The joys of making a fool of yourself – and 3 vital ways it improves your language learning


Sorry, folks – I haven’t felt much like writing since we lost Caleb, so I never got around to that post I really wanted to do about what was a quite remarkable Bootcamp.  Maybe it’ll come back to me.  Truth be told, I haven’t felt much like doing anything – my mojo took itself off for a very long holiday, and life in general has seemed like a rather more challenging jigsaw than usual.  But that’s enough maudlin self-pity, because there are plenty of interesting things for me to throw myself into during the next couple of months, so I’m sure the spring will be back in my step before long…:-)

It’s unrelated, I promise, that I’m thinking of a switch in direction for this blog.  I’m still keen for SSi to be as open as possible about everything we’re trying to do, but it’s inevitable that for long periods, all I really have to report will be along the lines of ‘hey, we’re still working on stuff!‘.  So after a very quick summary of where we are right now, I want to jump straight in to the new stuff, which is going to be all about solving problems that learners face.

Where we are right now

On the launch-pad!  Ifan has finished 95%+ of what’s needed for the new round of promoting our Spanish course, and the course itself is coming together with an entirely new level of professional quality thanks to Jeff’s enormously hard work and our wonderful volunteers on the importing team (in particular, Huw, Patricia, and Brigitte have done huge amounts in the last couple of months) – we should be ready to publish the first ten lessons in the very near future, and hope to get the next 15 out fairly soon after that – at which point, it’ll be time to start testing offers on some of the big deals sites.

With the (startlingly complicated!) structural stuff for promotion out of the way, Ifan is going to be throwing himself with a vengeance back into developing the forum, which means that the next few weeks will bring a raft of fixes and improvements, as well as the first steps towards a far more supportive and efficient structure for meet-ups.  It’s going to be fun watching it all come online.  And then, when we’ve got the forum as nice and user-friendly as possible, it’ll be time to get to grips with the algorithm – which is going to be enormously entertaining, and should completely change our timescale for producing new courses, and making them available through the medium of different languages.  Lots to look forward to!

Solving problems

I’ve written quite a bit of stuff over the years addressing some of the many various issues that learners face, but because we’re pretty much always trying to jump the next fence before tidying up the mess we made of the last one, it’s pretty hard to find most of what I’ve put together.

So I thought that I’d try and organise myself a little better, and produce a set of booklets focusing on particular issues – and to kick off the process, I started a thread on the forum asking for input, which has already become absolutely fascinating.  I’m going to carry on suggesting ideas in that thread as much as possible, but I’d like to expand on the key issues here on the blog.  I’m also keen to hear about your challenges, blocks, plateaus and all the other enjoyably hairy language learning problems right here, and I’ll do my best to help you beat them…:-)

The joys of making a fool of yourself – and 3 vital ways it improves your language learning

One of my clearest memories of learning Welsh is a moment of loveliness in the Spar at the bottom of Penglais Hill in Aberystwyth.  I was coming to the end of an intensive four week Wlpan course (click here if you’d like to try one yourself!) and I’d run the gamut of feelings – exhaustion, delight, fear, misery, loathing, and the blissful forgetfulness on sale in the Coopers Arms.  I was waiting patiently in the queue to buy a packet of crisps, and then, when it was my turn to pay, I hurled my handful of change joyfully into the air, and stood there cheerfully while all the little coins chose different directions in which to roll away when they hit the floor.

No, it wasn’t on purpose.  In fact, it was the kind of ‘LOOK AT ME, EVERYONE, AND LAUGH!’ moment of sheer embarrassment that would have reduced a younger me to tears and therapy.  But for the first time ever, it wasn’t a problem.  As the coins clattered and bounced their way under every shelf they could find, there was only one thought in my mind.

‘Nope, not a single incorrect mutation in that particular accident, thank you, ladies and gentlemen.’

I’d become functionally immune to embarrassment.  It was like a kind of Nirvana.  I had been pushed mercilessly out of my comfort zone over and over, in dozens of different situations, for weeks on end, and I just didn’t have any embarrassment left.  It was probably much how the Buddha felt sitting under the Bo Tree, and it marked a huge step forward for my Welsh.

The huge step forward

It’s not just your life that changes when you become at ease with making a fool of yourself.  It’s your capacity to learn languages, and here’s why:

1)  The happier you are to be a fool, the happier you are to make mistakes, the more mistakes you make, the more you use your fledgling language – and the more you use your fledgling language, the faster you figure out how to say things well enough for other people to understand you.

2)  When you don’t mind being a fool, it becomes absurdly easy to say ‘No, sorry, hang on, I didn’t understand a word you said there, but I don’t want you to speak English with me – just go back to the beginning and say it all again but much more slowly and clearly and yes, I promise I will buy you alcohol to make up for the inconvenience.’  Once you’re happy to leap in and control conversations, you’ve got a platform for figuring out what other people are saying, which is probably the most important step of all.

and 3)  A fool can embrace his or her inner child.  Speaking a new language robs you of your adult status, and returns you to a kind of childhood.  For some people, this is so horrifying that they can’t continue the process, and stop learning.  For others, it just hurts.  But for the fools amongst us, it is a joyful opportunity to play – and playing, more than anything else, is what gives you a new language as fast as possible.

If you’re willing to play the fool, you’re already on the fast track.  If you’re not, start throwing yourself into foolish situations as often as you can, until it becomes part of you – because you’re stuck in a Catch-22 situation.  Yes – the only real fool is the language learner who can’t celebrate being foolish…;-)

What are your biggest obstacles to becoming a Welsh speaker, or a Spanish speaker, or an any-other-language speaker?

Fire away.  If they’re familiar to me, I’ll offer you some ways to get over, through, under or around them.  If they’re new to me, we can chat about them, and see if we can figure out some possible solutions.

And if any of you would be interested, and feel dangerously or frustratingly stuck, maybe I could free up some time for a few 10 minute Skype calls to try and work out a way forward for you.  What do you reckon?  Would that be helpful?



2 responses to “The joys of making a fool of yourself – and 3 vital ways it improves your language learning

  1. Having been terrified by the “oral” tests at school I never thought I would arrange my own viva voce. I invited my only Welsh friend to lunch having prepared a long list of phrases in English for her to read to me so that I could answer in Welsh. It was both harder and more satisfying than I expected. Harder because testing the Welsh on a real Welsh speaker was quite nerve wracking and satisfying because she was so impressed! Even though I am going so slowly I still know more Welsh than any other language that I have tried-mostly in formal classes.
    Please, please, please, do a French course in the same wonderful SSiW way. I need to beat this old bogey before I’m too old!
    Thank you so much for all your hard work.

    • That sounds like an excellent and brave first step – well done you! Next time, how about starting with five minutes where you work without a script, and see how far you can get? 🙂

      Thank you very much indeed for your kind words – and I’m very glad to be able to say that French will certainly be one of the next couple of languages that we do 🙂

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