Yesterday I rode a scooter up a volcano in Bali in the pouring rain. It didn’t start out that way, at first we just went to a waterfall halfway up the volcano’s outer slope. We parked our scooters and our hosts/tour guides pointed out that the trees growing along the hike were actually cloves. The little green buds did look like puffy moist cloves once I looked at them but I never would have noticed them on my own. I was grateful that Yanti pointed them out. Then we headed down to the falls over several bridges.
It was hard to tell when it first started raining because it just seemed like mist from the falls and I was busy taking pictures of flowing water and leaves in the mud. My daughter pointed out that it was raining but I wasn’t concerned. Rain in the warm weather of Bali in August is kind of pleasant after all. As we hiked back to the scooters the rain started to pick up a tiny bit but still it hardly qualified as a drizzle so when Yanti asked if we wanted to go to a lake I said yes! Then, almost immediately I questioned that decision as the rain started in earnest the minute our butts hit the scooter seats.
My husband tried to say that we should maybe wait it out at a cafe or something but that fell on deaf ears and on we forged. We did stop so Yanti could put on her rain poncho in front of me (I was the passenger on this trip). I didn’t have a poncho but my helmet was keeping my head dry so that was nice.
It turns out that the lake is in the crater of a volcano so we had to climb all the way up to the top in order to go down to it. The higher we got the colder it was, and the harder it rained. I was dressed in flip flops and light summer clothes. I was freezing and water was dripping down everything. I tried to protect myself with my hands to keep at least some parts of my body dry but it was pointless. When I stopped resisting getting wet, it became a bit more pleasant but still I wished we could stop.
At a certain point my daughter passed us on the back of her scooter completely covered by the rain poncho worn by Anis who was driving her. All we could see of her were her little feet and flip flops sticking out from under the poncho. This gave Yanti the idea to cover me up too so now I was riding up the side of a volcano with rain pouring off the back of the poncho and down my lower back into my pants. Up until then, that was the one part of my anatomy that had been almost dry. I was still getting wet, but now it was not hitting me in the neck and chest anymore. All I could see was my lap and a small chunk of pavement whizzing by. At first this was a little disconcerting, after all, water was pouring down the road and it couldn’t have been easy to be driving the scooter in all of that rain but I decided that there wasn’t much I could do about it so I just relaxed and took the opportunity to focus on breathing and kind of meditate.
I don’t really know how to meditate but I figured that if there was any time to give it a try, this was it. I started to smile and laugh a little. I was cold and wet, I couldn’t see anything and I was completely happy. I had given in to the absurdity of the situation and I stopped fighting it.
Finally the rain slowed to the point where I could emerge from the back of the poncho and look around again. There were monkeys along the side of the road at the rim and as we started down there were lots more hanging out in the trees and on the posts along the roadside. The monkeys made me smile even more. We passed lots of signs saying strawberries and Yanti explained that the word for strawberry in Indonesian is strawberry!
We made it to the lake and it was beautiful but really, what I remember from yesterday is how happy I felt riding in the rain under a poncho freezing and knowing that sooner or later it was going to feel really great to take a hot shower or drink a hot cup of chocolate or soup or snuggle up under a blanket.
If you Stop and Give Up, you will Never Reach your Destination
So, what does this have to do with learning a language? Well, I remember when I first started learning Spanish, in high school, it was just another class in my schedule. It soon became really unpleasant as my teacher berated me for mispronouncing words and I didn’t memorize things as fast as I should have I suppose. I thought maybe I couldn’t do it and I should stop, so I did.
It stopped being uncomfortable but I also didn’t make any progress in learning for years. Then my university said that I had to keep going or else I couldn’t get my degree in history and political science of Latin America. So I got back up on that scooter and started learning Spanish again fully convinced that I couldn’t do it very well but what the heck I might as well die trying.
I stopped resisting the discomfort and immersed myself by going to Mexico and living with a host family who spoke not one word of English. Insecure in my abilities and uncomfortable with the idea of failing at the same thing twice I decided just to try. At some point I remember just laughing at the ridiculousness of getting the few words I knew pronounced well enough that people thought I spoke really well and would pour rapid and voluminous words on me that I couldn’t even begin to comprehend.
It was funny when I was relegated to the side of a conversation because it was just too much work to try to talk to me so I just had to sit quietly and try to listen. It was funny when I said the wrong word and communicated something completely unintended to someone who either thought I was crazy, stupid or both. It was funny when I finally understood the punchline in a joke but it was too late, the moment had passed. I stopped resisting and just let it happen.
Just as I had to stop fighting the rain going up the mountain on that scooter and just accept that it was going to be uncomfortable, I had to stop fighting the uncomfortable parts of learning a language. Not taking myself so seriously and having a sense of humor was the key to finding the courage to take the risks necessary to climb that mountain of knowledge and skills I needed to communicate effectively in another language.
How can you help your students to to accept that learning is not always easy or pleasant?
Share some of your own mistakes with the class and encourage them to laugh. By modeling that humor helped you get past an embarrassing situation, you can show your students how you learned from your mistake and no harm was done.
I like to share a couple of embarrassing things that happened to me while I was learning Spanish. Once while preparing for a weekend trip with my new host family in Colombia, I said that I was excited. The word "exitada" in Spanish has a totally different meaning than it does in English. Basically I had told them that I was turned on. The word I should have used was "emocionada". I never made that mistake again!
Another mistake I made happened after I had become fluent in Colombian Spanish. I returned to Mexico. I was at a club and someone was bothering me. After politely asking him to leave me alone several times, I yelled at him a phrase that in Colombia is kind of a bad word but not super bad, it would have been a normal response to being harassed in Bogota. In Mexico apparently, it is one of the worst things you can say and everyone stopped, turned around and looked at me. I turned bright red and apologized. At least the guys stopped what he was doing.
This WikiHow post explains step by step how to laugh at your own mistakes.
Pay Attention to What Other People are Doing Well and Copy Them.
In my Spanish classes, sometimes someone passed me and I could see that they were doing things differently, just as my daughter passed me on the scooter with her whole body covered with the poncho.
I learned to memorize words faster, read more, talk more and listen better by watching and talking to my fellow language learners. For example, from a colleague, I learned to focus on words differently when I encounter them for the first time. Make a short story out of new words to remember them. Last week I took my class to a beautiful park for our last day. There was a swarm of dragonflies over the pond and I asked them how to say dragonfly in Japanese. They said “tombo” I thought of “bow” first because the wings of a dragonfly look like tiny bows on top of a gift and then I remembered that I have a cousin named Tom so I imagined giving a present to my cousin Tom with a bow on top. It seems like a complicated way to remember a word but I still remember it a week later along with 2 other words they taught me that same afternoon. For more tips on how to learn vocabulary faster, check out this post entitled Brain Tricks to Help you Remember Vocabulary Longer.
Encourage your students to share their language learning strategies with each other periodically. Make a class list of strategies and check in frequently to see what strategies are working. If students are frustrated about something that is proving difficult, often finding out what other people are doing differently is just the thing to needed to snap out of the frustration and ignite motivation again.
I finally did get to the lake and I finally did become fluent in Spanish but the journeys are what I remember the most. I remember the splitting headaches after a day of speaking only Spanish and I remember the cold rain soaking through my bra and underwear. I remember the self-doubt of not being a “language person” and I remember feeling uneasy that driving uphill in the rain with a passenger must be very difficult and we might crash. I remember the shame of making mistakes and the discomfort of being left out but most of all I remember the joy of letting go. The pride of accomplishment and the fun of seeing just how ridiculous the whole thing was and loving it anyway. So go ahead climb on that scooter in the rain and just let it happen. Don’t do it for the destination, do it because it is uncomfortable and in the end you will remember it and it will become a part of you.
What do you remember about the process of learning? Was it comfortable or uncomfortable? Did you ever doubt that you were doing the right thing?
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