Get back on the horse – even experienced language learners mess up sometimes

I used to ride horses when I was younger. I loved it. But I always remember the advice – if you fall off, don’t leave it for ages till you get on the horse again. Obviously don’t hop back on if you’re injured, but it’s about your emotional state and your thoughts about riding. The longer you leave it, the more likely you are to put off getting back on the horse till some other time. It’s better if you can get it behind you and not let it destroy your love of riding.

One of the things I tell my students again and again is that speaking another language is hard, but the more you do it, the easier it gets. I do genuinely believe that, because it’s my own experience too. I’ve gone from someone who was terrified of the telephone if I thought it was going to make me have a conversation in another language, to someone who happily goes into meetings, some of which may be in German, and if it’s a new customer, I probably won’t know in advance which language I’ll have to use. I present lessons with a high German content sometimes because I work with beginners in German. One-to-one I’m fine.

So this morning I turned up to a virtual meeting of business owners and within 5 minutes I’d run away. This is embarrassing. I don’t run away. Well, it seems I do if it’s a way of saving face and not looking stupid.

The task was simple enough. Name – yes, I know my name. What you do – yes, I can tell people that. Three hashtags about your business. What? Hashtags? Three of them? Help!

And then began the cycle of overthinking. I don’t use hashtags as much as I should. Ok, on Facebook nobody does. On Twitter I might, and LinkedIn too, but it depends on the article that I want to post, not on my business in general. That’s more of an Instagram thing isn’t it, to use the same ones each time? I’m not on Instagram. I don’t like Instagram. Ok focus. What would I do on Twitter – I’d customise it, depending on the topic. And I need three of them. German or English? Probably English would be ok but I need to be creative. Help. I don’t want to stand there with nothing to say when it’s my turn. And I don’t know when it will be my turn. Oh screw it I’ll just leave the meeting. So I did! And was disappointed in myself for it.

It took me back 15 years to the girl who didn’t want to ask where the cutlery was because that would have involved speaking to someone, and going without food seemed like a better option. I thought I’d seen the last of that girl!

The one who had to try and explain to a guy whom she’d been working with remotely for ages that no, in real life, she wasn’t that quiet, but somehow in groups of German speakers she just wanted to disappear and hide somewhere. To shut down rather than to speak the other language.

Fast forward a few years and you’d see the same girl doing much of the talking at the German evenings, laughing so much that her sides ached on German nights out with friends, galloping through the Berlin countryside with not a care in the world, and giving complicated Grammar explanations – all in German. I thought we were done with the shyness. English Kirsty isn’t shy. I thought German Kirsty had learned not to be as well.

I’m not proud of what happened today, but I want to talk about it. Everyone can find themselves in a new situation where we lose some of the confidence that we’ve painstakingly built up. Sometimes it’s even harder if you don’t see it coming.

As a language learner, it’s harder if those things don’t happen to you in real life. When I go to some of the English networking meetings, we all have to introduce ourselves and answer a question. I know some people dread that – but I don’t mind it. The “go and find someone to talk to” afterwards causes me more stress than the public speaking does.

If it had been an English meeting, I probably wouldn’t have bolted for the virtual door, but the combination of having to work in another language and not being able to think of a good answer quickly enough made me see it as the best way out.

As I write this, the meeting is still going on, but I’m not going to go back in now. It’s not how I wanted my morning to go, but it’s not the end of the world either. If they have another one, I will sign up and try again. That’s my figuratively climbing back on the horse.

Usually I wouldn’t want to share something like this, but I am a learner as well as a teacher. I’m not saying it never gets any easier, most of the time it does, but sometimes things don’t go our way and that’s ok.

Don’t let it ruin your day if you have a call that doesn’t go so well, or if someone asks you a question and you think of the answer half an hour after you need it. Do what you can to fix it, if it even needs fixing, and move on.

Well, at least I got inspiration for a blog post out of it, and now I’m going to go away and think about my hashtags!

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Kirsty working with students

Author: Kirsty Wolf

I am an English teacher and a language enthusiast who also speaks German and Romanian. I help motivated professionals to improve their English so that they can communicate confidently and authentically.

2 thoughts on “Get back on the horse – even experienced language learners mess up sometimes”

  1. I live in France and can switch between English and French with ease. I also speak very good German but get thrown when I answer the phone and have to speak German when I’m not expecting it. Consequently, I find it takes me a while to really get into the conversation.

    1. Yes, it’s often the element of surprise that can take us off guard and make us question ourselves in situations where we otherwise wouldn’t.

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