Learning Your Way to Yourself
The acquisition of any foreign language comes with struggle. Not just the burden of memorizing a new lexicon or the labor of demystifying an unfamiliar syntax, but the struggle of making oneself understood in the target language. It’s not easy!
Naturally, many mis-communications are committed as fluency is built upon a mountain of mistakes and micro-lessons learned. Language learners are not robots (yet!), however… they desire not only to communicate information, but to express themselves. They want to show their personalities, to be themselves in the target language.
Orlando Kelm, teacher of Spanish and Portuguese, observes:
> My experience is that it just kills some people to not be able to say something in a foreign language without the same intensity, passion, and flowering language as in their native language. If they can’t say it like they would in their own language, they end up not saying anything at all. Other people are OK with their more limited, simple, and brief non-native version. Basically, if you are not willing to go with the simplified version, you’ll have more difficulties in speaking the foreign language. With time and practice your simple version will develop, but not if you aren’t willing to start with whatever you can pull out of your brain in the initial phases.
Although I have nowhere near Dr. Kelm’s years of experience with language learning, I, too, have witnessed this phenomenon in many learners, and I’ve had to deal with it myself. To make matters worse, I’m not a terribly outgoing person, and I’m not a fan of small talk. These qualities are not conducive to practice in the target language!
It may be that this problem is most pronounced for those with a very strong identity. Someone who is always the life of the party may have a really hard time being that guy that’s hard to understand and that doesn’t make much sense. The quick-witted jokesters may find it especially painful to never be funny in the target language (for a very long time). These learners may feel if they can’t be themselves to the people they meet, they’d rather not meet those people.
For me, my identity didn’t get in the way so much. I enjoyed the challenge of communication in Chinese, as humbling as it was. I repeatedly put myself in situations where I needed to talk, and then I would just say anything I could think of to say. This comes naturally to the outgoing, talkative types, the people that hate silence. For some of us, though, it’s incredibly difficult! With this approach, you rarely end up talking about what you really feel like talking about (largely because everything is dumbed down to your language ability), but you actually end up talking, most of the time, which is exactly what you need as a new learner.
Essentially, what I did amounted to changing my personality in the target language. I became someone who frequently started conversations with strangers, someone who asked questions which sometimes were none of my business, someone who would keep small talk going indefinitely.
Over time, I found it easier and easier to express myself in Chinese. I could even start making simple jokes. My efforts were working, but I realized that I had donned this alter-ego which placed me in a certain developmental trajectory. It was one which, as far as I could tell, could only be fully realized by someone totally unlike me. Maybe working at becoming a brilliant story-teller, or public speaker, or comedian (xiangsheng?) — in Chinese — would be the best thing possible for my language abilities, but I realized that that just wasn’t me. As my identity reasserted itself, I began acting more like myself, but also more like a native speaker in some ways, because I had lost my sociable fearlessness.
This is a good problem to have, though, because you have choices. If you’re still struggling in those early stages, you’re faced with one fundamental choice over and over again: to talk or not to talk. For this scenario, Dr. Kelm’s advice is as good as it gets:
> Next time you are part of that beautiful sunset, turn to the person next to you and tell him/her what is in your heart, even if the actual words are just “sunset good.”