“Yeah, when I was in New York on business…”
“Those 2 weeks I was in the U.S…”
“The food is terrible… all those hamburgers and hot dogs…”
“American culture? What culture?”
“There’s not much history there, is there?”
“Ugh, that American accent… I can’t understand a thing!”
“The thing about Americans is…”
I mold my teeth back into a stiff-lip chiclet smile. Heh, heh. Very amusing. They look so comfortable, self-assuredly snickering at a caricature of a country they love to shit on.
I observe with fascination the smug joy in their eyes, the derisive wheezy laugh. All driven by a glaringly misguided, yet gloriously seductive need to be better than.
Why should I rain on their shit-parade? I wouldn’t dare spoil their moment of naive delight by questioning their pseudo-intellectual, stunningly brash hubris. There are indeed plenty of things to criticize, sure, but they’re pulling at low-hanging rotten fruit. The bland revelation is too simple, too deliciously satisfying to resist.
Is this how they go through life? Satisfied with a facile, self-serving version of reality, with no desire to learn more?
I’m not offended at their (perhaps unintentionally) injurious comments; that would be too easy. No, I’m learning. This is a pernicious trap of logic, a hasty generalization. Such exchanges remind me to work to avoid this pitfall myself.
“Mm-hmm. Whatever you say. On to page 2…”
Every No is a chance to learn something. Every closed door, every rejection, every empty inbox. Every outpouring of effort that fails to make even the tiniest ripple. Every twinge of disappointment, every shameful time you realize that you don’t measure up.
Nos hurt; they make you question what you’re doing and why you do it. But this is exactly why Nos are also a great impetus for growth. Why are you doing that? Is there something to learn here? Is that No a permanent roadblock?
Yes can be too easy. Yes absolves you from the responsibility of reflection. Yes tells you what you’re doing right, not what you need to work on. Yes makes you soft.
I’m on a mission to collect Nos. I have a lot to learn.
“I’m afraid of being made fun of.”
How many times have my students confided this fear in me? Ashamed to struggle, flustered at their mistakes, looking like they want to disappear.
I wonder, What’s the big deal?
Since when do strangers’ opinions matter? Why are we so ready to give away our confidence to imaginary people who fictionally criticize us?
This mentality seems to speak to the greater idea that unless you’re going to be great at something, it’s not worth trying. Anything less than excellence is insufficient. You run the risk of entering the annals of history as a Failure.
Is our sense of self-importance that inflated, that our failures, never mind our very existences, will be remembered for more than 5 nanoseconds?
Push the logic a bit further, and it falls to pieces.
I screw up, forget things, commit acts of thoughtlessness.
I have a funny accent when I speak foreign languages.
I’m sure my lipstick is never smooth and flawless.
I trip over my feet, my skirts ride up, I get parsley in my teeth.
At times, I have no idea what to say. I get testy on occasion.
I ruin recipes and often write what I think is garbage.
So what? We all do.
Criticism from one person is fleeting. As is the embarrassment of screwing up.
More than fictional criticism that hasn’t happened yet, we should be afraid of leaving this world with regret in our hearts, at not having tried.
Let’s get over ourselves, and just do it.
“False beginner” is a term language teachers throw around to describe a learner who has begun from the top in learning a language, but who in fact already has some knowledge. This knowledge may come from (as in my case) environmental exposure, but not necessarily active usage of the language.
It can be difficult to identify their learning needs at first, and the classroom context may not work for them altogether (as in my case). I took Intro to Spanish while I was at UMass, and I didn’t do amazingly. Even if I can read aloud with a very good accent, the classroom setting is not how I have been in contact with the language, and it’s not a skill I associate with books and formal studies. Even if it worked for me with Japanese and French, formal classroom studies aren’t always my bag.
I’m a language parrot. I can imitate the accent, pronunciation, and manner of expression of native speakers, but this means I can also pick up incorrect or lazy speaking habits. I learn from hearing people use a language, and observing how they do so; textbooks and learning materials fill in the cracks and give me some rules to follow, but I don’t need them to make up the backbone of my knowledge of a language.
As for my accent, I have to credit my grandmother, who taught me to read aloud in Spanish and corrected my pronunciation when I was young enough to retain it. (Ah, the wisdom of the Grama… she helped me cement an excellent Spanish pronunciation during the critical period of language acquisition, which means I don’t sound like a complete gringa when I speak Spanish!)
I may not understand the subtilities of Spanish grammar, nor can I conjugate an irregular verb to save my life, but I know I have a relatively sophisticated vocabulary and decent oral and written comprehension. I’m currently working on a research project using primary documents in Spanish, and would like to eventually go to Puerto Rico to do research on the ground.
Funny enough, these are things that are difficult to admit. I never used the Spanish I knew among my peers or my family out of fear of criticism: I knew it was far from fluent, so I didn’t want to bear the embarrassment of being made fun of for my mistakes and having them pointed out without mercy. I already felt out of place enough, considering my appearance isn’t typically Latina (according to many people I’ve interacted and argued with throughout my life), and I was afraid of being labeled as a poser, someone with no right to claim my heritage. (I wrote a creative nonfiction essay about this experience called What’s the Opposite of a Coconut?, which was published in Killing the Angel Issue 2 in 2013.) In fact, the fear of judgement by others pushed me away from expressing a very real part of myself and owning my identity. It has always been easier to stay quiet than to speak up.
With all this in mind, it’s no wonder that the classroom environment, where everything is either right or wrong, where mistakes lead to a lower grade, where one is constantly evaluated, isn’t my ideal Spanish learning environment.
Being a false beginner in a language puts one at an advantage when they decide to plunge into refining their skills; but meanwhile, the approach needs to be modified and tailored to the students needs, keeping in mind that it can be easy for the learner to lose their bearings and become discouraged. Language classes also tend not to teach grammar and vocabulary in the same order that the false beginner learned what they know; so from the beginning, it’s very easy to alienate the false beginner by immediately pointing out how much they don’t know. Just because someone is familiar with certain concepts of a language doesn’t mean that they have a rock-solid foundation; there are often cracks to fill in, little by little, without pointing out the depth and quantity of those cracks.
This is all true for me, and as a language teacher, it’s even more interesting to pick apart this phenomenon, and examine effective ways to deal with these students with whom I fall into the same category.
One thing I’ve learned during my various language studies is: The better you know yourself, the way your brain works, and the way you learn most effectively, the more success you’ll have in the learning process. And with this in mind, I’m jumping in.
I think there are two groups of people reading this right now: those who read the title and wonder what exactly it is I’m going to nip, and those who are ready to mock me for fucking up the expression.
Come on, be honest: which group are you in?
It’s a mistake easy enough to make; maybe you learned the expression as a kid, just repeated it, but never thought about what that configuration of words actually means. Personally, I imagine getting nipped in the ass by a little dog whenever I hear someone say this. Ouch.
My point is, it’s one of those funny mistakes that even native speakers make. But I don’t want to laugh or point at the “Nip-it-in-the-butt” faction because I have belonged to that type of faction before. The “laughed-at-for-being-wrong” faction.
There will always be things for us to point out about other people that will separate us, and give one group the triumph of being “right.” Smart people and dummies. People who use taboo words and those who don’t. Those who argue for protection of free speech and those who argue for protection of marginalized groups from hate speech. People who say “nip it in the butt” rather than “nip it in the bud.” Whatever. People like being better than other people: it’s satisfying. But it’s always good to remember that we all get our turn on the side where the “right” people point fingers and lord that glory over us. I’m more in the camp of “this is a silly game anyway.” Why get caught up in the game when, in the end, we’re all just grasping at straws, and the game is just another way to pass time?
So, I’m learning to recognize my mistakes, my being misinformed on something, my many knowledge gaps, and remember that they don’t define me. It’s just a matter of acknowledging them, giggling at them, and then reminding oneself to pick up a book once in a while.
I’ve been working in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) here in France for just over a year now. Of course, every student is a unique person with specific needs to address, but it’s difficult not to recognize certain recurring learner trends. I made some observations about my adult Korean students in a previous post, and it’s high time for a post about my adult French students.
One thing that I’ve noticed about my students is that they can find the process to be extremely demoralizing and stressful. Making mistakes and/or looking “ridiculous” in front of other people seems to be a fate worse than death.
It feels like it goes beyond the very normal element of shyness and hesitance to make mistakes. In the past year of teaching English, I’ve never heard so many apologies for making errors. I’ve never heard so many curse words muttered out of frustration, either. When it comes to learning English, there doesn’t seem to be much room for patience and forgiving oneself for not getting it down perfectly.
Is it related to saving face? Or unwillingness to “dumb-down” and flatten what would be articulately expressed in their native language, to roughly translate their ideas into a foreign language?
The number of students, especially higher-level ones, that revert to using French is surprising. Oftentimes, rather than using English to convey their idea with the words they can, they’ll ask me for a translation from French. Fortunately for them, my French isn’t perfect, and there are plenty of words that I don’t know yet. Those tend to be precisely the kinds of words they’re searching for.
I also find it funny when they are dismayed at the irregularity of English rules; it is a decidedly hard language to master. But now I’ve spent a long time intensively studying French, memorizing the maddening irregular verbs and genders that don’t make logical sense, along with the hugely different ways of interpreting and expressing time. French is a beautiful, intricate language that is also difficult to master. “Hello? French isn’t exactly a cakewalk, people!” It’s not unfathomable to learn a language with very irregular rules. Why the dismay?
I get part of their frustration. The English language education system here wasn’t terribly focused on promoting speaking skills and real comprehension. Now, more and more people are trying to make up for lost time in learning English for their job, to improve future prospects, or to facilitate communication while traveling. And learning English later in life seems to be a common regret.
The recurring word here: criticism.
Sometimes I feel like I need to be part cheerleader for my students, to tell them that making mistakes is normal, that it’s okay not to master a new grammar point just a couple days after learning it.
Of course, as a teacher, it’s my job to understand their needs and respect certain limits; but at a certain moment in time, I like to encourage them to push those limits. Speaking in short phrases, using the same old tired vocabulary/phrases that are sure to be perfect: in the end, they’re crutches that won’t be useful in getting through the plateau. And to illustrate the importance of breaking these habits, I tell them all the time: “You’re not a robot, so don’t speak like one!” In the kindest way possible, of course. I wouldn’t like to be a slave driver of a teacher: from what I can tell, they’ve had enough of that already.
Encouraging them to remember that English can be a pleasure, and that with it they can connect with a wider community of people, seems to give incentive and boost their morale. And that’s what I’m there to do.
French class is over. Goodbye Charlie. So long. That’s all she wrote. After 3 intensive semesters of studying the complexities of the French language, I said my final “adieu” to the university this past Friday. My last exam was with the same teacher I started my studies with, so it was a fitting end.
Now all that’s left is to wait for my grades, and more importantly, my new visa to come through.
After being out of school for so long, it was bizarre to go back to class, surrounded by people who were mostly my baby sister’s age. Talking with my classmates brought me back to memories from Japan, where I studied abroad 8 years ago. The hope, the uncertainty, the naive perfectionism, the desire to find their path and figure things out, the desire to grow up; I saw a lot of my younger self in my classmates. While it brought back memories of a much more sheltered, carefree (or careless?), naive Lari, my experience also smacked me with a bit of perspective to take away.
It was weird to turn in homework, get corrected and lectured during the day in class, then switch roles and teach and correct my own students at night at work.
It was invigorating to be motivated not by grades, but by pure will and ambition to become self-sufficient, to be able to advocate for myself in a foreign language and country.
It was uplifting to observe my progress in French, and reconnect with my love of studying foreign languages.
It was instrumental in showing me my limits, and I learned the real meaning of being kind and understanding with oneself.
It showed me a glimpse of my potential.
It helped me rediscover my cojones.
It inspired an intellectual curiosity that I hadn’t felt in a long time.
It also opened my eyes to the fact that there’s no way for me to learn all that I would like to learn in this lifetime.
Now, on to the next. Training wheels are off, let’s see what I get myself up to.