It always happens, but I never know when exactly I will burst into tears over language learning. It happened many times in Mexico when I was living there and learning Spanish. Taiwan is no exception.
There is no way to learn a language without constant and heavy doses of vulnerability. There is no way to learn a language without making mistakes, each and every step of the way. Language learning is not for the faint of heart. And even though I know this, I know intellectually and I know this in my bones as a language learner who has been there done that, I still struggle with the vulnerability and courage required to learn a new language.
Yesterday I had a “breakdown” during my Chinese lesson. Everything was going along just fine, but unexpectedly the flood gates burst and my face was a sopping mess of tears. My breakdowns are usually precipitated by periods of struggle with things like culture, language, and feelings that I’m not doing enough. Eventually my bravado wears and I surrender to the vulnerability.
Fortunately, my Chinese teacher has an enormous capacity for listening and holding space. We spent the rest of our class time together talking and drilling down to the crux of my tears.
Through our conversation a few key points surfaced.
Learning Chinese is super important to me. I want to learn Chinese with all my heart. I am stubborn and steadfast in my goal, and despite my tears and struggles, I want this.
I have been feeding the false belief of “I’ll be happy when…” Living in Taiwan has not been a cake walk. I struggle with some of the cultural differences, my appearance, and my unmet need to belong. I tell myself that everything will be wonderful when I can communicate with ease. I tell myself that when I’m fluent I will find a sense of belonging and acceptance here. The problems with “I’ll be happy when…” thinking are obvious. Each mistake feels extraordinarily weighty. When I feel my progress with Chinese isn’t up to snuff, or when I can’t seem to find the words to contribute to a conversation, a sense of despair washes over me. The subtext reads: C’mon Amy! Your happiness is depending on this!
Reality, of course, is not so grim. I can disentangle my sense of happiness from my Chinese language ability. I can explore my feelings and struggles with Taiwanese culture with compassion for myself. My Chinese teacher gave me the mantra “kind and gentle.” I feel those are wise words to guide me. I can be awfully demanding and hard on myself.
Today is a new day, and I’m feeling kind and gentle with myself. While I know eradicating vulnerability and language learning breakdowns is not possible, I also feel more empowered to explore my vulnerability and struggles with compassion. It really helps to be able to share with someone who has been through it as well. I am so grateful this breakdown happened during class and not at the grocery store or at work. I am sharing it with you, because if you are a language learner, chances are you can relate to my story.
Immersion language learning is a process that turns me inside out. It calls forth my courage to be open and vulnerable. It requires me to confront my cultural perceptions and biases and asks me accept things I cannot change. It is sometimes hard to remain open to the experience as it’s unfolding, because it is often uncomfortable or painful. But I also know that through immersion language learning I reap the growth and joy inherent in such an experience.
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