It takes courage to practice a foreign language

This past weekend I attended a very interesting “International Conference on Translation Studies, Cross Cultural Communication and Chinese Pedagogy.”  It was held at Portland State University, who also sponsored the conference, along with Tsinghua University.  I had a great time and learned a lot.  It was also two full days of practicing Chinese with over 100 people (with about 6 of us who were not Chinese).

As to language learning, what impressed me most was the way that I initially held back, nervous about trying out my Chinese. I knew going into the conference that I would be surrounded by speakers of Chinese–a great opportunity to practice.  But when I walked up to the registration desk, although others were speaking Chinese, I basically whimped out and did everything in English.  A few hours later at the opening reception, as I walked into the room, again I held back.  Ask anyone who knows me, being “shy” isn’t exactly the first word that comes to your brain.  But for some reason, my first gut reaction was to avoid the Chinese.  There was a mental “digging in” period, where I had to force myself to start talking.  Why is that?

I’m sure that part of it was my “noble” concern for others, not wanting to impose my beginning Chinese on people who were already talking.  Nice try, but the fear of using a foreign language is real.   After a few minutes of wandering around, I finally did jump in, I started trying out my Chinese, and in the end it was a wonderful two days of lots and lots of practice.

So now that I’m back, I am still amazed at how my initial anxiety held me back.  If nothing else, it has reinforced my need to help my students to feel comfortable in practicing Spanish and Portuguese.  Language experts often mention “anxiety” as a factor that affects foreign language learning.  This weekend I found out that I am no exception.

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4 Responses to “It takes courage to practice a foreign language”

  1. Tamara Says:

    wow, my dad is human? Really? It is funny the things you learn on blogs that you don’t learn while living with someone. I had no clue this happened. What a cool story though, I sure can relate with the anxiety party, maybe I need to follow your example and learn how to jump in after the moment of anxiety and just start talking!

  2. JoAnn Says:

    What a great thing that happend. I am sure that this experience will make you even more compassionate to others as they try out their languatge on you. I to went through this when I started learning the guitar. It isn’t the same as the piano and I am definitely not as good. Going through the learning process again though makes me think twice about what all my piano students are going through. Good for you for getting past the anxiety and letting go.

  3. Tommy Says:

    Dr. Kelm, I’m curious what kind of things you learned in that kind of environment. I try to take advantage of any situation in which I’m surrounding by a foreign language, even for a brief period of time, but depending on my knowledge level, I may end up not knowing what I’m listening for. Was it more like observing speach patterns, or were the Chinese speakers correcting you, or what?

  4. Orlando Says:

    Tamara, yes turns out that I’m human, what a relief!!!

    JoAnn, indeed, I think that every language teacher should go back to learning another language, it certainly helps out when I get back with the students.

    Tommy, interesting question. I think that I basically divide things into three categories.

    First, at a certain level I’m just trying to communicate to fulfill a task. That is to say, if I need an address, can I get it? If I want to exchange business cards, can I do it? If I want to buy fruit at a market, can I get it.

    Second, at another level I’m trying certain phrases out. For example, in Portland I remember at dinner when the soup came that I mentioned how everyone needed to be careful because the soup was hot. Then when the fish came I told everyone to be careful because there are little bones. Those were direct lines from dialogs that I had been practicing. I just wanted to try them out.

    Third, at another level I always have a 3×5 card with me and I’m writing down little things I hear. It might be new vocabulary, little phrases, the way something is said, etc. For example my Chinese Name is Ke, An Liang and in Portland when I introduced myself one person said something to the effect of “Oh, you mean like ‘Chu bao an liang’ type of An Liang?” That led to a whole conversation about what that phrase means and when it is used, etc.

    So, to answer your question, I’d say it is task completion, language play (for lack of a better term), and intense focus on hearing the way native speakers say things.

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