I had my share of language learning experience as a child. This is the time when you don’t question the grammar rules or their exceptions, when it’s perfectly okay to make mistakes, be corrected or a tad embarrassed in front of a whole class because you don’t really care.
Then you grow up… All of a sudden, you are conscious of making mistakes, you want to understand the logic behind every grammar rule and yes, and you will be mortified when making mistakes. Why? Because you are an adult, an educated person expressing yourself at a level of a young child and that is just disturbing: you have your ego protesting and screaming: hey, I am not stupid!
I have been learning Chinese and that is not an easy task. Set aside the tones – it’s like learning to sing – the wide variety of dialects, not to mention the many words that sound alike, with different meanings, of course. So while you are trying to say I am a teacher you might be actually saying I am an old rat…
So naturally, most the time when I am mingling with the locals, trying to get the right breakfast on the street, I do feel like a small child – however, and not a smart one…
It all ended when Frank, a well-educated engineer started taking English classes, at a beginners level.
I sensed his frustration, because he really wanted to express himself but couldn’t. How could he? He had just started his journey of learning English at the age of 38.
And last week, after failing to get his message across, he just burst out: “I am stupid! I like 5-year-old!” And that’s when it hit me: I did understand his frustration because I have been feeling the same way.
So I told him: “Yes, you are right: you do sound like a 5-year-old. But that’s okay! Because you are learning! It will get better, I promise. Then I told him: “I also am a 5-year-old… “– in Chinese…
He smiled and was grateful. I assured him: nobody thinks he is stupid, it’s only the beginning.
Frank also helped me, inadvertently. I no longer care if a local gives me that weird look, or even laughs at my fragile attempt to express myself in Chinese. I just gently remind myself: “It’s okay. It will only get better!”
4 thoughts on “What’s Your Story? – Learning a Language as an Adult by Katie Burgess”
The frustration of being unable to express what you are really thinking and feeling is often so obvious on my ESL students’ faces. I think part of what we need to do as ESL educators is to advocate for our students, not only at the policy level, but also at the interpersonal level. We need to speak up and let our friends and colleagues know that having unsophisticated discourse in a second language is not a sign of low intelligence. Rather, it’s a sign that this is a person working hard to communicate in a new, uncomfortable way, and listeners need to be patient and open to the experience.