Can I make a mistake?

No. You cannot afford.

Thanks for Ben White/unsplash

Twenty-some years later in a small British town, I regain the happiness of speaking like a kid in front of strangers.Speaking, in this scenerio, is to only speak Esperanto in two-days workshop even it’s my first time to speak it.

For those who don’t know Esperanto, here is three words to start: Zamenhof, hope, 1 million. In 1930s, the young Zamenhof was bothered by none-stop fightings among neighbour with various religious beliefs and cultural indifferences. How could they understand each other, Zamenhof wondered, while they even cannot different each other’s language.Then a relatively easy to learn language is “created”(Zamenhof denied himself as a creator) to bridge different ethics groups , and the meaning of the name is “a language of hope”. Till today, Esperanto has about one million users globally.

The first time I heard the Esperanto word was in high school.

We students complained about the intensity of studies, the continuity of hard work, and more often the national entrance exam. That day in English class, someone started the topic again. Why the hell we should put over 2 to 3 hours on learning English, and the score highly effect your chance to enter university(English,Chinese and Math each is 150 scores, other subjects in total is 300 in my Province,Sichuan)? It is unfair for Chinese people to spend so much time on learning English, one student said. Why don’t they learn Chinese?Some students got excited and applauded for this idea.And the arguing side yelled, it is also unfair for foreigner to speak our language.It is true, I thought on my own.The teacher let the debate on for several minutes, and then he talked something about Esperanto. He said, there is a language created to solve this problem. “But this idea doesn’t work very well, it is a language without culture.” I agreed with him, at that point.

In the classroom, instructor and students start interacting.Are they talking in Esperanto? Why it is so different from the 3zzz radio on my iPhone? Until I came to the workshop in Esperanto Domo, I’ve learned more than half years for accumulative 100 hours with GLM method. Like other language learner learning in their own country, the chance to practice is rare. So, this pre-class chatting is a grand storm whereas three guys making undistinguished sound.I am nodding my head mechanically but barely catching up any words.

Esperanto House in UK

Tim, the instructor, gave a quite long opening and then nod to all of us.He is asking for self-introduction.

The class I sighed up is classified as Lernu Plu, a free intermediate level workshop.The level of language course is arranged ahead of class, and the arrangements include the syllabus, targeted exams and teachers. However the unpredictable elements, such as the student level, class environment and unexpected events , are hard to be estimated. Overall speaking, nobody will know the class level until the class started.The two fellow classmates speak such fluent Esperanto that is pressing my chest and dragging my nerves. They are too good to be my classmate.

I am not felling good. Well, I have learnt three foreign languages in different forms and countries, and all instructor would start from this routine: who are you. I should spend time to write down a few sentences on this must-asked-question, giving myself a “komencanto” (the word “beginner” in Esperanto) start”.I am feeling worse after taking a glimpse of the class schedule.That high intensity of classes and very fews of participates will indeed grant me tons and tons of chance to speak, and all of them know the truth after I finish my first sentence, maybe after the first word.Why would I bother to figure a 3 minutes strategy?

My throat is dry, like the cracked land without watering. The teacher, Tim Morley, is probably one of the best Esperanto speaker on planet.He is singing this very language. The other guy whose origin is Russia, that leaves shadow on his accent.It does’t matter what he speaks because the words doesn’t make sense to me anyhow. But that black shadow, is swallowing me. When the London guy start his introduction , I cannot hear anything but only see his gestures.His hands is waving in the ocean of his wording.Body language is a very strong layer of communications.Is this his strategy to ease the nerves? Anyway, it doesn’t matter too.

I am counting my time.

In this very room distant and disconnected from my language learning memories, three listeners is turning their face to me. Tim, he is repeating the questions with slower speed. Is he filtering wording for my level? The Russian guy who sits on the opposite side of the desk, is putting his intention on our side with staring eyes. The whole room is in a great silence.At my right hand, the London esperantist is looking at the papers on table. We sit too close to hear each other’s breathing.The silence has a mass, getting dense.

I am saying my name(Mi nomiĝas Velynne).

Just say it, I speak to myself. You see those listeners are patient, trustworthy, and respectful.This is the time for you. It is organized by the prestigious organization, the British Esperanto Association. What a good deal, this class is free!

I am saying about China.(Mi venas de Ĉinio.) Also about the travel.(Kai nun mi vojaĝas en Anglujo.)

Speak your mind. You see.This is easy. Do you still remember what happened 20 years ago in English class? You needed to raise your hand as quick as possible to get the chance. In a size of over 40 students, one need to compete very hard.By the way, why did you try so hard to get the chance? Of course, you know nothing about fears, mistakes, or language things. Thus, you were not expecting any outcomes, either good or bad. You raised your hand, simply because you wanted to respond. When teacher proposes a question, it is like she throw a stone into the lake. It must be corresponding sounds and waves, and you are the natural response around the stone.

Oh, I need to answer Tim’s question on how many languages I speak.

I speak Chinese, English, French.(Mi parolas la ĉinan, la anglan kaj la francan)

All class has the rhythm. The teacher cannot pick you up every time.She would be thankful that you are energetic in her class, but she needs to take care of other students too. It is not like the mini-class in Esperanto Domo. Or some other VIP one-on-one classes. The teachers try to be fair, and they cannot show too much favor on you. And it’s not necessary to answer every questions, especially for those you are one hundred percent confident about. So he long-term strategy is: waiting for the hard ones. When you see no one respond, you count another three seconds.One.Everyone is rolling eyes balls, thinking very hard. Two.The teacher is looking around, smiling. Three.Students are still thinking very hard or pretending thinking hard. Then, you raise your hand and your name will surely be called. You learn the rule: when the waves shows up, it doesn’t show off.

One thing I really want to share is about writing, but I forget the word. I repeat the word in English with a sounding question mark. And Tim give me the word in Esperanto without thinking.

Write? (?)
Jes, verkas. (Yes, write.)
Mi ŝatas verkas.(I like writing.)

Bone(Great), Tim comments on my introduction.With my breath and nerves flattened, my thinking gets clear.

Obviously this is not the best or worst introduction I make, but this time there’s something special.I did not have a sudden relaxation, like something finally accomplished. Neither did I fell worried about the unspoken critics from my fellows. My emotions grow a little bit more.Drawing back all my other sensations in the classroom, I look at myself in a far away distance.The specialty, made from goodness and difference, is now distilled into one word: happiness.

In 2012, I started my bachelor study in Ames, USA. Almost every Americans I knew during 3 years(I transferred) asked me, how come I speak such good English. They would assume I came from Hong Kong, or I had a special foreign teacher.I had to tell the whole story about all Chinese student hunted by the nightmare of English and I was no extraordinary considering the time invested. One Chinese-American insisted I hide some secrets since with only staying one month in USA my accent is distinguished American accent (here is the accent story:Audio materials in Chinese schools are recorded in American English, at least for national textbooks and exams standard).

The secret.

Or my secret? I am not sure which one he points to or which one matters ore.We already heard many solutions about language learning, for example set up a goal, choose the appropriate methods, study aboard, go to language schools, and more often on making mistakes.Learning languages (or learning anything) is not the same path for everyone, some of the which are distinguishably differentiated. One thousand language learners, and one thousand secrets.

Honestly, I can’t tell my secret to you. I did speak good English but I did not know how. This make sense. Because achieving something and knowing how to achieve is two things. Am I talented on Languages, sensitive on sounds, good at memories? I did not know, so I tried.Then I took Spanish for one semester in University, I went to French language school in Paris, and I taught myself other languages too.I did so many things on language learning and they leaded me no where.I have no major achievement on all above languages, and I am getting more confused. I cannot tell my secret, because I don’t know what it is.

In the two-days workshop, I regained something on language learning.I feel happy to speak what I know, again. With my limited vocabulary on this new language, all I did is to make a story out of it. Tim gave lots of opportunities for us to speak , thus I spoke a lot. Almost in every speech I made, I made mistakes like forgetting words, misusing ,inserting English words and others. But no matter what, I went on.I was not blaming myself to knowing less.What I know is enough to make mistakes. I was looking for what I could say with no frustration and no shame.

I used to think my classmates who rarely raised their hand was due to their fears to speak their mind or worries to be approved wrong. But if you do this calculation, you will see other part of story.More interactions involved in English comparing to other subjects, assuming about 5 to 10 questions in each class.In the size of 40 students, it looks like each one has a big chance to speak. But if considering class frequency in the primary school is once a week, totally there are 200 chances to speak in one semester(about 20 weeks). Plus, there are about 5 students that are very active and competitive, meaning they never put their hands down and meaning they get to speak every class.

So, what happens if a student who never spoke before got picked one day?

It is a great cost to answer a question. Because not only you have to fight for the chance, but also you need to be right. I’ve gave the statistics about the competitiveness above and there is no need to explain why kids hope their answers are right. I never bothered by this when I was young, maybe because I got the right ones normally, or maybe because I did care about others opinion that much. But when I grew older, I got frustrated by being wrong very often and very easy.So as long there is a chance to be mutes, that student won’t choose to be the stupids.

Labeling a crocodile handbag in 5 digits price won’t brand it as luxury, not enough.The slim figure on the ads, the exotic decoration in the shop, and probably the attention from other women, those things make one firmly believe: you don’t deserve it now. Learners are very cleaver and too cleaver so the realize the bigger chance is they will screw up. So in terms of giving the right and perfect answer and applauded by teachers and students? They don’t think they deserve.It is a luxury, because you don’t think you deserve it.

Yes, making mistakes is critical on language learning. But do remember, making mistakes is a truly luxury thing.


Thanks for reading my stories on language learning.

Ciao.