My taxi driver was gesticulating wildly, swerving in and out of traffic, as he impressed upon me his opinions of Argentine politicians. I was very silent in the back seat.
I have been warned to avoid discussing politics with Argentinians, but I was silent for a completely different reason: I was too scared to talk. Growing up in California I was exposed to a lot of Spanish and have a good ear for the language. So long as we are speaking slow and in the present tense, I have about the capacity for conversation of a precocious 4-year-old. The reason I was silent in that back of that taxi was that I was more scared of speaking poorly then I had interest in engaging in the conversation.
I’ve just returned from two weeks in Buenos Aires, Argentina and in this post I’ll share my fears of language learning and the newly launched Start-Up 100, which I’ll be using to overcome that fear.
This trip to Argentina was not my first to work abroad and I have learned my away around. I have come to be able to speak enough that I can, with patience, communicate about autism and complex behavioral changes with the parents of special needs kids. The barrier was especially high with the taxi driver because I didn’t want to engage with that specific topic – but that situation highlighted for me the problem I have with language learning: I don’t make it easy. When I train gymnastics even my mistakes are fun (or at least funny). In practicing a language I am entirely unmotivated until I have someone in front of me with whom I really want to speak.
Zero Tolerance for Errors
I’ve noticed a trend: while I have infinite patience with Porteños who wants to practice their broken English with me, I have exactly the opposite – zero tolerance – for my own mistakes in practicing Spanish. (Porteño describes locals of Buenos Aires as well as the dialect of Spanish they speak. Porteño Spanish is characterized by a different pronunciation for “yo” and “ll” than much of the rest of South American and even other parts of Argentina.)
After some soul search I’ve realized my zero tolerance for mistakes is because I’m afraid of humiliation. I would rather not practice and thus not make mistakes, than make a fool of myself in a failed effort to communicate. No wonder I believe learning a language is difficult if my experience of practicing is so afraid of failure that I’d prefer not even to try.
Lowering The Bar
On my last day in Buenos Aires I stayed in an apartment with several non-Poreños from around the world. The apartment was a lively mix of languages, including several different Spanish dialects, American English and Italian. Up until that point in my trip I had spent no time around non-native Spanish-speakers and was surprised to hear non-Poreños’ Spanish accents. We regularly limit ourselves by downplaying our own capacity while simultaneously over-predicting other people’s capacities. For example, I enjoy listening to the Porteño accent and trying to copy it. I had taken this interest for granted when I was successful and criticized myself when not – without even giving consideration to how I compared to other English speakers learning Poreño Spanish. It was only when I was no longer comparing myself again an extremely high bar – a native speaker’s accent and vocabulary – that I began to acknowledge and celebrate how well I was doing
Comparison does not have to be against an inferior – i.e. putting another down – so much has having goals and appreciating even incremental progress. And this brings me to a Start-Up I will be using to learn Porteño Spanish.
Documenting Daily Practice
Karen X. Chang came to my attention when she published Girl Learns to Dance in a Year, a Time Lapse video which went viral and received over 3 million views. Karen’s premise was simple: to practice dancing every day, everywhere, for a year, and record her incremental progress.
This week marks the launch of her new company 100, a platform to provide others an environment in which to practice and record their successes, failures and daily progress.
This is Cynthia, a 100 early adopter who recovered herself from paralysis through daily documented practice:
100 launched during my time in Argentina and I was invited to participate. The timing coincided with my immersive practice in Porteño Spanish, just as I was examining my fear of humiliation and wondering how to continue my practice after returning home.
100 utilities a lot of the learning tools I discuss on this blog to keep participants on track.
The idea behind 100 is simple: upload a video of your progress every day. The videos users upload are cropped to just 10 seconds. This allows for enough time for viewers to see change over time but keeps each individual piece tiny. Because each piece is tiny the barrier for upload is next to nothing.
I’ve talked about the value of 1-Pagers before but using 100 has inspired me to document specific Spanish-speaking goals. With my Spanish 1-Pager I can keep track of the aspects of Spanish that I want to practice over the next three months. By breaking down the language into the minimum component parts I will have a clearer focus and be more directed in my practice.
In just my first week of videos in I can already look back over my speech patterns and recognize trends. I only speak in the present tense. I look up and to the left when I am trying to think of a word. Reviewing dozens of individual videos over time reveals patterns that couldn’t possibly be measured otherwise. And most importantly – reveals progress.
I’ll be using 100 to continue measuring my progress until my next trip to Argentina, which coincidentally is 3 months away. If I don’t practice I will not have improved and be less able to serve my clients abroad. The rewards for practicing will be evident in both the short and long term! I’m excited for this amazing new tool and look forward to seeing how my Spanish improves.