We are often creatures of habit. At the beginning of learning a new language, we often try lots of different resources. We don’t know which ones we’ll like, so we’re open to giving different things a go. That might be different books, different podcasts, or just different websites for practising our new hobby.
But I think something happens to us when we’ve been learning a language for a while, or even using it at work.
I use German every single day at work. Some of my lessons are even delivered partly in German.
In some ways that’s a big deal. I was the person who sat holding my phone, not daring to start putting in the number because I really, really didn’t want to speak.
I don’t feel like that any more. Yes, writing is still probably my favourite thing to do if given the choice between speaking and writing, but I will do either without losing any sleep over it!
I can still try something new
The thing is, we get so busy, and so comfortable with our chosen ways to work on our language skills, that we sometimes don’t look for new opportunities, or new ways to use the language.
We go along happily at our language level, but don’t really push ourselves to try anything that might feel hard or a bit scary.
I belong to a group for business owners in Germany. It makes sense because I work with a lot of customers in Germany. They were doing an activity that involved being paired up with another person, preferably one with whom you had never spoken before, and having a conversation about your businesses, your thoughts on various business-related topics, marketing strategies, challenges and solutions, what you’re working on at the moment, and maybe ways in which you could help one another.
I don’t usually do that. General conversations, no problem. Teaching complicated grammar concepts in German, no problem. Doing this task in English, no problem. But how eloquent would I be in German if I didn’t really know what was coming?
Although speaking in German doesn’t stress me out any more, as I was getting ready to have the meeting, I was a bit scared. Deep down I knew I could do it, but there was still part of me thinking “can you really come across as well as you would in English?” Or “if you make a mistake, will people think less of you?”
Deep down I knew I could do it. That didn’t guarantee I’d get the result that I wanted – you can’t do that when you’re speaking your native language either – but I knew I could say everything I wanted to. So I made the call!
This week I was in a meeting, held only in German, to discuss a project. Plans, cost, problems, solutions – a normal kind of planning meeting. I don’t usually do things like that in German. If I do, I usually write down all my ideas in a nice email that I’ve checked 20 times! The meeting itself wasn’t daunting and scary, but my expectations of myself were. Could I explain all my thoughts and ideas?
I thought I was done with thoughts like that, but if you put yourself in a new situation, they can come back. That’s because you’re out of the environment that feels comfortable and familiar. So you have a choice – you can run away, or you can push through.
In both cases I pushed through, and was glad that I did.
What does this mean for you?
I think the experience did me good. Both meetings went well. I gave myself a new challenge. Afterwards, it felt good! I achieved what I wanted to, but more than that, I showed myself that I could do these things without them feeling awful or scary. Sometimes the time before is actually worse than the thing we’re thinking about!
Even if you use English regularly, is there something that you can do to challenge yourself? Maybe it’s attending an event. Maybe it’s doing something that you’ve been putting off for a while because you don’t really have to do it, or you can get away with doing it some other way (like the way that I would always write emails instead of picking up the phone). Maybe it’s something that makes you feel nervous, like the time someone asked me to do a podcast interview in German.
If you identify something, it’s a good idea if you tell someone what you’re planning to do. Then you’ve committed to it.
Remember, it’s about the learning experience, not just the end results. Yes, of course we all want to do well, but there are things that you can learn too if things don’t go as planned (such as breaking more complex ideas down if you’re worried about how to explain things, or taking out some of the unnecessary details in a story).
If you do decide to do this, let us know in the comments how you got on!
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