Overcoming the Language Barrier: A Rewarding Journey via Countless Blunders

As a 19-year-old who had just finished school I went to South Africa as a volunteer youth instructor for four month. It was the first time that I left Europe and the first time I used English as the every- day language of communication. Even though I was a good student and thus was able to communicate fluently, the difference in my overall behavior was striking. I have always been quite an extrovert who is usually not afraid to approach people and is sometimes even described as funny.

However, at that time this description only applied to my ‘German’ self. In English, I was an introvert who often needed some time to laugh at jokes and rarely showed a spark of humor. My personal low-point was when my fellow co-worker from England told me that when I was instructing the kids on supposedly fun outdoor activities I sounded ‘a bit like a robot’. To me that ultimately explained why the kids sometimes looked at me with big (scared?) eyes instead of excitement. Even though I was able to explain the content of what I wanted to say (We will use the zip line and you have to be careful about certain things.), I was not able to convey my overall excitement for the activity (It’s a zip line! It is going super fast! It will be so much fun!). What I did convey was rather that they would end up in the hospital if they didn’t strictly abide by the following one thousand rules. I am sure at that point I perfectly matched some of the negative stereotypes people connect to Germans…

I want to underline that I don’t usually spend my free time scaring kids! Instead, the little episode illustrates a typical language barrier. I understand the learning of a language as a gradual reduction of distance not only between the learner and a native speaker but also between the learner and the language itself. At the beginning, a foreign language often resembles a random mumbo jumbo and the first attempts to get an insight to it are hard work.

However, slowly but surely, the mumbo jumbo around you becomes something you relate to and every word and sentence you understand and speak is a little success. At some point you will be in the situation I described above being able to say but not necessarily express whatever you want and while you are constantly improving it might take a long time until you feel entirely confident in every situation. In fact, studies imply that even advanced speakers of a foreign language don’t overcome this barrier entirely. It was shown that a person tends to make more rational (utilitarian) decisions when the choices are presented in a foreign language since it provides a stronger rational and cognitive distance than the native tongue. That is also why it is often easier for people to say swear words or taboo words in a foreign language. However, ‘when it counts’ they fall back to their mother tongue since it is closer connected to the negative emotions the speaker wants to convey. 

Does that mean we will never fully overcome the language barrier? In this narrow sense I have to say: Probably not. However, this would not be a positive blog post about language learning if it finished on such a negative note. Learning a language takes effort and the willingness to put yourself into situations in which you might feel vulnerable. At the same time it teaches you to learn from your mistakes, to accept and overcome moments in which you cannot fully express yourself, and to open your mind towards a different way of seeing the world. Finally, even if you might never swear with the same enthusiasm as you do in your native language, you might just have found the perfect tool in case you long for more rational decision making in your life!    

(Non) Native Speaker Teachers

I saw a commercial bragging that “by *** we will only have native speaker teachers”. In my teaching career, many schools have turned down my application with a simple: “We don’t hire non-native speakers”.

Now, I must say my relation to my mother tongue is different than the one that I have with my “learned languages”. I can give my students insider tips, tell jokes and teach idiomatic expressions on another level. I probably have a better “feeling” for the language itself and can try to offer a taste of it to my class. I can talk about my learning process as a child or my experience with other students… But I will never be aware of the struggles and problems adults might be facing when learning that language, cultural gaps etc. because I have honestly never been there.

Furthermore, I will never have the analytical thinking tools which I have when it comes to teaching foreign languages. I have been forced to have it in order to acquire them. I was in the exact same position as my students are now. I am much more… reliable and relatable. I know where problems could occur, hidden traps, I feel their frustration, I know what is important to get completely right and what you really need to avoid in terms of grammar, semantics or behaviour and which rules and words you do not need and can skip (maybe just for now).

I have a deeper “conscious knowledge”, which is easier to teach than simply “a feeling”. The feeling is there, of course. In the meanwhile, it has become a well “developed” one. But it is still something I have learned and am constantly learning. Thinking of my experience, I feel blessed. As a former Latin and Ancient Greek as well as a linguistics student, I had the luck to be forced to sweat and learn about my mother tongue, too. Nevertheless, I can always rely on the phrase ”It just sounds better/right”. Actually, can I? To be honest, I think it is a VERY dangerous and false sense of security when you want to be a scientist, a proper linguist.… and that is why I rather teach foreign languages (and better) than my own. I would rather question (and allow to be questioned) my German, French, English, Spanish, Ancient Greek, Latin knowledge than my beloved-hated-mother tongue Italian.

So, no matter who you see in front of you, be assured that this person, despite of their mother tongue, can indeed be a good teacher and can have something valuable to add to your language (and life – but this post focuses on language knowledge) experience, something from which during your very own learning process. 

Please, (Feel Free To) Be Quiet – Part 2

Wrong, this is not the end. I mean, we will eventually need to speak in order to… speak a (foreign) language: should I really point out the obvious (obvious-but-not-that-easy)? Yes, we will need to make aneffort. But. It doesn’t need to be NOW, in front of all these people you don’t actually know. It doesn’t need to be at the very moment your brain just stops doing its job because of the external circumstances, when breathing seems a hard enough task, and you feel like you haven’t had any experience in your life, any ideas, anything relevant (or even dumb) to share – plus you seem to have completely forgotten how to articulate sounds.

The point is: you will need to overcome your fears, the “language-student’s-block”, but if you don’t feel like it quite yet or here and now, feel free not to. Please feel free to be quiet. Your time will come and there is no need to try behaving in a way which doesn’t suit you or helps your learning process in class or in general.

Don’t misbehave or prevent the teacher or the others to go their way, don’t evangelize as a professor of mine put it, but don’t feel forced to follow blindly. Talk to the teacher, write a message, give a private feedback. Everyone has the right to be guided and considered in the learning process. Be patient, it IS hard work for the teacher and for you.

Meanwhile… try and be your own teacher. Pick a shop or flight assistant whose face you like. Whom you feel comfortable to approach and talk to. Rehearse your question. Write it down. Go over and over the scene, consider all the “what ifs”, all the possible answers, scenarios… Then, jump. You will need to jump, but there is no shame in jumping safe. When you feel comfortable, level up – at your pace. Since you will probably feel like you failed, just don’t let that feeling stop you from trying again. Reconsider, overthink, re-rehearse. Try again. Don’t be afraid of opening your mouth with big motivation and deep focus, and… switching to English (or any other language you already mastered); or just… turn around and leave. The other person won’t think about you a second longer, so no worries. Nobody really cares. There is no shame in giving it a try within a “comfort spot” (and maybe fail). There is no shame in not wanting to speak for a long, looong time in the hope to “limit the damage”. Of course, be aware: it probably won’t be perfect anyways, your long-prepared question, speech or answer. But I think that, at that point, having done your best, you will be fine with your mistakes, right? Especially, if someone is there to help you to not make them again. And we are 😉

Oh, about that, teachers, please: we are not all over-excited about or feel entitled to speak up, speak our mind, share stories, group work, leave our comfort zone and put ourselves out there. Try to keep that in mind and adjust… It will be just fine.

Please, (Feel Free To) Be Quiet

Or: “Stop the madness of constant group work” (Susan Cain)

In order to learn how to speak a language, you need to speak. Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Talk to and with people as much as you can. Try. Talk about yourself and what you like. Share. Try again. Do like children do.

Well, when I was three, I once (no, it was not a one time thing, actually) woke up and told my mom that “I won’t talk to anyone today.” – and I did. 20 years later, I passed a final exam with the best grades in the written part, and only good grades in the oral part. Why? I still wonder. But the professor claimed that “You are good, so why don’t you just speak your mind? The oral exam is about… talking.” 4 years later, SVEB course: let’s do group work. Yey. On Thursdays from 6 to 10 pm, it was silence time, meaning: I barely spoke for the entire 6-month course.

In order to learn how to speak a language, you need to speak. Well, my brain works best in silence, I really need to think twice (three, four times) before I share my thoughts or say something, or I won’t be happy with what comes out of my mouth (I am not happy anyway, but… I would like to limit the damage). I hate to be misunderstood (my opinion is often unpopular by the way,, so I know I will probably need to engage in a long, exhausting discussion leading to… not much except frustration). I absolutely dislike small talk and “round table” meetings, group brainstorming and role plays. My brains just black out. And hours later, I find myself writing down ideas, furiously (please note the chomskyan quote), regretting that I wasn’t even able to have them at the “right time”. Or didn’t want to share them: “If I only had said that…” (my favourite silent line at school when I wouldn’t say a word, even though I knew the answer, and someone else eventually got it… after four, five, six “whatever”-attempts).

And this happens… in my mother tongue. So, when it comes to learning a foreign language, I should be hopeless: I need to overcome my speaking-related issues in a language that I haven’t mastered… in order to learn how to speak that language. So, I’m doomed. Introverts – just to give myself and people like me a label – we are doomed.