Thoughts on negative self talk and language learning confidence
Being able to speak a language is how we often frame the ultimate goal of language learning. But we don’t often–at least not in my experience–explicitly address how we speak about our language skills. Mary Leighton’s excellent post about the difficulty in saying “Yes, I do speak Arabic” does a great job of examining some of the reasons that it’s difficult to claim proficiency in a language, and I have a similar difficulty with saying “Yes, I speak Chinese.” In the ten years since I “officially” started learning Chinese, I’ve come up with a series of responses to the question “You speak Chinese?”:
- Well, I’m learning.
- I can get by.
- I can have a simple conversation.
- A little bit.
- I’m a learner of Chinese.
- I used to be able to speak really well, but not anymore.
- I can survive—you know, order food and ask for directions.
Imagine all these answers accompanied by a shrug and a dismissive hand-wave. What an insult to the years of hard work I put into this language, the reams of paper I went through practicing characters, the stacks of flashcards I kept in my nightstand, the number of times I would watch the same five minutes of a movie, rewinding and pausing until I understood the entire scene.
In first-year Chinese we learned how to say “I speak Chinese” in Chinese, but it took me years to realize that I never actually said those words–in Chinese or in English. And now I see that by speaking negatively about my language skills I’ve undermined myself as a speaker of Chinese, damaged my language learning confidence, and hindered my progress. The less I believed that I could speak, the less I spoke.
I’ve done a lot of thinking about this, and I even wrote a paper and presented at a conference about it during my grad school years. But just the other day I was working with a student from China, and when he asked me if I could speak Chinese I said, “Well, it’s been a while…but yeah…I can speak a bit.” What would have happened if I had said “yes?”