an all-Italian preschool and the older children in an International School that promised to teach Italian. It was the 3 year old who became fluent (although she cried at drop off the first year, which was hard on her mother). It is definitely true that starting young before one is very self-conscious is the best way to learn a language, whether via immersion or elementary school lessons.

    I guess I was afraid of quantitative analysis so forced myself to get an MBA but in retrospect I am not sure that was the best use of time or money, so I don’t necessarily recommend conquering ALL one’s fears!

    1. Classes in the language are just no substitute for being actually engaged with it on a practical and emotional level. My son learned Swiss German (spoken by his friends) faster than High German (used for schoolwork). Motivation is a strong factor too, I think speaking to friends is more motivating for most kids than doing well on exams.

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