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Me and some friends of mine were traveling through Tennessee last summer, and were staying near Knoxville. We were told by one of the locals of an old abandoned rock quarry that people go to swim and cliff jump. We decided to check it out and try our hand at jumping off a 70 ft cliff.
Actually it was probably 60ft, the cliff gets a little higher every time I tell the story. It was terrifying, but so worth it.
The most tangible fear in my life is probably heights, but I took the plunge anyways. Looking back there are some surprising parallels between jumping off a cliff and learning to speak Spanish. I realized the feeling I had at the top of that cliff is the same feeling I get when I'm getting ready to talk with Spanish speaker.
Just like I had to face my fear to jump I have to face the fear of speaking a language I don't know. Here are 3 things I took away from the cliff experience and am starting to apply to my Spanish practice.
1) The more you think about it the less likely you are to do it
You will always think of million reasons why there’s a better time or place. The only time is now and if you don’t do it now you’ll probably never do it. This is very simple to understand, but terribly painful to implement. Still, apply it and your life will be much better for it.
This was true when I was standing at the top of the cliff and it’s also true when I’m trying to start a conversation with a native Spanish speaker. When you first start out learning a language the thought of actually speaking it with someone can be scary. Still, the longer you wait the more you agonize over it. It’s better to not think about it at all and just jump, or in this case talk.
2) You will survive
When you speak Spanish NOT necessarily cliff jumping, (I’m not condoning cliff jumping!) Not only will you survive, but you will feel awesome as well. Once you jump the rest takes care of itself. When I jumped off a cliff (which you shouldn’t do) I was terrified for about half a second then I realized how awesome it was that I had just faced my fear.
Similarly when I started talking with a native speaker I was pretty scared but as soon as the first question is asked I'm usually too busy communicating that I didn’t have time to be afraid. The first step is always the hardest.
3) Fear is my biggest obstacle to speaking Spanish.
The biggest obstacle to my learning isn’t my intelligence, my method, or whether not I have enough time or money. The biggest obstacle to learning I have is fear. I want to learn Spanish but I’m often too embarrassed to speak it. It’s a source of pride really. For all the parts of my life that I can remember, I’ve been able to communicate my thoughts and feelings accurately in English.
To be unable to do so in front of other people kind of feels like being naked. You feel vulnerable, that’s why I tend to revert back to English. That’s why I often don’t talk to my Spanish speaking friends or my grandmother in Spanish. I don’t like the defenseless feeling of not being good with a language. So I don’t get out there and speak as much as I should.
Jumping Off My Spanish Cliff by Speaking
A couple weeks ago I had an appointment online for an hour long Skype session with a tutor on Italki who didn’t speak any English. I had been learning Spanish for 4-5 months but had never spoke in Spanish with no English for that long of a time period.
I was nervous and afraid. I thought to myself, "What on earth am I going to talk about for an hour? What if I don’t understand him? What if he doesn’t understand me? I don’t want to look stupid. I don’t want it to feel awkward. How on earth am I going to think of things to talk about for an hour?!
I couldn’t possibly know or remember that many words yet." Well the session started and the first question asked was "¿Cómo estás?". After that the conversation flowed pretty naturally. We talked about where we lived, our jobs, our hobbies, our cultures, and all the usual language learning questions.
By the end of the session I was so busy communicating that I hadn't realized an hour had passed. I jumped and I survived.
Speaking is hard but communication comes easy
I would guess that as human beings communication comes naturally to us. Have you ever played charades? It’s fairly easy to play a game using no words and guess obscure and unrelated things (I’m a cowboy, then I’m painting). Little kids and adult can even play it together.
How much more should two adult be able to communicate with context and a small but common vocabulary? It’s easier and more natural than we think. Also people are usually very patient and graceful in helping you with their native language, especially if they are learning another language themselves.
Don’t forget you’re paying someone a compliment by trying to learn their native language. Worst case you make a funny mistake and everyone laughs about it (don’t take yourself too seriously mistakes can be part of the fun).
Anyways get out there and jump off as many cliffs as possible! (metaphoric cliffs that is. I am not condoning literal cliff jumping, do that at your own discretion). Speak a lot of Spanish and please...don’t hurt yourself.