The importance of vulnerability in adult language learning

July 12, 2020

If anyone asked me “What was the hardest part of teaching English as a second language?”, I would not mention verb tenses, prepositions or phrasal verbs.

No. The hardest part was teaching adults how to fail.

Students would often tell me: “Maria, I don’t know what else to do. I think I’m just dumb and slow. Everyone else seems to get this. Maybe I’m just not a language person. I might just quit all of this”.

The plot twist? I’ve once had three different, completely unrelated learners tell me theexact same thing on the exact same day. One in the morning, two others in the afternoon. All three of them got teary-eyed, trying to convince me they were the worst, dumbest, weakest, less disciplined human I had ever laid my eyes on.

I should just give up on them, right?

What these learners couldn’t fathom was that they weren’t unique in their feelings of inadequacy, overwhelm, exposure and insecurity. We all were. We all are. I strongly believe we must be, if we’re ever going to achieve anything remotely worthy. Here’s why:

Because vulnerability isn’t an inconvenience.

Dr. Brené Brown is one of my greatest inspirations. Her book Daring Greatly — How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead has changed my life in ways I’m not sure I can describe.

If you’ve ever wondered why you feel like you’re never enough, if you’ve ever felt terrified sharing an unpopular opinion, saying no or trying something new, you must get this masterpiece and never let it go.

In the book, Dr. Brown defines vulnerability as uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. The surprise is that Brown doesn’t see it as a negative, a villain, an inconvenience or a weakness. In fact, she sees vulnerability as the very core of why we grow at all, because it is only when we’re vulnerable — showing up, opening up, addressing problems, facing our insecurities, getting ourselves out there even though we’re terrified — that we stand a chance at finding true connection, communion and a sense of belonging with others.

Okay, but how does this apply to language learning?

Most people decide to learn a language because they want to be better at something: get a date, get a better job, meet new friends, communicate with their grandchildren or understand foreign cultures they love. In other words, connection.

But when taken seriously, language learning can also get extremely uncomfortable. More often than not, an adult language learner will go through exposure, embarrassment and several humbling moments to reach a conversational level. And it is here that our need for connection requires feeling vulnerable.

My small online experiment

Last January, 167 adult language learning enthusiasts completed a survey I’d published online. My goal was to compare and contrast their motivations behind learning languages with their fears, as well as their vulnerable moments. Take a look at these images below:

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I asked survey takers to complete the following sentence: “As a language learner, I’d like to be more…”. Their 167 answers gave origin to the word cloud at the bottom. As you see, when asked what they would like to become, adjectives like “consistent”, “confident”, “fluent”, “disciplined”, “proactive”, “communicative”, “hardworking”, “talkative”, “motivated”, “successful”, “driven”, “active” and “diligent” came up. Those are a lot of strong words!

Now, let’s look at the image on top. Survey takers were asked to write down words they associate with language learning. What words jump out immediately? “People”, “fun”, “new”, “world”, “discovering”, “understanding”, “learning”. Such energy and freedom in only a couple of words!

It’s clear that people who learn languages crave for connection, openness, discovery, self-confidence and courage. The problem? It takes vulnerability to get all of those things.

Are we letting fear stop us from learning?

Why is it that most language learners crave for a version of themselves that is talkative, outgoing, confident and fluent, only to play with apps within closed doors to try to get there? Well, the answer is clear.

Firstly, apps made quite the marketing move when they managed to convince us we could become fluent, confident speakers without ever having to face a human being. Secondly, while apps and books are extremely handy tools, most language learners still unknowingly let themselves get comfy in that refuge of control. For those who wish to be fluent speakers, apps and manuals are certainly precious complements, but should never be replacements for the most uncomfortable skill of all: speaking.

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Speaking is the highest proof of bravery in language learning, as well as the most awkward to master. It invites embarrassing episodes and opportunities to look ridiculous (unlike apps or manuals). It’s also anything but linear, and the first to disappear when we lack practice. This, combined with the fact that finding language partners and genuine conversational practice is not always easy, means we isolate ourselves and postpone one of the most precious skills.

Speaking is also the skill that forces us to create without much preparation time. In my opinion, we are so used to controlling how we come across everywhere (but especially online), that the thought of being expected to say something without any kind of preparation is terrifying. We suddenly fear that the hours we’ve spent in front of a language manual, the intensive course we’ve invested in, the tense exams we’ve had to sit through or those hours we’ve spent reviewing flashcards will suddenly be worthless as soon as we make a mistake while speaking.

The culprits, I say? The need for control, the little demon of perfectionism and the dangerous comparison game.

The dangerous “never enough” game

Dr. Brown writes about the “never enough” mentality:

“Scarcity thrives in a culture where everyone is hyperaware of lack. Everything from safety and love to money and resources feels restricted or lacking. We spend inordinate amounts of time calculating how much we have, want, and don’t have, and how much everyone else has, needs, and wants”.

Unfortunately, the feeling that we’re never enough is intimately tied to the comparison game. It’s the feeling that others manage to constantly overachieve while we underachieve. How can they do it? And why can’t I?

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The comparison game is dangerous, especially considering that dedicated language learners tend to be perfectionists. And yes, even in this context I believe apps have given us a false sense of comfort. They isolate our progress in points, stars, bonuses and progress lines, and so we’ve gotten used to learning alone and not having others as a comparison tool. This might seem like a positive (hey, you’re focusing on yourself instead of others, after all!), but the problem is that we don’t learn to deal with the things we never face.

One of the open questions I asked survey takers was: “Have you ever felt inadequate when learning a language? What made/makes you feel that way?”. Only 14% claimed they had never felt inadequate or rarely did. The remaining 86% claimed they have felt inadequate, with enthusiastic “Yes!”, “Absolutely!”, “Definitely”, “OMG, a lot!” and “All the time!” appearing 25 times. What makes language learners feel inadequate?

Unsurprisingly, many answers mentioned lack of motivation and self-confidence, as well as the frustration of not getting the results we believe we deserve after so much investment. But even less surprisingly, comparing ourselves to others came up all the time as a reason for feeling inadequate:

  • “When someone has a better level than I do”.
  • “I see how much other learners pour into their study routines and how much they study per day and I feel so unproductive compared to them”.
  • “When I’m around other native English speakers who are far better than I am in the language and spent less time learning it or being in the country”.
  • “Comparing my progress to others”.
  • “The fact that everyone seems to be progressing faster than I am”.

Even though comparing ourselves to others is perfectly natural, it’s still a losing game. That’s why we must find tools to deal with it in a healthy way. As Dr. Brown writes,“We either own our stories (even the messy ones), or we stand outside of them-denying our vulnerabilities and imperfections, orphaning the parts of us that don’t fit in with who/what we think we’re supposed to be, and hustling for other people’s approval of our worthiness. Perfectionism is exhausting because hustling is exhausting. It’s a never-ending performance.”

The importance of being vulnerable with others

Fighting the feeling that we’re never enough is simple, but not easy. It’s something many language learners need, yet fear: meeting lots of new people.

Sharing the room with other learners makes it easier to realize how normal we are. We share the same struggles, we all make mistakes and we all say something silly once in a while. Attending free language exchange events, having coffee on the weekends with someone new, opening up and exchanging intimate fears with new friends (vulnerability!) makes us realize we’re not inferior. We’re not particularly dumb, unfocused, lazy or undisciplined. We’re human.

I love what Matthew Boyle, founder of Language Card Games, has to say about speaking and the importance of being with people for language learning:

“Oftentimes, the language learning apps sell us down a one-way street away from real human connection, and the benefits they give us in return do not make up for that. Alternatively, when you come to the table and are surrounded by other people, everyone’s eyes, body language, tone of voice, energy level, and more, enter into a profound dance, a synergy that creates something larger or greater than the sum of the parts”.

Is the fear of vulnerability keeping us from experiencing this incredible human experience? Or is it just a lack of access to people who are willing to practice with us? I believe it is a little bit of both, considering the following numbers:

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It seems results are quite diverse here. While there is a significant slice of the pie that claims to want to avoid discomfort, there are still many more who show up, even if they have little time to prepare. That’s great! The result that concerns me the most, however, is that 60.5% of survey takers claim to have been stopped by their fear of making mistakes in the past, therefore missing out.

The problem with relying on traditional education to tell us who we are

This particular image interests me:

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A belief that a productivity-centered society has installed in us is that grades, points, bands or certificates tell us how good we are. This belief runs all the way through college and sneaks right into our workplaces.

But language exams often involve complying with incredibly strict rules that don’t apply in the real world. They involve sitting for an hour in a room listening to a recording and filling out multiple-choice questions. They also usually involve sitting down with an examiner for 15 minutes only, slowly getting punished at every mistake. Oh, and we usually pay hundreds of euros for such an exam, which is a source of stress in and of itself.

How does this reflect the real world at all? The only source of vulnerability here is not wanting our money to be badly spent. And we let this dictate our worthiness as language learners?

Achieving self-confidence as an adult means questioning what a productivity, number-focused society has led us to believe makes us worthy, credible and skilled. This unhealthy concern with numbers follows us until the grave (age expectations, concern about the number of romantic partners, number of followers on social media, etc). There comes the dreaded game of “never enough”, comparison and perfectionism again. And yes, questioning that upbringing and societal expectations to protect our self-esteem and identity is a vulnerability exercise, too.

More and more, I believe adult language learners should turn to language practice that is as realistic as possible. Anything that strongly resembles real life — being able to read or watch the news, having a pleasant conversation over a cup of tea (even if we have to check some vocabulary on our phone once in a while), writing an e-mail with little hesitation — is much safer proof of what it means to be skilled at a language.

Having said that, maybe a specific language exam does represent realistic practice for one’s future (taking IELTS Academic to prepare for university abroad, for example). Some language learners also find exams to be motivating and see them as important milestones for their learning journey. Does this mean I believe they should stop taking exams? Certainly not! If not for anything else, preparing for foreign language exams also counts as precious language learning and helps us organize content. I don’t believe exams are completely useless and prove nothing. At the very least, they show dedication, commitment, effort and discipline. I simply disagree with letting it define us as language learners and make us feel miserable about ourselves!

Best and worst memories: vulnerability exposed?

I asked survey takers what best and worst memories they had of their language learning journey. Here are some examples of best memories. Notice how all of these somehow relate to connection, discovery, understanding, a time of bonding with other people or a material in the native language:

  • “Handling a conversation during my trips”.
  • “Every time I realized I was finally able to read out loud with correct pronunciation”.
  • “When I spoke Japanese to a native for the first time”.
  • “All the moments in which I could finally understand something new”.
  • “Managing my first 30-minute conversation”.
  • “Understanding directions when lost in Spain”.
  • “Being able to read a book in its original version”.
  • “When I was able to have a conversation for two hours in that language with a person I just randomly met”.
  • “When I understood a meme in French for the first time”.

Now, here are some of their worst memories:

  • “Forgetting a word in the middle of a conversation”.
  • “Not being able to understand people in real life”.
  • “Not being able to express myself correctly in a situation, or not being able to help someone who has expressed a desire for help”.
  • “Feeling discouraged after trying and failing, and the person switched to English”.
  • “Studying Spanish and Korean for 1 year and realizing I still wasn’t comfortable holding conversations”.
  • “Speaking exams”.
  • “A bad teacher threatening to throw a brick at my head for conjugating a verb incorrectly”.
  • “Not being able to use my GCSE French to order a McDonalds in France”.
  • “Saying something stupid in class”.

Worst memories were always related to feeling intellectually inferior, misunderstood (or not understood at all), having horrible school experiences due to being criticized, feeling isolated, lost or unable to express oneself. And have you noticed those bad memories related to exams? Yeah. Probably due to the fact we still let them dictate how we feel about ourselves. Terrible combination, right?

Wouldn’t we say this is all related to vulnerability? And isn’t it ironic that most of us want to learn languages to use them in our trips, connect with locals, make new friends…and yet our worst memories relate to speaking? And we feel inferior to others and rely on certificates to tell us whether we’re fit to go out into the world? And we still use the expression “real life” to refer to people that we talk to face-to-face, when that should be part of our practice in the first place?

Normalizing discomfort

Some of us struggle because we were trained for years or decades by a system that does not prepare us for real, raw vulnerability. It prepares us for tests, grades, evaluations, numbers, verb lists, a 10-second practice with the desk partner and class dismissed. Often, these lessons are taught by overwhelmed teachers and professors who are deeply frustrated at the system themselves. And we expect to be self-doubt free?

Many adult language learners deeply believe that comparing themselves to others, being unable to pronounce things a certain way, feeling shy or going blank when confronted with a native speaker makes them weak. They do not understand that these aren’t flaws, they’re requirements — nobody will ever become fluent in another language without going through one or two moments of embarrassment and rejection. We all feel uncomfortable.

Successful language learners regularly find themselves lost, but are prepared for that feeling. They often look ridiculous and find new ways of looking ridiculous sometimes, because they know that’s how you grow. They throw themselves out of their comfort zone for the sake of having a short conversation with a native speaker, because they’re sure they’ll survive. They never truly get comfortable — they are constantly taking it one step further with new materials, new tools, new challenges, new exchange partners. And that comes with a whole lot of vulnerability.

It’s the genius of Dr. Brown’s concept: a core part of being a confident, healthy human is giving in to vulnerability; to expect, normalize and embrace discomfort in our classrooms, our homes, our brains and our hearts:

“The willingness to show up changes us, it makes us a little braver each time”.

Will that become a reality for adult language education?

  • Reply
    Matthew Boyle
    July 31, 2020 at 8:00 am

    Maria, you’ve hit it out of the park again with this article! I decided to swing by your site today and catch up on things, and I was reading through this one and felt so blown away, but then, to my surprise, I was quoted in it! I’m truly honored. Thank you so much!

    I must say, I’m actually a little bit envious of this article haha because I wish I could have written it myself. Your writing was incredibly incisive time and time again. I’m just gonna quote you below. There were so many gems in there and I can’t say it better.

    1. “Apps made quite the marketing move when they managed to convince us we could become fluent, confident speakers without ever having to face a human being.”

    2. “Speaking is the highest proof of bravery in language learning, as well as the most awkward to master. It invites embarrassing episodes and opportunities to look ridiculous (unlike apps or manuals).”

    3. “More and more, I believe adult language learners should turn to language practice that is as realistic as possible. Anything that strongly resembles real life is much safer proof of what it means to be skilled at a language.”

    Maria, I think you’ve really created something special here. It’s a whole new way to look at the problems we have with language learning. By looking through the lens of vulnerability, my paradigm has shifted. You’ve laid out a whole new script for us to refer to when attempting to solve our language learning issues, but even with life in general. Now that you’ve pointed it out, it’s shocking to me how much of our lives is designed to upheld to isolate us from vulnerability and feed our comfort.

    Thanks for this brilliant write-up! I will be sharing it!

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