Language learning can be a wonderful thing. Language learning can also be a not so wonderful thing.
I’m fortunate to have grown up with English as my first language. Or am I? While English is a global language, spoken worldwide by more second language speakers than first, it seems those whose first language is English make less of an effort, in general, to learn a second or third language. Please note, I say in general. There are polyglots out there whose first language is English, but in my experience, which is an American one, we English speakers get by in most places without the need to learn a second language.
get by: to succeed with minimal effort
Note: This has additional meanings. You can find them here.
This lack of need, this privilege, can be limiting. We limit our cultural knowledge. We limit our own growth. We are confident when we should not be. I know too many Americans who think immigrants need to learn English. Yet, if they travel to another country, they make no effort to learn some basic phrases. So, before I tell my little story of success in another language, I want to acknowledge that privilege creates a mindset of entitlement. As you can see in the definition below, entitlement can be both negative and positive.
entitlement: the belief that one is inherently deserving of privileges or special treatment; the fact of having a right to something
The type of entitlement that stems from unearned privilege is negative. Too often it results in a lack of respect for others. However, entitlement is also the fact of having a right to something.
This positive entitlement is what I want to give you. It does not matter if English is not your first language. You have a right to use it.
Stop worrying about your English not being good enough.
Be proud of the effort you make to learn and communicate in another language! You’re amazing! There is no reason to feel embarrassed or ashamed about mistakes. Mistakes are how we learn and improve anything that we do.
Related post: Embrace Mistakes in Language Learning
English belongs to you as much as it does to me. Speak whatever words you can with pride.
A Story of Failed Communication
I set off, as I do each day, for a walk in the woods. I began this daily ritual after a student of mine said it was something she did every day. Before this, I was lazy. I did it once a week or less.
Combining the inspiration from my student with the 2-minute rule of habit development, I successfully implemented a daily walking routine. It has been rich in rewards.
rich in rewards: If something is rich in rewards, it has many benefits.
I feel old saying this, but I have become an avid bird watcher. The bird that I seek the most is the woodpecker. I find them daily in increasing quantities.
avid: very interested and enthusiastic about something
A week or so earlier, I was staring into the woods at the birds. A man approached me on the trail. In the same direction that I was looking, beyond the birds, was a Korean Army outpost. The man stopped and asked me a question in Korean. As my Korean is limited, I could only guess what he was asking, but given the context, I figured he thought I was curious about the Army structures I saw. I was not. I’d walked this trail dozens of times. I tried to tell him I was looking at birds. I spoke English. He spoke Korean. Until he said the word Army. I then spoke a mixture of Korean and English, saying, “no Army, I’m looking at the birds…woodpeckers,” while I flapped my arms like a bird.
It was all to no avail. He said something else I didn’t understand and went on his way. I decided it was time to learn how to say, “I’m looking at birds. There is a woodpecker.” in Korean.
to no avail: without success, ineffective
A Story of Successful Communication
After my failed communication, I learned how to say two simple sentences. It wasn’t difficult. The Korean word for bird sounds like the English word say. The Korean word for woodpecker sounds like Doctor Goo Ree (딱따구리). I tested my pronunciation out on my students. They laughed, but one or two of them understood. Success!
Out on my daily walk, I was eager to pass other hikers with a Dr. Goo Ree in my sights. Most people I encountered did not give me a second look. Then, at last, two women about my age looked my way. I tried out my Korean, and they were instantly interested! I pointed out the woodpecker. They took out their phones, trying to get a picture.
encounter: to meet, especially unexpectedly
We then talked for about five minutes, me in my poor Korean, them in a mix of Korean and a little English.
These moments, while rare, are ones I treasure as someone who lives abroad.
One Step at a Time
One simple sentence, said incorrectly in Korean, “I have a woodpecker.” opened the door to learning and a pleasant exchange. They asked where I lived. I could understand, and told them I lived nearby, in this neighborhood. They told me where they lived, a bit further away. They asked where I was from, using a word I had learned but couldn’t remember: 고향 (gohyang), which translates to hometown, but sounds like the Korean word for cat: 고양이 (goyang-i).
Thankfully, these two women were patient and had good communication skills. In English, they said, “For example, Australia, UK, USA.” Once I understood their question, I told them in Korean that I was from the US.
open the door: to make it possible for something to happen
After they left, I replayed the word gohyang in my mind. Of course, its meaning came to me quickly as I reflected on our conversation.
This is language learning. It often happens in baby steps. These interactions, while imperfect, add to our working vocabulary, our motivation, and our confidence in our ability to communicate. Are they scary? Sure, they can be! But they are also exciting! Who knows what we might learn?! With the right mindset, these moments take us further along the road to success in language learning.
baby step: an act that makes a very small amount of progress towards achieving something
Mistakes Are Language Learning Stepping Stones
Be fearless in your language learning. Set your fears aside. Don’t worry about what anyone thinks of your mistakes. Learn to love your mistakes. Reward yourself for making mistakes. Noticing a mistake is a success! Anyone who would judge you for making a mistake in a second language is not worth your time. I don’t think many of those people exist. I think we create them in our minds. They are us.
It’s time to take ownership of the language you are trying to learn. It’s time to take baby steps. You have everything to gain and nothing to lose.
Never stop learning!