Learning Languages Can Make You Feel Like an Idiot - But It's Worth It
3 motivators behind why I’m currently learning my fifth language
I’ve been learning foreign languages ever since I was a teenager.
So far I’ve managed to achieve the level of a native speaker in English, a very good conversationalist in French, the basics of Russian and Spanish, and am currently studying German at a university.
And if there’s some ultimate lesson I’ve learned from all of this over the years, it’s this: Learning a foreign language makes you feel like an idiot. A complete, utter, total idiot.
I’m currently on my year abroad in Germany and let me tell you something — not a day passes by when I don’t make a fool of myself. I make mistakes, I stumble on my words because of pronunciation errors, I mix all grammar rules together, make a mess of it and throw it right in the trash bin.
One of my German flatmates doesn’t even bother to make conversation with me because I rarely understand what she’s saying. She probably thinks I sound like an idiot even more than I do.
But here’s the thing: That’s okay. It really is.
It took me a long time to get to this stage. When I moved to the UK from the Czech Republic where I was born, I couldn’t even order a cup of coffee without preparing for five minutes beforehand, trembling and sweating as I stood in the queue.
I had a piece of paper saying I spoke like a native speaker, and yet I felt like every single sentence I said out loud only confirmed to everyone how bad at English I actually was.
Talk about Impostor Syndrome, am I right?
I’ve felt this way with French as well. I used to be the best student in my French class and I was proud of that, which made me put completely unnecessary pressure on myself to always perform 100%. Especially when I went to France. And especially when people complimented on my “amazing French”.
Oh no! They say my French is great! Now I actually need to constantly be proving to them that they were right!
German is actually what has really grounded me and made me see languages for what they are — a really difficult thing to learn, and everyone who puts effort into trying is worth all the praise in the world.
Languages are fun. A challenge. Not a competition or a way of validating your self-esteem. Speaking in a foreign language will inevitably make you sound like an idiot at some point or another because you’re literally like a child trying to communicate something without enough vocabulary and grammar knowledge to actually express yourself like the intelligent adult that you are.
It’s frustrating. Even humiliating at times. But that’s also okay. And here’s why.
It helps me stop prioritising other people’s opinions of me.
I’m a people-pleaser. I strongly dislike this in myself and I’m currently trying to unlearn it.
There are billions of people on this planet so chances are that not everybody will like you. You might just as well accept it now and start saying no more.
I’ve always cared a lot about what people thought of me. I wanted to show them how intelligent I was, how worthy of praise and respect. What an admirable special snowflake she is, they’d say.
Except that nobody really cares about you, as long as they’re not in your close social circle. People have their own lives. They create an opinion of you, sure, but they ultimately end up not caring. Everyone is too self-centred for that.
Speaking foreign languages has helped me plenty in this regard. I can’t even tell you how many people have thought I was completely daft, deaf or had a pile of dung in my brain. When someone explains something to you four times, after which you still stare in confusion and repeat that helpless “What?”, they eventually give up.
But that’s fine because as luck would have it, you realise what they’ve been saying the whole time about ten minutes too little too late. A lightbulb switches on in your brain. Oh my God, that’s what they meant! They still think you’re hopeless, but you’ve just raised your language skill bar a little higher.
I’ll definitely never forget how that Irish girl told me five years ago, “He should have known better.” She practically had to spell the sentence out for my poor imperfect-in-English-17-year-old-self, but I learned a new phrase that day, alongside getting a new understanding of the Irish accent.
I’m pretty sure she doesn’t remember my confused stare in that kitchen freezer in our workplace, but I sure as hell remember the language lesson. Perfect! We can cross the embarrassment out and add a step towards being able to write this article without mistakes.
Making a fool of yourself on a regular basis results in giving less shit about what people think because if you had to care about every single person who thinks you’re really out of it, you’d “have your head like a searching air-ball” as we like to say in Czech.
Basically, you’d burst with frustration. That Czech phrase makes no sense. People say it though.
It shows how social interaction is just the tip of the iceberg.
I’ve never properly spoken to my flatmates in English. We mostly speak German only.
This means that our communication is somewhat obstructed — we can’t really discuss abstract topics in-depth, and when we do, I understand like 50% of what they say. I still somehow manage to navigate the conversation, though, and when I’m really unsure, I just say, “I have no idea what you’ve just said.”
They laugh. I laugh. They explain. Time to move on.
This has made me think about how little we truly let on in social interaction. I’m full of all this knowledge on various topics, of opinions and values and principles, and yet to my flatmates, I’m someone who laughs because they’ve just learned that banana skin is called “Bananenschale”, which is funny because “schal” means “scarf” in German.
The banana has a scarf.
You get the gist. Here I am writing articles about various things on the internet, and yet in German, I’m like a shadow of what is actually going on inside me. This really makes you think about how complex human beings are underneath the surface.
Our mind is so amazing and we never truly know what another person is going through — their worries, fears, joys, hopes, their expertise in areas we know nothing about.
This teaches you open-mindedness, humility, and empathy.
It challenges me both mentally and intellectually.
When I speak in German for too long, my brain is fried. It literally hurts.
It was even worse when I tried to read something in Russian at high school — not only did I have to understand the words, but I also had to figure out what each letter meant! My partner is having the same problem with Russian at the moment, which proves I’m not the only one.
Engaging your brain in such a high-level capacity for extended periods of time is exhausting. This only goes to show how enriching it is, though.
Just imagine — you’re making your brain think so hard that you actually run out of power. I just wish it didn’t result in a headache and a feeling like I want to watch a reality TV show to fill my mind with pointless junk and then go to sleep for ten hours.
Oh well. Knowledge has its price.
Learning languages has countless benefits, from opening yourself to new cultures to expanding your capacity of linguistic expression and therefore your ability to experience the world more fully.
Feeling like an idiot whilst you’re at it is only a side bonus.
All of the previous points melt into one simple golden nugget: Feeling like a fool isn’t nice, but it will boost your self-confidence in the long run.
It has taught me that no matter how much I embarrass myself, as long as I’m happy in my own skin, everything’s fine. People forget. People don’t care.
And while they’re in the process of erasing that awkward encounter with you from their mind, you keep growing. You keep learning. You keep challenging yourself to become the best version that you can possibly be.
And you have a blast. Because learning a language is lots of fun above anything else.