Fear and Duolingo
Deep down, we all know that you don’t get fluent in a language from only Duolingo. Same goes if you’re only using Rosetta Stone, or any other gamified language-learning app. They supplement your learning, for sure, and they can be good for certain things like vocabulary. But we all understand that clicking buttons and regurgitating the word for “apple” thousands of times will not, on its own, teach you Vietnamese.
The barrier to entry for a foreign language is fear. That’s really it. Everyone is capable enough to memorize words, to understand grammar, to speak in full sentences. We already do it in our native tongue, every single day. With the internet we are all especially capable of learning a foreign language, since there are more resources than ever to learn a language’s nuances. It’s not that we’re starved for information; we are in a battle with anxiety, a battle we often lose. People don’t give up on languages because they can’t memorize words, they give up because everyone is afraid of looking stupid in front of another person.
Looking Stupid is Not Fatal
About two years ago, I went to Montreal for a few days and tried my best to speak French the whole time (from my understanding, most people in Montreal speak both English and French but it’s polite to speak French first if you can). I had sleepily gotten through French classes in high school, but I didn’t practice at all before getting to Quebec, and I looked stupid very often. On my second day in Montreal, I walked into a café and had a conversation that went like this:
Me: “Je voudrais un cold brew s’il vous plait (I’d like a cold brew please)”
Barista: “[Like a full minute of French I couldn’t understand except for the French word for “ice”]”
…I was frantically thinking of what she meant and guessed that she was asking me if I wanted ice. So, I responded simply by saying “glace”, the French word for ice. She paused, confused. She explained, in English, and with a line of (impatient) people behind me, that she was actually trying to tell me that they were out of ice, and she had asked me if that was okay. I’d responded by proclaiming “ice.” Entirely embarrassed, I told her that yes, that was fine.
Our full conversation translated into English would’ve sounded like this:
Me: Hi, could I get a cold brew please?
Barista: Oh, we’re out of ice. Is that okay?
But the point is that once you sit in that embarrassment, you come out the other end learning something. You get a bit better. Most importantly, you realize that looking stupid in front of someone is not fatal. I kept practicing, and by the end of my short trip, I could hold a simple conversation entirely in French, just barely. It wasn’t much, but it was something, and it was a lot better than when I arrived in Quebec a few days earlier.
We learn by doing. We learn through our mistakes. In his book Ultralearning, Scott H. Young highlights the disconnect between what we want to learn and what we actually do. He describes it as building the wrong portfolio: “We want to speak a language, but try to learn mostly by playing on fun apps, rather than conversing with actual people.”
Learning a language is a great choice. There’s also nothing wrong with playing a video game, and if you want to play a game where you memorize some German words, and then click some buttons, that’s completely fine. But we should not pretend that we’re learning a language when really we’re playing video games. We need enough awareness to realize what we’re actually doing. And then afterwards, we need the awareness to realize what’s holding us back: fear. Finally, feeling the fear, we move forward anyway.