Learning a Second Language is So Awkward

Woman with paper bag over her head feeling awkward about her language training

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I’ve been pretty transparent about my language-learning journey. I started learning Italian a few months ago to better communicate with my 90-year-old Sicilian grandma. Not to be a downer, but she’s since passed, and as a result, my language lessons have come to a screeching halt. 

I should be more invigorated to learn Italian. I still want to honor her, so my “why” hasn’t changed, but truthfully, I hate feeling vulnerable once a week during my lessons. 

Learning a language, especially as an adult, is so freaking awkward. Despite hearing Italian spoken my entire life, I still can’t speak without sounding like I’m talking to my toddler, only with a bad accent. Why would I put myself through that once a week? 

After relaying the above sentiment to my bilingual husband (he was born in Puerto Rico and speaks Spanish fluently), he told me something that I couldn’t get out of my head:  

“You can look foolish for quitting or while learning a new skill. Pick your foolish.” 

Learning anything new can feel overwhelming, awkward, and sometimes even stressful. I know myself well enough to know that I’d feel all those same emotions if I quit my language lessons without the extra knowledge and self-satisfaction. 

Here’s how I keep myself motivated to show up for Italian lessons when my ego is ready to get in the way: 

1)    I remind myself why I’m learning Italian in the first place. My kids are half-Sicilian. It’s part of who I am and certainly who they are. Honoring my grandmother (my daughter’s namesake) through language means keeping her legacy alive. That was important to me before I started, and it’s important to me now, even though I hate sounding like an American with a bad Italian accent every time I take a lesson.

2)    I remind myself that my teacher isn’t judging me. No one is judging me as hard as I am. She’s heard bad accents from students. I’m not the first, and I won’t be the last. Her job is to get me to speak as fluently as possible. She knows I feel vulnerable and absurd, so she tailors her lessons in a way that focuses on accent reduction in addition to vocabulary. I still sound silly, but we’re at the point where we can laugh about it and move on. 

3)    I feel satisfaction when I’m done. Have you ever crossed something you dreaded doing off your to-do list and felt like you could do anything? That’s how I feel after my Italian lessons. The pre-lesson dread is quickly replaced with pride. I did a hard thing, and… actually enjoyed myself in the process? I showed up and focused; even if I sounded silly, I still did it. There’s something satisfying about showing up and giving it your all. It’s a weekly reminder that I can do hard things, and I get the privilege of expanding my mind and learning something new. 

No one is more sympathetic to a learner’s language journey than I am. I get it. It’s so hard, it takes time and vulnerability, and the payoff may not materialize for years. It’s still worth doing. Do it awkwardly. You never know when you’ll need to know a second language, so don’t wait until it’s too late to learn. 

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