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Overcoming a bad case of language cowardice

February 2016

Can language cowardice be overcome quickly?

My quick response is “Yes, of course. Just read the last sentence of this post”.

Hold on! What about real language cowardice, not just natural hesitation? What about when you really, really don’t believe you can do it? That you are one of those who cannot learn anything and who definitely cannot learn how to speak freely? You just know you are no good, you have given it a go often enough, but each time it was pointless.

Let’s look at a more considered reply:

I shall use myself as a case in point. When I stumbled upon LingQ in 2009 I thought I had arrived in language heaven. For decades I had thought I’d quite fancy adding a language or two to my meagre repertoire of school memories. English was ‘forced’ upon me by moving to the UK after my marriage and I eventually managed to feel at home in it. Forget French and Latin. Hardly a shade left of them and the rudiments of my self-taught Russian.

Me being me, I started out on French, Italian, Spanish and Russian at the same time, adding Swedish from scratch as an afterthought. Italian was the first to fall by the wayside. For all I know, it is still languishing there. The other languages suffered neglect only according to how uncomfortable I felt with them. For me a language needs to have a three-dimensional feeling to it. Only then can I know that it is part of me.

It turned out that I had to compromise with them all. Speaking to the nice, patient and interesting tutors (my criteria for tutors) on LingQ freaked me out. Not only did I freeze, my brain went blank and all sorts of panic buttons catapulted me straight back into long forgotten teenage angst. I shook, I trembled, I could not speak. There were no words in my blank mind. Had there been any, I would not have been able to move my mouth. It took me days to recover from a 15-minute session. It was pathetic and that at my age. Did I give up? Yes, and no.

I continued reading and writing, chalking up compliments for the latter in both French and Spanish. Swedish was too hard and so I simply stuck to reading for pleasure. (I am an avid buyer of foreign literature from charity shops.) Russian was hopeless and so I was content to practice the script by copying out lessons. I have brilliant Russian handwriting, albeit the old-fashioned kind!

What about speaking I hear you ask: I enjoyed the company of both my Swedish and my Spanish tutors very much and managed to persuade them to chat to me in English. Wonderful. So easy. When the tutor was no longer available, I gave up on the occasional Russian conversations I still tried to attend. It wasn't my fault she stopped, honestly. And then Russian joined Italian by the wayside, only much further on. I felt a total failure. Russian is the language of my dreams.

What about applying good studying techniques and following the advice given by successful learners here? I read the books, I listened to the talks, I watched the videos. They were all addressing someone else. Nothing worked for me, I was not good enough.

I took speaking to natives off my list of language goals. Well, it never really was on it. I much prefer reading, writing and listening. I gave up on ever speaking any second foreign language. When 2015 turned out to be a bit of a difficult year on all sorts of levels I practically withdrew from LingQ in the autumn, apart from the occasional posting on the forum. I was still reading French and Spanish and a bit of Swedish from time to time, but that was that. I didn’t miss LingQ much. My use of it has always been rather erratic.

Last month on Twitter I came across a tweet from another LingQ member who mentioned yet another book about language learning. “Becoming Fluent: How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language” by Richard M Roberts and Roger J Kreuz.

Well, dear reader, I bought the book. I found it well written, with extensive notes for further study. It somehow pressed all the right buttons with me. Was it the "Adult" in the title to whom I responded? While some chapters will appear self-evident or old hat to the experienced, successful language learner, for someone like me, it helped change my life.

I don’t know whether I would have arrived at this point eventually in any case, since the lure of languages is so strong. Perhaps all the prior attempts at breaking the sound barrier had built up such a momentum that the mere reading of the book constituted a Tipping Point for me. I now know that I am capable of speaking with native adults of the various languages of interest to me.

How do I know? Well, since this Road to Damascus experience I have been able to hold a couple of Skype conversations with LingQ tutors. What fun to find the words I needed, and to laugh when I couldn’t find them. Speaking now seems natural and appropriate. It turns out that all the reading and listening seems to have paid off: I have been given a pat on the back by the French and Russian LingQ tutors on my pronunciation (and also by a Spanish teacher I happened to bump into here in my home town and who I dared to address in Spanish). I definitely did not twist their arms! Honestly. Success!

Self-doubt is something so cruel. Be kind to yourself.

P.S. Sorry for the length of this œuvre!