Language is about communication. You learn a language to speak with and understand others. Likewise, we want to be understood.
It’s frustrating when someone doesn’t understand you. It’s even more frustrating when you don’t understand them. It creates a communication barrier that one or both speakers then need to try and bridge.
Often, it’s the fear of this barrier that prevents us from even trying to talk to someone in the first place.
This fear is illogical. This becomes clearer when we put language into the context of another skill we might want to learn. Let’s take skiing for example. You’ve never skied before. Some of your friends ski though, and you’re starting to think you might want to try it out.
How would you go about this?
Would you read books to try and understand the movements your body needs to make?
Would you go and watch other people skiing so you could get an idea of what skiing looks like?
Or would you strap a pair of skis on and see what happens?
You would try to ski, obviously.
Sure, it would be tough at first. You’d be asking your body to do things that you don’t have the muscle memory for. You’d feel awkward and ungainly. You would fall over a lot.
But that’s normal, right? No one is going to judge a novice skier for not being an expert. You’re practicing. Eventually, with enough time, you’ll fall less. Then you’ll rarely fall. Then you won’t fall at all.
But falling isn’t failing. Falling means you’re learning.
So why don’t we apply this logic when we’re learning a new language? Why is it that most people don’t begin speaking with a native speaker when they start out? In fact, why is it that for most people, engaging in a conversation is usually one of the last things they will do?
Because they see falling as failing.
Think about it.
How many times have you kept quiet in a conversation because you weren’t sure you knew the right words?
How many times have you changed what you want to say to stick with words you know?
How many times have you decided not to speak because you worry you might mispronounce a word?
When you do this, you’re standing on the sidelines, watching the skiers go by.
Learning how to express yourself in a new language will take time. You’ll be asking your mouth to make shapes and sounds that you don’t have the muscle memory for. You’ll feel awkward and ungainly. You will fall over your words a lot.
When you fall, you learn to pick yourself up. You try not to make the same mistake again. Likewise, when a native speaker corrects you it’s not something to be embarrassed about. It will help you get better.
Muddling up sentence structure and getting words wrong means you’re learning.
Language in practice means speaking. The more you practice, the more you fail, the more you learn. There’s a simple, biological reason for this and it’s because of what’s happening in your brain.
The more you speak the language, the more natural it becomes. The more you hear, the easier it is to understand the sounds of the language. This is how your brain will begin to form connections to the words you use. The stronger these connections, the easier it is to recall and use these words again.
Diving into conversation straight away also means you’ll learn new vocabulary. You’ll pick up words as people use them, mimicking their use to incorporate them into your lexicon. Eventually, this means your flow of language will be smoother and closer to that of a native speaker.
When we stop being afraid of making mistakes we enable ourselves to learn faster.
Without this fear, you would not substitute the word you want for a word you already know. You would ask for the word you want. Because this helps you get better.
Without this fear, if you misunderstand something you would ask them to explain it to you. Because this helps you get better.
When you perform each and any of these actions, you’re putting your skis on and practicing.
Don’t let the fear of falling hold you back from speaking in a language you’ve not yet mastered.
Throw yourself down that slope and remember – falling isn’t failing.