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?