Making a fool of yourself: how to get started


In the last post, just before Christmas, I said it was time for this blog to focus more on practical suggestions, rather than just telling you what to aim for in general terms.

And back in May last year, I told you to embrace making a fool of yourself, because it would help you learn faster:

But making a fool of yourself, for most of us, runs a bit against the grain.  On a certain level, making a fool of yourself is potentially a loss in status – and since we already feel a keen loss in status when we can’t express ourselves as confidently as usual, it’s very common to try and avoid any further risk.

Common, but not the best thing to do if you want to speak a new language.

So here are some ideas for easing yourself into the water:

  1. Set yourself a target to use your new language in public.  At first, this can be as simple as saying one or two words to someone you already know in a place whether other people could potentially hear you.  Over time, you can build up to longer conversations, and your (conscious or subconscious!) fear of being mocked by pedantic passers-by for grammatical errors will gradually recede.
  2. Set yourself a target to use your new language with people you don’t know.  Again, this could be a simple ‘Hello’ (or ‘Helo’ in Welsh) to one person a week.  Whatever level you start at, the key is to make it one small step more challenging each week – use one extra word, or talk to one extra person, until it’s normal for you to have a brief exchange with a few different people.
  3. Develop the habit of trying out silly accents in your new language.  You’ll probably want to keep this to yourself or to genuinely close friends (we don’t want to risk you getting arrested, after all) – but do it often enough and it’s guaranteed to convince you that none of these words will actually bite, and that you’re allowed to be playful.  Welsh with an Irish accent is hugely entertaining, while Spanish in the voice of Sean Connery might actually be an improvement (at least as far as my own accent goes).
  4. Test people by making deliberate mistakes.  You’ll want to do a little preparation in advance for this, so that you can be confident you made the mistake you wanted to make, rather than just stumbling over some free-range disasters. Once you’re ready, start with someone you know, and see how many mistakes you need to make before they give in and correct you.  Once you’ve had some fun with that, play the same game with some innocent strangers.  You’ll find that, contrary to many people’s expectations, a lot of people will suffer in silence for far too long before they beg you to stop.
  5. Get drunk (and tip your hat to Baudelaire).  Not paralytically incapable-of-speech drunk – being mute isn’t much of a help.  No, you’re aiming for the nice fuzzy glow that anyone not at university should be able to get from two or three glasses of wine.  Oh, and it needs to be in company, and specifically company that speaks (or is learning) your new language.  The more your inhibitions fall away, the more magically fluent you will become – and if you’ve already pushed your limits with the first 4 suggestions, at some point you’ll end up finding the entire process so funny you’ll never feel all that serious again (and you’ll be several giant steps further down the road of relaxed conversational ability).

Needless to say, I’d love to hear your thoughts if you take action on any of these suggestions – or, of course, if you have any suggestions yourself for ways other people can increase their tolerance of mistakes.

Now, go and be foolish…;-)



4 responses to “Making a fool of yourself: how to get started

  1. That last one (get drunk), I do at least once a month after our Rochester meets. Often, me and Kim move on to another pub after the meet, continuing the conversation in Welsh (or a mix of Welsh and English!). We do get a few looks from the bar staff, but more often a rather impressed look! I should imagine there are other learners who get this too (particularly those who meet in pubs!).

  2. It’s definitely a genuinely valuable step in the process of gaining confidence – I’d love to run some trials to see if it could help with the initial acquisition, too…

  3. I’ve tried (and probably will keep on doing so) number one with my wife, who has been putting up with me making a fool of myself for more than 37 years now. Typically, she replies with her own rather mangled version of “dwi ddim yn deal” although she has learned that if she hears “gath” in the sentence that I’ve said something about one of the cats. Hopefully I can expand this to other people, though when I tried telling my parents that I’d be happy to take their dog for a walk, my mother insisted it sounded as though I’d said something in Spanish.

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