Sorry I Can’t Speak

While rummaging through an old travel wallet, I came across a memento that I had tucked away during my time in Vietnam. When my friends and I checked into our hostel dorm room in Hanoi, we found a guy there quietly reading in his bunk. He seemed friendly and made an effort to exchange a few words with me in English before leaving the room. When I came back later that day, he had checked out but left this note on my pillow: hostel note- hanoi Coming across this note got me thinking about my relationship with languages. I grew up in a bilingual home, studied French in middle and high school, and earned a BA in Italian, yet I still get anxious whenever I’m in a position to practice speaking any of these languages, despite the years I spent learning each one.

This is a struggle that dates all the way back to age 3 when my family moved back to the U.S. from Israel. I suddenly went mute for an entire year when we got to the States and wouldn’t speak to anyone outside of my home. I was the silent girl in preschool until one day I must have felt like I knew English well enough to finally speak. As the years went on and English became my first language, the tables turned and to this day I don’t feel really comfortable speaking Hebrew—even when my mom talks to me in Hebrew, I reply in English.

I have always envied those people who can confidently engage in a conversation in a second language, no matter how broken or flawed. I’m a self-critical perfectionist, so when I’m in a situation in which I can speak Hebrew or Italian (French now requires a lot of wine to count as a language that I speak), I tend to freeze up and worry more about finding the correct tenses and words than enjoy the opportunity to practice and connect.

Ironically, I feel much more confident in countries where I have never studied the language and just picked up words and phrases along the way. When I travel in Latin America I love fumbling my way through a basic Spanish conversation. I imagine that this has something to do with the fact that I never formally studied Spanish, so I don’t know where I am making mistakes or feel the pressure that I should know more than I actually do.

Being able to speak with and understand someone is such an empowering and barrier-breaking tool. I get so much joy out of the process of learning a language, but I struggle with letting go and accepting the imperfections to allow room for connection on a more human level.

This self-imposed pressure is something I want to change, and the recent opening of an Italian-run gelato shop in my neighborhood has presented itself as a perfect opportunity to start challenging myself to speak up. I mean, if gelato can’t get me to do something, I may as well give up all hope.

On my first visit I forced myself to speak despite the numerous fumbles. It was embarrassing and continues to be so, but I try to let go and have fun with it. And you know what? They appreciate the effort in the same way that I was touched by Manabu’s effort to connect.


In what ways have you kept up your language skills when you are off the road?


2 thoughts on “Sorry I Can’t Speak

  1. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with you. Small children don’t pop out of the womb and start speaking right away — they get a lot of listening exposure to the language before they even attempt to say something; and when they do, nobody’s there judging their pronunciation, grammar, etc.

    At my school (Thai language) they told us not to even try speaking until we were ready, until the words would automatically come to mind. This took the pressure off and worked pretty well in terms of language learning. For a long time, I just listened.

    I think your year of silence in preschool was probably pretty normal.

    Having said all that, I know what you mean. Now that I do speak Thai, it’s very imperfect, there are a lot of things that I need or want to say but don’t know how to, or words whose pronunciation I’m kind of fuzzy on. So there can still be self-consciousness or nervousness.

    I guess there’s two kinds of language speaking anxiety: the first comes about when you’re really not ready to speak, because you don’t yet have the language; the second comes about when you’re ready — you have the words — but you’re still going to be awkward or clumsy, especially compared to your native language, because you’re just not yet really used to speaking in the new language.

    Anyway, interesting post; good luck! :)


    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Adam. It’s interesting to hear about how you were taught in school. I wish I could say it was normal, but I was very much the odd girl out among the others in my pre-school :)


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