How Fear Can Hold You Back From Learning a Foreign Language

by Dayana Aleksandrova Feb 23, 2016

STEPPING OUT OF BARCELONA’S El Prat Airport in a Vineyard Vines shirt and an iPhone in hand, I looked like the ultimate American tourist. Wherever I went, people would speak to me in English even if I had mustered up the courage to approach them with a “qué tal.” I quickly got frustrated, since aside from the parties and the food, becoming fluent in Spanish was the whole reason I’d come to the city in the first place.

I felt trapped inside myself. I knew I had the full capacity of speaking Spanish, but the expectation of my communicating in English and the fear of embarrassing myself constantly held me back. I admired the broken-English guys would speak to me on dates, wishing that I could put myself out there the same way that they did, even if I blurted out some tontería like saying “estoy hecho polvo” at the club as opposed to “hecho un polvo.” So I lived in paralysis for weeks, as my departure slowly neared.

The whole time I’d lived in Barcelona, I had absorbed the language like a sponge, eavesdropping on conversations at the xiringuitos on the beach, listening to my local friends drunkenly sing 90’s Chiquilla at a karaoke bar in Poblenou, and changing my Facebook to Spanish. The only thing I needed was to open my damn mouth and spit out words. Any words.

Learning a language and speaking a language are not the same thing.

Statistics show that I’m not the only one who feels that way — 44% of high school students actively pursue the study of a foreign language, which is why the following numbers come as a huge disappointment: Only 26% of Americans can actually hold a conversation in a language other than English, and 18 of that 26% learned their foreign language not at school, but in their multi-lingual homes. That leaves us with only the 8% of Americans who have the guts to put their studies to use in the real world.

“What’s the worst that could happen?” I started to ask myself. Even if I said something stupid, I’d laugh it off and be rewarded a chupito for the attempt. I hadn’t come all the way to Spain to simply scratch the surface of a new culture and return home. If I was going to travel meaningfully, stepping out of my comfort zone was the first and most pivotal step. Besides, I knew I’d never forgive myself for being that tourist who only ate churros and drank cava all summer, while my true desire was to talk about Catalan secession, how tourism was ruining the city, and the culinary mastermind Ferran Adrià. One night, the perfect moment finally arrived.

Overcoming fear

It was my French friend’s despedida party at Razzmatazz. The club was extremely crowded since Claptone was playing, and the bouncer would not let anyone in due to capacity limits (and because he needed to chug a cerveza ASAP and lighten up). As my friends were half arguing, half sucking up to him with no result, I made my way to the front. I knew him because I took care of the VIP guests he put up at the hotel I worked at, since my English was by far the best we had. I greeted him and explained in a coquettish, yet stern manner that it was imperative he let us in: ”Hey… Mira cariño, hazme un favor. Esta noche es la despedida de mi amiga. Necesito que nos dejes entrar, porfa.”

My friends’ faces went from initial shock to absolute and utter joy when they realized I had known Spanish all along. Apart from a few wrong conjugations, I was spot on. The bouncer congratulated me on my Spanish, saying that he’d let us in if I promised to always speak to him in my foreign accent from then on. My friends tapped me on the shoulders and bought me drinks for the rest of the night. I had triumphed.

The remainder of my life in Barcelona was completely different. I got closer to girlfriends who would now confide in me; I finally discussed secession over beach volleyball with the boys, and I got jamón bocadillos twice as big at the same corner cafe in El Raval. Hell, I even got a haircut and it was exactly what I wanted. I no longer felt restricted. I felt comfortable expressing myself and building friendships with all the local restauranteurs who came to the hotel to promote their business, so I pretty much ate like a queen for free until my departure.

Once I identified that my shyness and reluctance to get out of my comfort zone were holding me back from having an amazing time, I was able to relax and let the words flow. Since coming back to the US, my Spanish has gotten me two jobs since graduation.The reality is that one language no longer suffices, not just in the United States but everywhere. Unfortunately, half of the people I work with and meet every day are still stuck in my pre-Spain state of fear. They speak a second language excellently but dare not demonstrate it.

It is time we realized that the language barrier is only in our mind, and tore it down once and for all. So, stop waiting for a “perfect” moment. Go to a restaurant, take a trip, do whatever you want, but let the words out. Any words.

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