From the Co-President's Desk: Languages are meant to be spoken.
If you don’t reach out and speak the language with the people of those cultures, then what’s the point?
As Co-President of NUCALLS, the first impression that most people have of me is that I’m pretty fearless. Not that I’ll skydive or go diving with sharks or go to dive bars (lots of diving involved in being fearless!), but most people generally think that I’m confident in approaching people and speaking the languages that I’m studying. I think they see the way I interact with friends and strangers in English and assume that it translates into my ability or willingness to speak in other languages.
But up until two years ago, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Since my days as a bilingual Russian-speaking American child, I have always had issues with speaking in other languages. While Russian was my first language, after about 4 years of age, English became the primary language that I used to communicate and I quickly lost my fluency in the Russian language. I understood all spoken Russian, but it became harder to express my ideas and thoughts in Russian as I began to use English more and more in my daily life. I began struggling to carry even basic conversations with relatives but the rock bottom was definitely the day that I, as a 15 year-old, hung up the phone in tears on my beloved babysitter from Armenia because I couldn’t communicate with her in Russian.
This pattern continued as I worked through other languages. I took Spanish classes all the way up through AP Spanish in high school, and yet when I visited Málaga, Spain on a summer vacation, I couldn’t even carry a full conversation. I would formulate the words and sentences in my head, but I wouldn’t say them out loud in fear of mispronouncing something or not being understood. I would immediately switch to English and hope that the other person spoke it. I missed countless opportunities to interact with the locals, including a lovely older gentleman who wanted to tell me a story about a notorious thief at the market. When I returned home, I decided I would never let that happen to me again. I would never visit a foreign country and not speak the language that I was more than capable of using.
" I wouldn’t say them out loud in fear of mispronouncing something or not being understood. I would immediately switch to English and hope that the other person spoke it.
And yet it happened again the next year, but in Montréal. I had finished six months of intensively self-studying the French language and my parents decided to reward me by taking me and my sister to Montréal at the end of our college road trip (right after visiting Northeastern, actually!). How many words of French do you think I spoke? I said two words. I said, “bonjour” to a server at a restaurant one night in haste. She laughed and corrected me to say, “bonsoir”. I repeated her “bonsoir” and then didn’t speak a word of French for the rest of the trip. Not only were my parents disappointed in me, but I was fed up with myself. As a high school junior, I was lauded by the language department for my ability to speak both Spanish and French at a high level. But if I couldn’t even do it in the real world, how could I be considered talented at learning foreign languages?
I’m happy to say that after being at Northeastern for two years and working with NUCALLS for a year and a half, I have largely overcome this deep fear of making mistakes in other languages. What helped me the most was making friends who spoke the languages I was studying. I would eat dinner with Russian speakers who would hold very intense debates on current international affairs and force me to give my opinion in Russian. I would speak Spanish with group members for business classes who wouldn’t even flinch at my mispronunciation of words like “herramientas”. I took a French class through NUCALLS and with the other students, I struggled through reading a complex Le Monde article on politics and replying to my instructor’s questions about the article in French. I tutored a Haitian immigrant who was still in the beginning stages of learning English and found myself forced to explain English grammar concepts that I barely understood to her in French. I finally began using my language skills and was lucky to have experienced the amazing patience of students from all different cultures and their sincere appreciation for my attempts at speaking their language. My language skills have improved substantially in every language that I am studying, and most importantly, I have forged incredible relationships with other students through our mutual love of languages and the cultures of the world, all because I opened my mouth and used my foreign language skills.
" I’m happy to say that after being at Northeastern for two years and working with NUCALLS for a year and a half, I have largely overcome this deep fear of making mistakes in other languages.
I wanted to open up about my experiences as the Co-President of NUCALLS because I have noticed a lot of our students silently struggle with this issue of not speaking the language. Our instructors try to have every student to talk at least once during class, but there are always a few students who don’t volunteer or even ask to skip out on a speaking activity in class. I think being open about this issue can provide a much-needed paradigm shift for our organization and language-learning in general.
We need to stop viewing making mistakes in a foreign language as the ultimate taboo or the ultimate sign of failure. Rather, the act of not even attempting to speak should be seen as the biggest mistake a language-learner can make.
Being a student at such a diverse university has helped me grow from a silent polyglot to a polyglot whose friends can’t ever get her to stop talking to strangers in restaurants, on the T, and on the streets of Boston. That’s not to say that I don’t still struggle sometimes; I took a Hebrew class with NUCALLS this past semester and was fairly quiet. But I have learned a valuable lesson about learning languages after coming to Northeastern, taking classes with NUCALLS, and being able to serve on the executive board for 1.5 years: languages are meant to be spoken. You can read El País all day, watch Hostages on Netflix while repeating “Beseder? Beseder!” and listen to Joe Dassin’s classic tunes, but if you don’t reach out and speak the language with the people of those cultures, then what’s the point?