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The Loneliness of a Language Learner

Learning a new language is often an incredible experience, but it can also be traumatizing. They say the best way to learn a language is to go and live in the country where it is spoken and as amazing as that sounds – it is a very different experience from those language classes taken back in school. When you are in school, you have the security of being able to ask questions in your own language, or at least walk out of the classroom at the end of the day and leave the foreign language behind. If living in the country of the language, however, there is no escape. You suddenly have to learn in order to live a normal life.

I learned English when I was quite young and to be honest I can’t remember much of what it was like to learn or to not know how to speak and understand English. When I moved abroad at the age of 19 – my English was already close to perfect. I suppose I took it for granted in many ways. I met lots of people and made several friends who struggled with learning English, but to be honest I don’t think I ever thought about how dificult it must have been for them. I did my best to help them out, but sometimes I would get annoyed when they would ask me to make a phone call for them for example. They could make themselves understood, I used to think (because hey, I understood them), so why couldn’t they do it? It didn’t occur to me that not being confident in a language could be extremely stressful. …And a recipe for loneliness.

When I moved to Mexico in 2009 I didn’t speak a word of Spanish. I suppose I hadn’t really thought about what that would be like, as I was used to relying entirely on English. Besides, I expected to pick up the language quite fast, so I never thought it would be a problem. I was good with languages, wasn’t I? It was a shock to me when I realized that it wouldn’t be that easy. All around me; a language was spoken that I could not understand. Most people I met could speak English, sure, but they only did it because of me. I became a burden. Having me around meant that my new friends had to adapt to my lack of understanding, they had to keep the conversations in English, or feel bad about excluding me.  Perhaps it was all in my head, but I felt bad for not being able to keep up with their conversations.

I was also branded as the “quiet girl.” People would ask me why I was so quiet, why I didn’t talk more and why I seemed so shy. What they didn’t understand was that I was dying to talk. I wanted nothing more than to air my opinions, make jokes, come with clever advice and just be one of them. I didn’t want the special treatment they were forced to give me.

After 4 months in Mexico, I was beginning to understand basic things. I could understand what they were talking about, not every word, but at least the context. The problem was that by the time I had figured out what they were saying – they had already moved on to a different subject. After 6 months… well…. I was pretty much stuck in the same place. People started to ask me how come I wasn’t learning, which really took a toll on my confidence. I had thought I was doing good, but apparently – in the eyes of others – I wasn’t. It took me over a year before I started speaking. That was partially my own problem, as I was dead scared of making mistakes. I avoided speaking unless I was 100% sure that I could say whatever I wanted to say correctly.

Those first 6 months in Mexico was the best and worst time of my life. Best; because of all the amazing things I experienced and for all the incredible people that I met. Worst; for the simple reason that it was very dificult for me. I was used to comments such as “Wow, your English is great, I thought it was your native language” to suddenly having people tell me that I wasn’t learning Spanish fast enough. I wasn’t good enough and some thought I wasn’t trying, but I was. More than I let anyone see.

I was very lonely during that time. I had tons of friends who all went out of their way to make me feel welcome and included, but I couldn’t fully be one of them unless I learned their language. That’s just how it was and probably how it is for tons of language learners out there. It is very easy for us to take our own language for granted and we might not see the struggle those intending to learn may be going through. My Spanish is great today and I have no trouble communicating, but trust me when I say that I had to go through a lot to get to where I am now. I don’t live in Mexico anymore, but the experience taught me a lot of things. With my new language skills came a greater understanding for people. I suddenly understand the courage it takes to step onto a bus in London and try and ask for directions in a language you barely master. …Or ordering a coffee. I admire the people who I sometimes see standing there at the counter; trying their best to understand the cashier and to order what they want. It took me more than a year before I had the courage to do anything like that.

What makes me sad is that I often see how many people seem to get annoyed or frustrated with those who don’t fully master a language. Cut them some slack, would you? They are not trying to annoy you by being dificult to understand – they are trying. Learning a new language is hard work and especially if that new language is English. I was struggling when learning Spanish, but at least I had English to turn to when nothing else worked. Imagine what it must be like for those who are trying to learn English in an English speaking country..?

My experience with learning Spanish has made me want to become a language teacher. I suddenly look at language learning differently. I want to help people learn, inspire them, which is something I think I could do now thanks to knowing what it is like to learn a new language. I know what it feels like to doubt yourself and your abilities, how certain things that seem obvious to others can be utterly confusing and how it isn’t as easy to learn a foreign language as some appear to think. I honestly believe that I – as a language teacher – could provide learners with the support they need in order to learn and develop. Learning languages IS dificult, but it is also incredibly enriching. Patience is the key, both when learning yourself and when dealing with those who are learning. Don’t give up. Learning Spanish made me realize that I take English for granted, which is why I now want to become an English teacher. I want to inspire people to want to learn.

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