Letter to my Novice Language Learners

I understand, and I feel for you. Don’t give up.

Dear novice language learner,

Wow. Today I remembered what it’s like to walk a mile in your shoes. I’m writing from Otavalo, Ecuador, in South Amertica, where I started Kichwa language lessons this week. Kichwa is a language spoken by indigenous (native) people here in the Andes mountains of Ecuador. In a couple of weeks, I’ll start all over again in the country next door, Peru, studying a similar, yet completely different language, spoken by the indigenous people there, called Quechua.

Almost immediately, during our first lesson, I was reminded of just how challenging it is to learn another language. Our first lesson was packed full of sounds I had no experience forming and expressions I just knew I would never be able to tell apart (or so I told myself). After an hour of practice, I had a cloudy sense of a couple of the phrases we used, but also knew that I wouldn’t be able to put them together if the teacher called on me, in front of my friends, to try to model a first-time greeting conversation, for example.

All of this made me realize a couple of (very important) things for my own teaching; things that I need to do or that you need from me as your teacher. Things I want you to hold me accountable for. If and when I forget them, please remind me!

Some big realizations I had today, when I put myself in your place and remembered what it was like to be a brand-new language learner, included:

  • I need to slow waaaaay down and speak waaaay more clearly.
  • I need to repeat words and phrases much more frequently. I need to repeat myself so many times that I feel it is way too much repetition, and then I need to repeat myself some more, because you need that input.
  • I need to stop, often, to see if you have any questions.
  • I need to write words on the board so you can see them. (especially complex words, meaning anything longer than 1–2 syllable(s).
  • Bonus points if I can provide a visual that gives a clear and helpful hint to the meaning.
  • I need to give you a lot of safe chances to practice and repeat the new words and phrases, one word/phrase/expression at a time, before slowwwwwly building up to more complex structures, like practicing a question with an answer, or, eventually stringing together a couple of questions and answers to form a short dialogue.
  • I need to give you opportunities to practice saying new words/phrases/expressions on your own, with a partner, and in front of an audience.
  • Sometimes, I need to let you volunteer because you don’t feel ready to put yourself out there yet, while other times I need to call on you, on the spot, to show you that you can do more than you think you can, and it’s 1) okay to use your notes and 2) okay to get it wrong. The more you practice, the better you’ll get. And while it may not be comfortable, the social pressure of performing in front of your friends will help you try harder.

I want you to know that I understand how you feel. I understand the sensation that the teacher is literally not speaking a language at all but just making up sounds to mess with you.

Don’t give up; keep going; you can do this.

I understand what it feels like to have no idea what the teacher just said, let alone how to write it down or what it means. I understand the frustration of wanting to get it right and be correct right away, or maybe not try at all for fear of messing up and making a fool of yourself in front of your friends, and I feel for you.

Don’t give up; keep going; you can do this.

Try to remember that when you first start to learn a new language, nothing sounds familiar or distinct. It’s difficult to tell where one word ends and another word begins. Sounds mix together and you worry about things like your spelling, word order, and getting it right. This is all completely normal, and you are not alone if you feel anxious or nervous.

The secret to know is that you’re actually doing it right if you feel uncomfortable! Growth happens at the intersection of discomfort and novelty (trying new things). So, studying another language is a formula for growth!

Doing something completely new (learning new words, phrases, ways of communicating, culture) + feeling uncertain and outside of your comfort zone. = Growth!

Congratulations, you’re doing it right!!

I speak from experience when I say that if you don’t give up, and you keep pushing forward (even when it’s uncomfortable, even if it’s just a little bit each day), you will grow and get better.

In the meantime, it’s totally okay to feel frustrated. It’s normal to feel like you’ll never get it, or to feel like you’re the slowest one in the class with the worst pronunciation (note: you’re probably not, stop being so tough on yourself!) And, it’s definitely okay to have no idea how to spell words — just make it up for now! As long as you know what you’re writing down and what it means and you can say it out loud, that’s great! Don’t get hung up on wanting to be perfect. I know, easier said than done, but let me remind you: you’re new to this. No matter how hard you try, you won’t be perfect. So, let it go:

I have been studying and speaking Spanish for at least 18 years. I am still not perfect at it, and I never will be. But you know what? That doesn’t hold me back! I may never have perfect pronunciation or know every word I want to use, but, I can still travel to any Spanish speaking country in the world, have incredible adventures, and form meaningful connections and relationships with members of that culture. That’s my goal. Try not to lose sight of whatever you see as your goal for learning the language.

The photos below are just a tiny peek at some of the places I visited and people I met and connected with over the course of the past year. My Spanish study enabled me to communicate on a personal level with people living in Ecuador, Spain, Peru, and Costa Rica, without difficulty, and the connections I made helped me to reflect on my own culture in a meaningful way too. This, for me, is the ultimate goal of studying another language: to broaden my worldview and expand my mind and heart to think and feel in new ways that otherwise might not be possible:

Chatting with some indigenous women during the ritual baths of the summer solstice (Festival de San Juan / Inti Raymi Festival) near Cotacachi, Ecuador.
Connecting with and learning from local indigenous community members who are working to preserve kichwa heritage, language and customs and making new friends!
Once in a lifetime opportunity to travel to Ecuador and Peru with a group of passionate K-12 Teachers to learn about language and culture in the Andes.
Reconnecting with a former student in Valencia, Spain, during Las Fallas!
Vsiting Schools and eating great food while taking in the sights in Madrid, Spain.
Visit to Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, Peru, February 2017
Costa Rica: School visits (top and bottom center), Homestay with a local family (bottom left) and connecting with a community organizer training to be a teacher (bottom right).

The stress you may be feeling is probably going to get worse before it gets better. Learning a language is one of the most complex tasks you can take on. It’s challenging, yet rewarding. If you stick with it, even if you just do a little bit each day, you’ll eventually notice your entire worldview begin to open up to new and flexible ways of thinking, feeling, connecting with others, and living.

It’s worth the discomfort, I promise. Sometimes you’ll feel like you’re going one step forward followed by two steps back. Please know that 1) I understand because 2) I’ve been there and 3) you can come to me when you feel overwhelmed and frustrated, or even scared and wondering if you may be unable keep going. I am always here to be your biggest cheerleader, to remind you why you started, and to encourage you to not give up, keep going, and reassure you that you can do this. You’ll be so happy you did.

Con muchísimo cariño,

Señora Searls

If you liked this article, click the 💚 below so other people will see it here on Medium.

Also, note that you can see pictures of my travel here:

Fulbright Hays Teaching the Andes PhotoStream

@beckyjoy personal instagram

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