Many of my Italian friends are embarrassed with their English skills.
When we meet they first mumble a few greetings in English with a blush on their face, sometimes laugh in embarrassment or shrug their shoulders but whatever they do it all ends quite quickly as they very soon turn back to speaking Italian. “I’ve studies English at school for over a decade and I still can’t speak it” they say (in Italian, of course). “We Italians have a big problem” … Honestly, I don’t think it’s a problem unique to Italians… try finding the ordinary English speaker happy to exercise his/her ability in speaking a foreign language they were taught at school. There is that communication hurdle many cannot pass.
When it comes to learning a new language both it seems that we often forget that the language itself is only one part (though essential) of the bigger ability to communicate.
On my first trip to China (that was nearly 20 years ago) I couldn’t understand a word, couldn’t speak a word nor read and not even pronounce words I saw on signs and menus. When I went to get food in street stalls I used to point at the things I wanted. I soon discovered that I did not like (to say the least) duck eggs and preferred my ‘normal’ chicken eggs. I had to put this message across each time there was a danger I’d be served duck eggs. As embarrassing as it was, I mimicked duck and chicken sounds and used gestures to explain which one I liked and which one I didn’t. People were in stitches but I remember there was also this subtle sense of admiration to the fact that I tried my best and could communicate without being embarrassed. A woman soon gave me a notebook and wrote, in Chinese characters, what was an egg of a duck and what was that a of a chicken. I drew a picture next to it and wrote, in English letters, the pronunciation. The following three months, backpacking across China, were a real experience in refining the very basic communication abilities, like acting and drawing. By the end of it I had a notebook full of scribbles and I felt like I finished an intensive course in acting. Above all, I think it was the ‘tipping point’ experience that helped me reset my attitude towards learning a language and broke my own ‘shyness’ hurdle. I was finally ready to learn.
I had a real sense of satisfaction though I couldn’t really speak Chinese… I thought to myself: ‘ I managed quite well and people smiled and helped me. This is far more satisfying than making a coherent, grammatically correct, sentence’. In my next visits to China I learnt more and improved significantly. But there was nothing like that first Chinese experience when all was just basic sign language.
The point of this story is that in order to really start learning a new language I think it’s vital to reset one’s attitude and accept that we’ll be relying on some very basic communication skills . There is nothing to be shy about or feel embarrassed with, you are like a child born into the language spoken in your surroundings. Enjoy the ride!
Frequency of communication is another important factor, the more you engage with the language (even for short periods of time) the easier it gets to embed new acquired words and skills. This is why in The Old Stable we host weekly English speaking sessions and we welcome anyone that is interested, regardless of their current ability in speaking English.
My take home message would be that mastering a language involves going back to the very basics: using more ‘basic’ forms of communications. So why embarrassed about it?