“You are the sky. Everything else is just the weather.” – Pema Chödrön
It’s clear that one of the biggest problems facing language learners nowadays is lack of confidence, mainly due to a fear of making mistakes. Whether this is rooted in past memories from school days, when errors were stigmatised, or current pressure from society to be perfect and successful, many learners continue to do their utmost to avoid situations where they could potentially make mistakes and feel silly or uncomfortable.
With this in mind, we often decide that the best thing to do is to stay within the safe boundaries of our comfort zone. However, deep down, we know that, whether we’re talking about language learning or life in general, leaving our comfort zone is something we have to do if we really want to live life to the full.
I know. Learning a language can be stressful at times. I’ve been there. During my studies, I had to spend 3 months in Portugal. When I arrived, I knew no one and could barely speak the language. It was a pretty daunting experience at first to say the least. I remember calling home after 2 days and trying to put on a brave face whilst fighting back my homesickness and tears. However, despite those first few “grey” days, I knew very well that if I wanted to make the most of my stay, I’d have to pluck up my courage, speak, meet new people and try to settle in as best I could. And that is what I did. At first, to build up confidence, I had a few techniques up my sleeve: I learned phrases “parrot fashion” so that they were at my fingertips when needed. I also had a list of clarifying expressions ready for the many occasions when I didn’t know how to say or explain something. But the biggest transformation took place when I stopped worrying about everybody else, about making mistakes, and just focused on each moment, one step at a time.
This was over 20 years ago and, at the time, I didn’t know that the word for what I was doing was actually called “being mindful”, i.e. “focusing solely on the present moment”. All I knew was that it helped me feel less stressed because I wasn’t thinking about the past (errors I’d made, how silly I’d felt etc.) or focusing on the future (my “what if” scenarios). An additional plus was that it also helped to improve my concentration span and long-term vocabulary retention.
“Worry pretends to be necessary but serves no useful purpose” – Eckhart Tolle
Since then, I’ve had time to study the many beneficial effects of mindfulness on my life and on my language coaching. So, as promised, here are my ten reasons why I encourage you to be “out of your mind” when learning a language:
1. You put your ego aside
You understand that practicing speaking with others will automatically involve making mistakes.
Learners who aren’t making mistakes, aren’t getting out there and practicing, it’s as simple as that. We have a tendency to label things «good» or «bad» and mistakes tend to fall into the second category. Whereas, in actual fact, they help us to overcome bad habits and integrate new ones. We just need to accept that they are simply part of the process.
So don’t wait to be perfect, otherwise you’ll never be ready to speak. If you keep striving for perfection, then you’ll continue to feel frustrated because it is a vague distant finish line that just keeps getting further away.
2. By staying present, you overcome persistent negative thoughts
By focusing on the present, you simply do what you have to do in the moment. You realize that you don’t have to know exactly how to do everything. You just concentrate on where you are now.
Remember that when you feel anxious and stressed, you are focusing on the past or the future instead of the present. When we focus on the future, we tend to torture ourselves with “what ifs”: those films we play in our head about possible future scenarios, usually ones that don’t end well (I’m sure 99% of these potentially catastrophic events have never happened!) Look at what you are saying to yourself and see how this is undermining your confidence before you even get started!
Be present, make space for your new language and welcome it into your life. Give it your fullest attention, the best of yourself. Remember that quality requires your presence so increase being as well as doing and let go of the rest.
3. You are more patient because you stop trying to “get there”
You focus on the 1 thing you can do NOW instead of the 100 things you think you might need to do later. You stop trying to get where you think you should be and just be where you are. Your language journey is composed of the step you are taking now. The destination is secondary because what you find when you get there depends on the quality of each step.
Eckhart Tolle, author of “A New Earth”, reminds us about the essence of success: “you cannot become successful. You can only be successful. Don’t let a mad world tell you that success is anything other than a successful moment.” These moments are now.
4. You are kinder to yourself
You stop comparing yourself with others or blaming yourself for mistakes you’ve made.
We are often too demanding with ourselves based on what we think “is expected” from us.
5. You stay simple and slow down
You focus on staying clear and concise and avoid getting lost in details trying to explain yourself. Few elements are needed to create an effect. Just like in music, too much noise can really dilute impact so don’t overthink things.
We live in a society where time rules our lives, where we regularly rush from one commitment to another. So don’t forget to slow down, breathe and take your time. Don’t worry if you need a few more seconds to find your words. These extra seconds will help you speak more clearly and precisely.
6. You go with the flow
[Flow is] being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.– Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
For me, this is the perfect definition of flow. By going with the flow, you trust your intuition, not just your head.
When you think about it, it’s like children when they’re playing. Children play with anything they can get their hands on, artists play with color and space and linguists with words and gestures. Playing helps us boost our creativity and discover more of who we really are.
Playing and being in the flow obviously involve taking risks and making mistakes but we just need to change our perspective and see them as milestones or learning opportunities in our creative development.
7. You never forget your purpose (your « why »)
You know why you are learning a language, what you want to be able to do and how you want to feel. Continue to focus on that.
8. You remember the love
You immerse yourself in the language and use all your senses. You realize that language is unique, that it’s experience, fulfilment, pure potential. We can’t take a selfie of it. A world of opportunities, a gateway to new friends, a treasure chest of golden moments. Its horizons are limitless.
9. You actively listen
By listening attentively and watching native speakers or your coach, you improve your pronunciation, pace, tone and rhythm as well as integrating new vocabulary in context.
10. You accept and enjoy “not knowing”
You accept and enjoy that feeling of being outside your comfort zone – it makes you feel more alive and alert. Life is suddenly more exciting, more adventurous, more promising.
And, after all, isn’t that what learning a new language is all about?
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