I had an interesting conversation with a student yesterday and she gave me an important clue into a common source of stress for a lot of adult English language learners.
She told me that when she speaks in English, her second language, she loses her identity in some ways. She can't express herself as she normally would in her first language and as a result, the people that she meets can't know the "real" her.
The more I thought about what she said, the more I realized that she is completely right.
Are you facing a similar challenge as you learn English as a second language?
Perhaps you think that the new, English speaking you is clumsy with words, inarticulate and much quieter or self-conscious than the "real" you.
If so, I would like to offer you a challenge. Instead of thinking of it as a problem or as a sense of being less than your "native language self" why not reframe this "problem" and make it more of a game?
6 Ways to have fun with your new "language identity"
- Let go of who you are in your native language: Maybe you are a bit of a comedian in your first language. Maybe you are the one who tells side-splitting jokes and entertaining stories for hours into the night with friends and family. That is who you are in your native language but the key to learning a second language is realizing that your identity is not solid. Now that you are learning English, you are feeling stressed out because when you speak, you can't tell jokes (yet). You are left with the question: if I am not a comedian, then who am I? Don't try to answer this question. Don't cling to your old identity. You are in a new country and a new culture. I know that this is not an easy task. It can be really scary when we no longer have an identity or an image to fall back on. But that is why language learning is such an incredible experience. It forces you to face new parts of yourself that you have never seen before. It's all a part of the experience!
- Make space for who you are in your second language: If you are no longer holding on to who you are in your native language, you will have space to find a new "English learning" identity. Explore the English language and find out what makes it unique. Are there things that you can express in English that you can't express in your native language? Finding these unique phrases can help you make friends with your new language and will allow you create a new identity around it.
- Look for ways to learn about the culture through the language: In English, we have a lot of expressions about time including "time is money", "better late than never", "on time", "out of time" and "just in time". If you are living in a busy US city like New York, you know why these phrases are so common. Yes, it's stressful and noisy but it's NEW YORK! It's a city full of energy and passion and art and life! So learn the local phrases, find out what matters to the people in the culture and create a vocabulary and an identity that is a unique combination of your new location and you! Have fun with it and you will have a rich experience! Does the old you really belong in this new place?
- Remember that human connections are deeper than words: A lot of adult students of English feel stressed about their English learning identity because they think that they cannot be as friendly as they are in their native language. They feel that they don't have the language skills yet. First of all, friendliness is not only expressed verbally. It is about the way that you carry yourself, the way that you use gestures, the way that you make eye contact with people and show your enthusiasm and interest. I have formed some of my most intense connections and most profound conversations using horrible grammar and clumsy pronunciation in my second language, Spanish. Did that lessen the quality of the connections I formed? No, it just made them different, perhaps more intense and even more fulfilling sometimes.
- Accept the present moment (every moment): So maybe you are struggling. You are at dinner with a huge group of native English speakers and you simply cannot understand what they are saying. They are speaking too fast for you. You wish you hadn't accepted their invitation and you are thinking about leaving early and telling them you have a headache. Stop right there! Breathe and accept the situation. Accept the fact that you can't participate in the conversation at this moment but also make a commitment to keep improving so that you will be able to participate next time. There is nothing like spending an awkward, silent evening at dinner as a motivator to work harder at your English.
- Recognize the temporary nature of your problem and look at the big picture: When you learn a new language you take a risk. If you are not interested in taking risks, perhaps you should learn something else. The real wisdom comes from knowing that while your new identity might be terribly uncomfortable and clumsy now because you can't express yourself in the same way that you think you should, this won't last forever. You are in a new country and you are gaining language and intercultural skills that will make you a much more interesting person in the long run. One day you will look back on those moments of anxiety with fondness. So change your thinking from "Wow, this doesn't feel good" to "Wow, this is a little uncomfortable now but I am going to be a stronger person for it later."
English Language learning is an adventure! If you come to the US to study English and work, be prepared to form a new language learning identity. This doesn't have to be a negative thing! Take advantage of this unique experience to explore new parts of yourself and stretch your limits! Good luck!