It’s been a long-standing dream of mine to be able to speak every language. It’s impossible, I’m sure, but learning two or three should be manageable. Right now, I’m focusing on French.
But I ask myself all the time: Will I ever get to a point where I can speak all these beautiful languages fluently? Will I ever sound as sexy as a guy sweet-talking his paramour in a French movie? Will I ever convince someone to paint me like one of his French girls? Hell, I can’t even speak English properly half the time, and yet I try to cram all these other languages into the dwindling storage space of my brain.
Self-doubt usually creeps in, and I imagine scenarios where I’m in France, for example, and the baguette salesman laughs at my rough accent when all I wanted was to purchase a quick lunch. That — together with something like a never-ending fall off the Eiffel Tower — is the stuff of nightmares that jolt me awake when I should be catching up on my sleep after a long night in the newsroom.
It turns out that foreign language anxiety is actually a common fear among learners of second (or third, or fourth) languages. There’s even a fancy word for it: xenoglossophobia.
Some people just feel like they can’t learn foreign languages. Some first-time learners freeze up when they try to speak to someone in their native tongue. I’ve even seen people downright burst into tears when the professor calls on them in a language class. Language classes are metal as hell.
“Just as anxiety prevents some people learning successfully in science or mathematics, many people find foreign language learning, especially in classroom situations, particularly stressful,” according to “Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety,” an article in The Modern Language Journal by Elaine K. Horowitz, Michael B. Horowitz and Joann Cope.
The late Alexander Z. Guiora, a psychologist and linguist who taught at the University of Michigan, posited that learning a new language is not just about motivation or attitude, but also about flexibility in reworking the categories and concepts in one’s brain.
“Learning a foreign language is a profoundly unsettling psychological proposition,” Guiora wrote in “Language Learning,” a linguistics research journal. It isn’t just with foreign languages, either; anxiety also comes with trying to assimilate to a regional accent.
“Profoundly unsettled” would accurately describe my state of being when I had freshly immigrated to California and got a job at a fast food place.
Even if I had been speaking English for my entire life, I was deathly afraid that my Filipino accent would somehow sneak into the drive-thru speaker and embarrass me in front of a hungry visitor purchasing hamburgers.
In hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have been that scared. Having interacted with other English speakers from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds, I’ve learned that nearly everyone has some sort of anxiety with the way he or she speaks. Interacting with other students in language classrooms showed me that these fears are greatly magnified in situations when one cannot find comfort in his or her native tongue.
I told one of my best friends once that while certain fears of hers may never go away, opportunities to learn don’t come by very often (I also told her to write that quote down because, wow, when am I ever that profound?).
I need to take my own advice: xenoglossophobia will always be that little voice in the back of my head telling me that I will never be able to speak all those languages I want to speak. But I can’t just stop working toward my goals because challenges get in the way.
I’ve learned that I shouldn’t exactly worry if, when I try to cram a two-page composition for French class, the only words that come to mind are from the other languages I know. That just means I’m learning.
I’ve taken over 20 years to get to this level of speaking English, so I shouldn’t get frustrated about my progress when I’ve only been taking French for a couple of years.
If I ever go to France and make a fool of myself enough to make a baguette man laugh, then I’ll be fine. Eventually, I’ll learn the language well enough to laugh at myself, too.