Guest Post: Learning Chinese Taught Me To Be Comfortable Making A Fool Of Myself

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Many Chinese learners feel embarrassed when speaking the language in front of others and are afraid of being judged negatively for making mistakes. In this guest post language teacher and blogger, Lingo Geek, writes about how learning Mandarin helped him overcome his lifelong fear of making a fool of himself in public.

There were countless times, particularly in my teens and early 20s when the fear of being mocked, ridiculed or rejected held me back from giving an answer in the classroom or prevented me from taking part in a particular activity.

During an end of term quiz in school I was the only student in the class who could correctly spell the name of Croatian tennis player Goran Ivanisevic. However, the thought of getting up and writing it in front of the class frightened me so much that I stayed rooted to my chair and said nothing.

Spelling the name wrong was the least of my worries. Tripping over, staggering on nervous legs; anything was possible on the long walk to the board and back. Agonisingly, my team came second by that one lost point.

As an adult, preparing for a guitar assessment, I reached the stage where I could literally play ‘Hall of the Mountain King’ with my eyes closed and whip through my scales and chords with ease. I would even say that my hands danced gracefully over the strings.

In contrast, when it came to performing in front of an examiner – primed with pen in hand ready to annotate my every error – my hands suddenly rebelled against my body and decided to move shakily in whichever way they wanted. Allegro turned to staccato and I had to blindly push on through. Somehow, I still passed!

Language learning was no different. In my early teens, while learning French and Spanish at school, I wouldn’t speak in front of the class.

During holidays (and the odd exchange) to France and Spain, I would go into survival mode. Staying with one French family, I tried to avoid asking for things as much as possible in the hope that when I was offered things such as food or drink, I could give a simple ‘Oui/Non’ answer.

When no offer was forthcoming, I nervously mumbled a “verre d’eau, s’il vous plait” while looking at the floor. Fortunately, what I lacked in nerve I made up for with a sense of curiosity and stubborn perseverance, eventually managing to gain fluency in both languages.

In hindsight, the more I tried to avoid making a fool of myself, the more of a fool I appeared because I had been missing out on precious opportunities to advance my language skills. With this in mind and aged 40, I made the decision to start learning Mandarin.

Shortly after making this decision I met up with an English friend and his Chinese wife for coffee. My intention was to practice some basic phrases I’d learned. But I was concentrating so hard on not sounding silly that I left without paying my bill and my new-found friends had to pay the lot!

At first, I made the rookie error of totally ignoring tones. This was not down to willful ignorance, rather I started learning Mandarin under lockdown conditions so there was nobody to compare notes with or guide me through the process. After researching different methods, I came across the I’m Learning Mandarin blog with a comprehensive explanation of how Mischa worked to improve his tones.

I began drilling tone pairs daily and every Sunday I joined the I’m Learning Mandarin language exchange Zoom call to practice speaking. I would engage in simple conversation and read words and phrases out to the rest of the group so they could correct my mistakes and offer tips on how to make my pronunciation clearer.

This forced me to step right out of my comfort zone and initially I felt foolish and exposed. But it also provided me with an invaluable opportunity. For the first time I was able to receive honest feedback from a group of non-judgmental native speakers and advanced learners who had been through the same process themselves. It turned out I had many blind spots and, despite what my utra-polite teachers and language exchange partners had indicated, I had a lot of work to do.

My fear of being judged has not entirely disappeared as a language learner and my hands still shake as I practice my tone pairs in front of native speakers. but I have learned that, as language learners, we are on a common journey and those giving me feedback are keen for me to improve and develop. Thanks to the encouragement of others I have grown in confidence over time and the natural sense of anxiety I feel is no longer an obstacle to my progress.

Learning Mandarin has taught me that striving to avoid making a fool of myself defeats the object of engaging in the language itself. If you want to make consistent progress you need to be willing to take risks in public and open yourself up to honest feedback from others.

So ‘language fools’ unite and by learning from our follies let us conquer languages together!

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3 Thoughts

  1. This is a lovely post, thank you! I really empathise with this feeling. I have a habit tracker with daily goals like ‘1 hour of listening’ or ‘read a chapter of a graded reader’ etc. To encourage myself to focus on output as well as input, I’ve added a line called “make a mistake” (actually on my tracker I’ve called it something less polite). It’s a small thing, but it helps me to see errors as an achievement, because they are evidence that I have spent time speaking or writing. Keep up the great work 🙂

    1. Anonymous says:

      Thank you for reading and for the wonderful comment!

  2. I just started working for Nokia in Beijing. One day at work I needed to know the genders of some Finnish colleagues for invitation letters. I went to ask my boss. He was surrounded by other colleagues asking questions and was obviously in a bad mood. When he turned to me and shouted “What do you want?!” I had one second to answer and the word “gender” was not in my active memory, guess what I said? I still blush thinking of it but I’m also fond of the mistakes I made. And I continue to make fond memories for later 🙂

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