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In a way, this post isn’t very specific to language learning, because fear is something that we encounter in other areas of our lives as well. But because I spend a lot of my time learning languages, there is a lot of fear that I experience as a result of it.
Fear itself generates all sorts of discomfort in our minds, and manifests itself in our bodies in different ways: The accelerated beating of our hearts, the queasiness in our bellies, the sweat that is on our foreheads, and perhaps even that feeling of coldness, that chill that we feel all the way down to our bones.
Our reactions to something that we fear might not include all the symptoms above. It could be much milder, but it could be fear nonetheless.
I don’t think that any of us like fear. Or the idea that we might be afraid of something. I certainly don’t.
We like to think that we have grown up, and that fear is something that we should have outgrown.
But the reality is starkly different. Fear remains, even as we age. It is present in the shadows, casting doubt in our minds, on our actions.
Fear is what whispers to us that we won’t succeed. We hadn’t before, so this time will be no different. Why bother trying?
Fear is what tells us to stick with what we know. Stepping out of our comfort zone is scary, and brings much discomfort.
We are creatures of habit, and it becomes easy to avoid the things that are difficult, if we do not consciously seek to do something different.
That is how fear gains a hold on us.
The first step towards conquering fear is recognising it for what it is.
For me, I know my fear of speaking has always had a hold on me. I don’t like to get up in front of a group of people and speak my mind.
But there is also another fear that I hadn’t realised was lurking until recently: I was afraid of speaking my mind.
I don’t like to commit to any decision, to voice my likes and dislikes, for fear that I would offend others. I was afraid that others would judge, and I would be found wanting.
I think I didn’t even fully realise this fear, until I sat down and typed this all out.
Even now, I am having doubts about running this blog. Maybe I should just shut it down and forget it ever happened.
But it makes sense now, why I hate having to introduce myself whenever I find a new teacher or join a new language class. I don’t like to talk about my hobbies, about what I really like.
I don’t even know why I cannot honestly tell others the kind of books that I like to read. That the genres for fiction that I like to read are Fantasy, Romance, and Young Adult. My non-fiction books of choice are usually about language and linguistics, self-improvement, psychology, culture (usually about ancient civilisations). But I would read anything that catches my eye. I can spend hours in a library browsing the books that are available.
(Yes, I encountered resistance when I typed out the above, and had to fight the urge to delete everything. I think I managed to convince myself that since I’m typing this as a draft on a document, I can always delete it. But when the time comes, I won’t.)
I don’t know why I found it shameful to like learning languages. Perhaps it has to do with how much better I think I should be doing, than the reality. I keep thinking that because I cannot speak, it means that I don’t know the language, which isn’t true at all. (I wouldn’t be surprised to find that this is simply Imposter Syndrome at work.)
So for the longest time, I simply avoided situations where I did have to use my target language in speech.
Did I feel better in the meantime? Yes.
Did I feel better in the long run? No.
It didn’t address the root of my fear. And when situations come where people ask me, “How many languages do you speak?”, I start to prevaricate and explain that I don’t really speak 5 languages. (I don’t dare to count languages that I’ve not had formal lessons in, as though formal lessons are an appropriate standard to judge by – but that is a topic for another post.)
I think the scariest thing is that fear breeds inaction. It doesn’t mean that we do nothing, but rather we do nothing that can bring about the change we need in our lives.
The kind of change that will make us better people, that will propel us to the next level.
It starts with a lie that we tell ourselves. The lie that it isn’t a fear, just something that we prefer to do later. As though we made that choice, when it was one guided strongly by fear.
But if we only did that which we are comfortable, and it has only brought us to this point in our lives, isn’t it insanity to think that continuing along the same path would bring us to greater heights?
Even knowing this isn’t enough to get out of this situation. I might acknowledge it in my mind, but if at my core I still am gripped by fear, I might not do anything to change it.
That is why I now intentionally add something that is personally scary to my weekly list of things to do.
Right now, it’s to clearly state my opinion on certain activities whenever I am asked to. Invariably, this comes up during my Skype lessons, and I would always not give a straight answer.
Well, it’s time to change.
I don’t want to be held back by fear any more.
The second step towards conquering fear is making a decision to fight against it.
What is the scariest part of language learning for you, and how are you working to overcome it?
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