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The "Ugly Duckling" Stage of Language Learning

Ten years off and on…that’s how long I’ve spent studying Japanese. It’s a language that I never sought to study. Somehow, it found me. I taught in Japan for 2 years, had a Japanese ex-boyfriend, and a number of Japanese friends. So, at least for the few years of my language journey, I had a reason to speak the language. I also had the benefit of being a beginner. So, no one had high expectations of me, and I didn’t have them of myself. I was able to move along learning at my own pace without too much stress.

Then, after five years, I became an intermediate student, and something changed. I hit a wall. Everything became much more difficult. The grammar became extremely confusing, and the words all started to look the same. Due to time and distance, I had lost most of my connection to Japan, so I was on my own to figure things out without context or anyone to consult. Worst of all, despite my challenges, I had somehow raised my expectations of myself to an unreasonably high level. I had studied for years. I figured that I should have spoken the language perfectly by that point. As I trudged through language learning material, mistakes began to pile up like dirty clothes in the corner of a teenager’s room. I became so tired and frustrated that I couldn’t continue. I resigned myself to the fact that I would never really learn the language, and I gave up.

By a twist of fate, I was offered the opportunity to travel to Japan with the Asian Pacific Children’s Convention (APCC) as a chaperone. My job was to escort four 11-year-old students to and from Japan and to keep them safe throughout the duration of their stay. Though I was thrilled to have the chance to return to Japan, I sudden realized that it would mean my speaking Japanese again. I was overcome with anxiety and a bit of despair. What had I gotten myself into? It had been years since I’d spoken Japanese consistently, and my last experience with it had been one of complete failure. Now, I was in a position in which I had to use the language—daily. The welfare of the kids depended on it.

So, I made a decision. I got out my tattered Japanese-English paperback dictionary from the '90s and decided that I would speak Japanese, no matter how clumsily it came out. If it sounded fragmented or like that of a 10-year-old, so be it. Communication was much more important than my pride or my fear.

Within a few months, I was in Japan. Though many people at the conference spoke English, I quickly found myself in situations which called for my use of Japanese. It was awkward. It was uncomfortable. Somehow, though, I managed to push through. By the end of the home stay portion of the conference, I was speaking nothing but Japanese. Only after I returned to the US did I realize that I had done something incredible. After years of failure, I had somehow communicated in Japanese consistently and successfully. I was overwhelmed with relief and a sense of amazement.

I share this experience because it never hurts to remember what it’s like to be a language learner. You worry about how others perceive you. You fear looking stupid or saying the wrong thing. You feel somewhat stifled, frustrated, and some days, just plain angry. Speaking another language requires a daily decision to keep moving forward through the messiness. It requires a reason to overcome the sometimes paralyzing fear of failure. For me, it was the comfort and peace of mind of the kids I had brought from the US. Their needs were much more important than my ego.

All of our students must have a reason to continue their language journey, especially when it gets hard or messy. As educators, it’s our job to help students find that reason and to bring them back to it when mistakes, difficulty, and embarrassment begin to overwhelm them. We need to encourage our students to keep moving through the awkwardness. I also think it helps to share our own experiences with language learning—our own fears and failures—so the students know that they are not alone. We all have all been the ugly duckling clumsily plodding along. However, as everyone knows, that stumbling ugly duckling eventually becomes the most beautiful swan in the pond.

What have your experiences been with language learning? How have you overcome your challenges? Please feel free to share.

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