Life Lessons Languages Have Taught Me—Part 2: Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously

“Take your work seriously, but never take yourself seriously.”

Booth Tarkington

When you were a baby, you were not concerned with how you looked to others. You squealed with delight when you were happy. You screamed like a tiny ball of rage when you were upset. You unabashedly crawled along the floor when you needed to get somewhere. You smushed blueberries into and around your little face hole when you were hungry. You did all of this in the most undignified, unapologetic manner.

Another thing you did without giving a thought to how you looked, was learn your parents’ language(s). At first, you cooed and gurgled and growled. Sure, to onlookers these may have just seemed like “baby noises”. But you were actually experimenting in communication; getting a feel for your vocal cords, mouth, tongue, etc.

As you became a toddler and had a better command of the language, your primary concern was never how you looked to others; it was play and communication. If you couldn’t say “ice cream” perfectly, you said “ice cweam” to get your point across.

You didn’t wait until you were absolutely sure that you were saying things perfectly to begin speaking. You just said what you could. You were on a mission to have fun. You didn’t take yourself too seriously. And how did that turn out for you? Eventually, you learned to speak your parents’ language(s) fluently.

Channel Your Inner Toddler

Unfortunately, somewhere along the way to adulthood most of us begin to realize that life is serious business. We learn that it’s no longer cute to smush blueberries all over our face, and that people won’t rush to comfort us if we weep and wail whenever we get hungry or tired.

For sure, society is better off when adults don’t behave as babies and show some self-restraint. But language learners can suffer because of it if they’re not careful.

Study dog is always ready for the test.

When we learn a language as an adult, we are essentially hitting a reset button. In the new language, we must start out as a baby. And if we’re learning the language as an adult, we need to accept the fact that we will likely never sound exactly like a native speaker in this new language. Most likely we will always be making mistakes or have a foreign accent. But that doesn’t mean we can’t communicate and have fun.

If we can’t say, “Do you think life will ever go back to normal? Or has the pandemic changed the world forever?” we need to be willing to say “You think world soon normal again? Or no possible?” or even “Soon world good again? Yes, no?”

Or if someone corrects a mistake we make, we need to learn to be happy for the tip instead of beating ourselves up that we don’t speak like a native. If we’re always hesitating to speak up because we’re afraid of making a mistake, we won’t get the practice we need in order to improve.

And I haven’t even gone into all of the silly language-learning methods which have been proven over and over again to be effective. There are singing, using silly voices, coming up with silly memory aids, using exaggerated gestures and facial expressions when practicing. All of these and other garishly silly methods are like booster shots for your memory. But they come at the expense of taking yourself seriously.

Give Silliness a Chance

Wait! I hear a hotdog falling on the ground somewhere!

When I see a language learner who isn’t very inhibited and has fun saying goofy things or acting out or making sound effects for words they don’t know yet, I know that person has the potential to go far with the language.

So over the years, I’ve had to learn not to take myself so seriously, and learning languages has helped me to do that. My wife does remind me not to smush blueberries all over my face, even though I still think that’s the best way to eat them.

And of course, there are many things in life that need to be taken seriously. But the point is, if you can laugh at yourself, it makes not only language-learning but also life in general a whole lot easier.

Not taking yourself too seriously helps a person develop resiliency. If you can laugh at yourself, you’ll learn from your mistakes, but you won’t be bogged down by them. After all, our mistakes don’t make us who we are; how we react to them does.

Cool dog photo credit: Daniel Lloyd Blunk-Fernandez

Study dog photo credit: Jamie Street

Superdog photo credit: Kerwin Elias

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