When I was at university I studied Spanish. It was my fun major, my other major being biomedical science. The main reason I studied a language then was because I really wanted to go on exchange and there weren't many places you could go with science that wasn't the USA or the UK. I found it challenging. I hated putting myself out there and showing others that I didn't necessarily understand. But still, the teachers kept saying, "Have a go. The worst that can happen is you'll be wrong and then you'll learn." I had to put in a lot of effort and still, it felt like only fragments stuck.
I persevered, went on exchange, made new friends and ultimately, felt like it was a good decision to extend my degree so I could study a language. When I went back to university several years later to study education I was pleasantly surprised that I would be able to put this effort to good use and I began teaching Spanish in Australian high schools.
All of a sudden I was on the other side of the room. I was the one patiently encouraging and coaxing students to put themselves out there. I was the one repeating the "What's the worst that can happen?" and I believed it. As a language teacher, you understand that communication is half of the puzzle. It's all well and good if you can understand your new language but without the ability to communicate you lack the core reason for learning a language. And what's the best way to increase your communication ability? Production! Write more, speak more, make more mistakes, learn more. Everyone makes mistakes, often the exact same mistakes. In my classroom, nothing was wrong, just a work in progress. One of my biggest focuses as a teacher has always been to work to create an environment where my students feel comfortable trying.
But then I moved to France and started learning French. You might think that being a second language teacher of both Spanish and English would prepare me well for studying another language, at least that's what I thought. After two months of struggling to gain even the basics of French, I found myself mumbling broken French in a bakery, feeling stupid and using my go-to phrase, "Parlez-vous anglais?". I went home with my baguette feeling defeated.
When I reflected on what was going so poorly in my French learning I realised I definitely wasn't practising what I preach. I was so worried about being wrong I made it even more likely that wouldn't be understood. I was mumbling rather than speaking confidently and clearly, so I could be heard and possibly understood. I was avoiding any situation possible that might require me to speak French and removing any opportunity of feedback on my French. I vowed to change, to become a good student and to make mistakes with confidence!
Immediately I saw improvement. Firstly I realised that I understood and could say a lot more than I gave myself credit for. There were loads of situations that I could get through without wondering what was going on. I was receiving helpful feedback on my French. People almost always took very pleasantly to my effort to speak and would often correct a word or pronunciation in a very supportive way making me feel proud of my effort. The biggest reward I found was my increased confidence. With no additional study, I realised that my French actually isn't too bad so when someone started talking I didn't only hear the voice in my head saying, "I don't understand!!!", but instead could try and decipher what they were talking about. I'm not saying I understood everything they were saying but I could often understand the general gist or enough to ask clarifying questions.
This simple change in attitude, to have a go even if it's wrong, has increased my French understanding immensely and I wish I had of listened to my own advice earlier.