Being the person they think I am

Language exchange can be a funny thing. Sometimes you end up with a person that you have lots in common with and lots to talk about; other times it seems the only overlap is that you’re both learning a language. (I don’t think the latter necessarily means the partnership won’t work, incidentally.)

One thing that seems inevitable, at least in my experience so far, is that you won’t talk about very personal or delicate things. Certainly not at first.

You’ll talk about why you want to learn a language, what you hope to do with it, but you probably won’t talk about your fears so much. A few of my conversation exchange partners are trying to improve their English for financial reasons — they’ve hinted at unemployment or underemployment, but without a lot of detail or emotion. For my part, I’ve hinted at a difficult summer and also unhappiness with my job situation/burnout/midlife crisis-type stuff.

But I don’t say how terrified I am that all this language stuff won’t work out, that I’ll never get to fluency, that my brainweasels (which they definitely don’t know about!) will prevent me from doing it, that it will just be another project in my life that I started with great enthusiasm and crapped out on. And maybe they’re afraid and they don’t tell me: of being unable to get another job, of not being able to support themselves or their family, if they don’t learn English well enough.

I’ve told them that I admire them for diving in and working so diligently — through Skype exchanges, intensive courses, etc. — in order to try to reinvent their lives, to some degree, through language. I find it inspirational, especially for those who are in their 40s and upwards; I’m sliding towards 40 myself and definitely need stories about people my age changing their lives, when things feel impossible and I feel too old and stuck.

To them, I casually mention jobs I’m applying to in Brussels, how once my languages get better I’ll be eligible for even more jobs in the EU, etc.

I know I sound more confident than I feel. They certainly seem to act as if I have a chance of succeeding at this, and they act as if they have a chance too. Otherwise why are we taking the time to speak, if not to move forward together and encourage each other, right?

I’m trying to be the person they think I am: hard-working, consistent, at least somewhat cheerful and optimistic. I’m trying to act the way I want to feel. Sometimes it’s a facade that lasts just long enough to disconnect Skype, and then my mood crashes. But, you know, I’m trying. And maybe they’re trying to be the people that I see as well.

And if we all keep trying to be that person, well, we might just get somewhere.

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4 comments

  1. Dear Compassionate Language Learner,

    I so enjoy reading your posts; I learn something every time about tenacity, about language learning, about a new way to see the world.

    In response to your liking to hear stories of people your age changing their lives, I offer you one part of my story: I started massage therapy school at the age of 43. I was scared of leaving my adult life and plunging into a whole new venture. I was the oldest person in my class, and it was a whole new language: the language of science, anatomy and physiology, of touch, and of regulations around safe conduct, charting, and standards. But learning those languages then allowed me to build a business, which was a whole new language too.

    Now I’m 52, and I’m going through another learning process on the health front. Another possibly scary time – but I prefer to see it as one filled with opportunity to retrofit my life. I am grateful every day to my past self for having made the choices that brought me to where I am now, with a future that I can shape to suit me. I don’t plan to be too old and stuck until I’m dead. I would rather be 80 and doing something that challenges me than 80 and stuck in front of my TV.

    You are not alone: it is a tough place to be, on the cusp but not quite over. Step forward, keep stepping, and even though you won’t always see the ground whizzing by below you, you will be able one day to look back and realize that you’ve given yourself a whole new view of things.

    Thanks again for your posts!

    Like

    1. Oh, Ellen! ;__; Your comments are always so true and supportive and kind — seriously, if you need an idea for your next career, you could definitely be a life coach! Thank you for sharing more of your story — it does help! I’m glad to keep seeing you on Lift, and I hope your health issues improve and you continue to keep moving upwards.

      Liked by 1 person

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