While I don’t think the ability to learn a language – or lack thereof – is inborn, I do think there are certain personality types that have an easier or more difficult time learning a new language, particularly as adults. Learning a language requires letting go of our ego, it requires an ability to cede control of the conversation and of our interactions with others. Some people feel comfortable with ambiguity and with making a fool of themselves in front of other adults. But others – probably most people, actually – don’t feel comfortable with that. Those that can handle the ambiguity, however, will ultimately have more success and more fun learning a foreign language.
This is especially true at the beginning of a new language, and I think it is the feeling of being “out of control” of the situation that, consciously or not, turns people off to language learning.
When you’re still at an intermediate level, you have to accept that in your conversations with native speakers you’ll probably listen a bit more than you talk. You probably won’t understand everything that native speakers say, either. If you are at the doctor’s office or police station, you might end up asking him or her to repeat him or herself several times. If you’re asking for directions, you might end up relying more on non-verbal gestures than on language to understand the response. If you’re just talking to an acquaintance, you might end up misunderstanding the question or the statement.
A couple weeks after I had arrived in Russia, I had gotten together with a friend of a friend, a Russian woman who lived in Moscow. We were taking a boat tour of Moscow together, and she was narrating the sites, asking me about myself and, in general, doing most of the talking. Of course, I was trying to keep up, answering her questions and listening carefully, but I didn’t understand everything she said. At one point, we passed a mosque. I understood her telling me that it was a mosque (it helped that it was visibly recognizable as a mosque), but I wasn’t so sure what she said afterwards. As usual, I smiled and nodded.
Later that evening, after I was back home, I realized that she had said something along the lines of “Muslims don’t belong in Russia and should go back to their own country.” I had totally smiled and nodded, agreeing with this highly offensive comment (not to mention seriously misinformed, since many Muslims in Russia are not only Russian citizens but their families have lived in Russia for centuries). If someone had said that to me in English, in the US, I would have ripped him or her apart. Yet there I was, smiling and nodding.
Speaking another language actually makes you less likely to have those kinds of biased thoughts, but sometimes communicating in a foreign language makes you agree with stuff you don’t really agree with because either you don’t understand what is being said or you don’t have the linguistic ability to argue.
Although I’d prefer not listen to offensive comments in any language – let along agree with them, I actually think being comfortable with complete lack of control of the conversation – like I was in that boat in Moscow – is crucial to eventually learning a language well. In most cases, the lack of control manifests itself differently – maybe it’s that your host misunderstands what you want to drink, maybe its that you agree to do something that you don’t intend to do.
When your language skills aren’t very well developed, it’s almost impossible for you to be a full, adult participant in conversations. Yet it’s crucial for you to start having conversations. The dynamic becomes a little like a parent and a child: Parents generally speak more than their children do, especially when kids are still using language haltingly. Kids don’t get to control the conversation, either.
For adults, especially highly educated, professionals, the loss of control can be extremely frustrating. But it’s an essential step in learning a language, and people who learn to be ok with not knowing exactly what is being said or not being the one directing the conversation will ultimately have more success with language learning.
How can you get comfortable with ambiguity?
There is no simple answer, since this is something that people struggle with, and there are whole courses devoted to the subject! In general, though:
- Realize that it’s ok to be a listener
- Build your self-confidence in general. People who are insecure tend to have the most trouble putting themselves in situations where they might make a fool of themselves – and situations like that are essential to language learning.
- Practice your speaking skills with both native speakers you like and trust and with strangers. For some people, it’s easier to accept looking foolish in front of a stranger than in front of a friend, other people feel the opposite.
Most importantly, let go! Language learning is fun, as long as you relax about it!
Photo by Ian Sane