What Learning a New Language Taught Me About Vulnerability
Today’s post is about the process of letting go and being vulnerable in the face of challenging experiences. Anna recently attended a Spanish school in Guatemala, immersing herself in a situation where she was forced to overcome discomfort. She writes about the importance of grit and giving space for fun when facing challenges.
“It's an exercise in humility,” I told my therapist over the phone from the language school.
This spring, I completed the first year of graduate school towards my Masters in social work. I was, from time to time, overcome by self-imposed pressure to ‘already know everything.’ It was refreshing to hear my professors -- practitioners who had been working for decades -- say that they were still learning, but I had trouble completely buying it. During my first semester, I was nervous to raise my hand in class, afraid to make a mistake. I oscillated between thinking I was better than everyone and being afraid that everyone else would think I was dumb. It was tiring me out.
When I was in Guatemala, I read Angela Duckworth’s book about grit. In it, she argues that grit -- a combination of passion and perseverance -- is actually more valuable than talent in pursuit of a skill. Those who are willing to work the hardest, their sights set on a top-level goal, are most likely to succeed. Grittiness is putting yourself in a challenging situation and employing a growth mindset -- one that dictates that someone can become better at something if they work at it. To teach a child to be gritty, Duckworth writes, praise their efforts over their natural ability. I liked the idea of grit, but grit involves a lot of sacrifice, a lot of humility, and a lot of vulnerability. I had trouble employing it in my graduate school classes, where I preferred the safety of keeping to myself.
Learning Spanish, however, allowed me to be gritty. The difference was that it was okay not to know everything. It was okay if I couldn't conjugate a word correctly, or if vocabulary slipped my mind. No one -- myself included -- expected me to be perfect at Spanish out the gate. That would be wildly unrealistic -- I was still learning.
I had a new Spanish teacher each week and sometimes a teacher would tell me I was a natural, but I wasn't, really. I had a solid base, and that helped, and I tried to be gritty in my pursuit -- tirelessly reviewing irregular tenses, quizzing myself with flash cards each evening, and asking my host family questions slowly and carefully, picking out my words one by one until they understood.
And something surprised me about learning Spanish: it was fun. I broke down laughing at least once a day, a private joke between my teacher and me. I cherished moments where I created connections between the languages I already knew, and reflected on shared roots. I enjoyed reading out loud, and picked out two picture books from the school library to make my way through each evening. And I practiced, boldly, unafraid to make mistakes. I asked people to repeat what they were saying, more slowly por favor, and treated their words like a little puzzle that I could solve. I savored the experience of learning.
You're like a child, my therapist told me. A child is immersed. It's true -- a child has no choice but to learn, to climb their way out of the box they exist in before speech.
When I was done with the course, reflecting with my therapist on how far I'd come, she said, “what an incredible experience.” She said she was proud of me. Historically, I wasn't very good at not being good at something, but I was learning how to be. And perhaps that was the most valuable pursuit of all.
Thank you, Anna, for sharing your experience with us. We are grateful to have you with us and excited for the next (and final) year of your program. We hope your Spanish is excelente as well.
Stayed tuned for more from the My Wellbeing Team and how others have navigated similar challenges on their therapeutic journeys.
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