Encouragement for the Troubled Language Learner

Last weekend I came down with a cold. My husband was out of town and it was snowing outside, so I got busy with one of my most popular tasks since last fall: sorting items in preparation for my upcoming move to Uzbekistan. While conducting another epic scan-and-shred fest, I came across the journal that I wrote during the Pre-Service Training (PST) which preceded my Peace Corps Volunteer service in the Republic of Macedonia. 

I stood uncertainly for a few moments as I considered whether to add it to my gigantic shred pile. Over the last year I have destroyed all of the paper journals I’ve written in my life (which unbelievably numbered more than 50), save this one. They are sometimes sad, sometimes embarrassing, but mostly just irrelevant. Certainly not anything I would want someone I care about to see in the event of something untimely.

However, I elected to keep this one. It is filled with souvenirs taped and glued among the pages, everything from boarding passes to receipts in Cyrillic from those early days in Macedonia. I was 24 years old and filled with idealism, what can I say? Smiling, I sat down in the middle of my mess and read it from cover to cover over a cup of hot tea. (I will admit that I redacted and destroyed three pages, because, well, the whole possibility of my untimely demise thing.)

My self-doubt in struggling with the language was painful to read about, even now. It reminded me just how poignant that particular time was for me – and how still useful, especially when considering the profound effects that self-doubt can have on language learning.

I guess I’ve said more than once before that I really enjoy my current Russian classes and I am doing well in them. In fact, I achieved the required level of speaking more than five weeks early. But, every day is not perfect. At least once a day I feel momentarily confused or dumb, and sometimes upon learning about a particularly tricky bit of sentence construction I temporarily reject it. Nope, I think flatly, no one would do it that way. It makes no sense! My mechanical translation from English sounds so much better!

I think people who spend time with me these days have no idea, through my relentless cheer about Russian and positivity about our progress as a class (which is all real, BTW) that it wasn’t always so easy for me. I don’t think they would recognize me twelve years back, and that makes me want to pay forward some words of encouragement to those who are struggling in a language learning situation. I feel your pain.

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My PST happened in the dead of a Balkan winter, between November 2002 and January 2003. During that time I was living with a host family in a small town in the central area of the country. Our group of twenty trainees was broken equally across four town groups, situated roughly equidistantly from a larger town (Negotino) that was our hub training site.

newmkmapDuring weekends all trainees met as a larger group at the hub for cross-cultural and technical training. However, during the weekdays, we were immersed in intensive Macedonian language training in our own towns. My class was held in an empty room in the local municipal building, in front of a set of train tracks that didn’t see much action.

The Општина, or local government municipality building
The Општина, or local government municipality building

At the end of each class day, I would return home to my host family. They spoke almost no English, and although they were (and still are!) kind-hearted people, I was profoundly homesick, deep in culture shock, and just wishing to be alone most of the time.

Re-reading my PST journal made me remember a time where the language learning experience was particularly awful for me. It was nothing to do with Peace Corps’ language training, which was excellent. I just remember myself feeling silly, embarrassed, and incapable on a daily basis. I compared myself to the other four students in my class, all of whom had lived abroad and spoken a foreign language in that environment, and in that comparison I was always found wanting.

It came to the point where our instructor would ask the class if they understood something, and then separately she would ask me if I also understood, as if I were in some special moronic category of non-comprehension. It made me feel mute, and it made me not want to speak to anyone, in any language. In the raw environment that is language learning, trust is necessary. There is nowhere to hide all the things you aren’t good at, and someone always down can translate into the whole class energy being down too.

After PST ended and we all swore in, I went out to my site in the far eastern part of the country. During the next (nearly) two years of my service, I made a lot of progress. I was in a rural area, with few English speakers. I had a couple of boyfriends, who…didn’t speak English. I excelled in the language in ways I didn’t expect, and a lot of that simply came from having the confidence to speak. And, much later I realized, from also not being typecast into a role (for which I was mostly to blame) of class clown.

The Peace Corps language learning experience reminds me these days to stay positive. In my Russian class, I’ve been on alert for the self-doubt, the negativity, the insidious competitive vibe amongst classmates. I’ve been there, and done that, and bought everyone the T-shirt. And as it turns out, those things are not present here.

I have found that the suspension of ego, a willingness to laugh at oneself, and put in extra work where needed really goes the distance, and most importantly of all, a belief in yourself.

And so, to any troubled language learners out there, if you’re still with me, I humbly offer some pictures and excerpts from the aforementioned old journal entries below. Let the roller coaster of my process be encouraging to you, in that all of these years later, my struggling to learn this little-known Slavic language paid off in spades as I learned Russian – not only because the two languages have similar grammar, root words and constructions, but because once you do something like this, you gain the hope and confidence to defeat the little voice in your head telling you that you “just can’t do it”. Know that it will sometimes feel like one step forward, and three steps back, and be patient with yourself.

You aren’t alone, and it’s going to get better.

Photo credit to my old friend, the amazing SK
Graffiti credit to my old friend, the amazing SK

November 26, 2002 ~ A lot of today has sucked…I went to class where I proceeded to feel like a dumbass and barely keep up the whole time. To top it all off we played this vocabulary matching game where I did not even get one pair…and I was the only one, what else is new… So by the time the class ended my self-esteem was half-shot, and I was doubting being here yet again. So I decided to go for a walk. I walked past the bridge, through the tunnel, along the dirt road by the Vardar River for an hour one way, listening to my Discman, and then I turned around and walked an hour back and home. I thought about a lot of things, looked at the beautiful scenery, and cheered up quite a bit.

Демир Капија
Демир Капија means “Iron Gate”

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December 2, 2002Another cold and rainy day. Woke up with slight congestion and sore throat…There were some major puddles walking to class and I looked where I was going pretty carefully as I didn’t feel like sitting through 4 hours of class with wet socks. In class we learned about giving and following directions, and to ask how to get somewhere. A lot of new and big words, yikes. It was a lot easier to me than some of the other sessions though. The thing that continues to trip me up is the alphabet. The Cyrillic alphabet is not as difficult as it looks, and thank God, everything is spelled phonetically. But still I have a lot of trouble with pronunciation. It’s like I look at the word and stumble through, finally saying it correctly only to have just as difficult a time ten seconds later – what the hell!! I think what it’s going to boil down to is practice, lots and lots of practice, saying the word in context and repeatedly in conversations. I think it’s clear that a couple people in class can hear the word once or maybe sometimes twice, and it becomes part of their vocabulary. In the meantime I am sitting there still trying to sound out the characters so that I can write it down, ha ha. As someone pointed out to me the other day, you don’t climb Mt. Everest in a day…

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December 5, 2002 ~ Today so far I’ve felt dumb about a million times. In fact I don’t think there has been too much time today that I didn’t feel dumb. Something tells me that this is not good for your psyche! I am starting to wonder why I am so retarded with the language…all the time I just feel like being alone so I don’t have to speak to anyone…I feel so stupid being in class especially listening to J and K speak not only in sentences but in paragraphs. Inside it’s like I am rejecting the language and blocking it out. I feel like I can say half of what we learn in class, rarely know what’s going on and don’t learn anything outside of class, whereas observing the other trainees in my town with their host families it seems they understand and speak much more. They ask questions and pick up vocab almost instantly where I have to struggle to even understand many of the questions let alone retain it all and use it in complete sentences with locals! 

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December 12, 2002 ~ Honestly the one thing I’ve hated more than anything so far since I’ve been in Macedonia is my enormous self-doubt. Doubt that I am really cut out for this…doubt that I can really learn the language – it goes on and on. And those doubts seem to be reinforced all day every day – for instance…[my host father] just came into my room and brought me out to the dining room to talk. I spent the whole conversation stumbling over words, struggling to say anything. I feel so depressed, I feel like I’m learning nothing here…I doubt that I am as smart, funny or capable as everyone else… This morning [at my practicum at the public elementary school], I thought I would be really nervous to introduce myself because of my language limitations. But actually I felt really excited, after seeing [the kids’] reactions to me entering the room. They all leapt up from their chairs and stood at attention. They all knew my name and were trying to greet me. As I fumbled along in my broken Macedonian, they spoke to me…I got out my notebook and pointed to trees, rivers, pollution, animals, trash, and mountains – naming them in Macedonian. I had such a good time that by the time I rejoined my class, already in progress, I felt unafraid to speak…I felt hopeful, I believed I was doing well…Then in class we did a bunch of role-plays and I remembered my role: that I’m the one who doesn’t understand the assignments, the questions, and who can’t remember the vocabulary that everyone else in my class seems to know. It makes me shy away from conversations, and I don’t want to talk to anyone in any language! …I can’t stand much more of feeling stupid, isolated and incompetent. It’s more than just my negative thoughts – I really don’t understand what they’re saying when everyone else is nodding and responding. 

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December 15, 2002 ~ Friday morning we had language class as usual. Walking there I was fighting back tears and not really succeeding so well. I was very upset to find myself on the way to language class…I was alternating between being positive…and doubting that I would ever be able to learn the language enough to have any kind of professional effect here. Sitting in class, I alternately felt tearful and cheerful, struggling to keep my chin up.

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December 16, 2002 ~ Today was a great day…Had a good class, tried hard with a lot more confidence and felt competent. Afterwards called a taxi for the first time (it’s about time!).

January 9, 2003 ~ What a day – had a sucky time in language class because for some reason I just wasn’t grasping the Што ти е? and Мене ме боли стомакот and this led to everyone trying to explain [English] sentence diagrams to me and a lot of frustration in general on my part. I started feeling more and more discouraged as class continued and speech was picking up speed and I was just continuing to get more and more behind and lost. I absolutely hate those times because I feel so inadequate…how’s it going to feel after I’ve been here for so much longer and my language abilities are still so lacking? Perhaps this is a pessimistic or negative viewpoint however what can I speak from if not my proven experiences from the past few weeks? It’s hard when you try to be positive but negative things that happen continue to reinforce your doubts! I really am disappointed with myself that I did not try to speak more Macedonian with people this weekend. Everywhere pretty much that we went на гости no one talked to me at all, they all just ignored me and talked around me…I mentioned this today in class and S said that if he isn’t constantly butting in and asking questions he usually faces the same situation, which was good to hear.

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