Dogs dressed as clowns

Be a clown! How playing the fool makes you a better linguist

Can I tell you my guilty secret? I love making a fool of myself.

Before any of my friends and family organise an intervention to curb these masochistic tendencies,  I should qualify that: I love playing the fool when it comes to foreign languages, and I think a touch of the clown is an essential part of being a successful linguist.

It wasn’t always like this. In the not-so-distant past, I’d agonise over enunciating my foreign phrases so perfectly, so seriously, that I’d reduce myself to a stuttering, gibbering wreck by the time I was standing in front of a native speaker. I’d convince myself that grammatical correctness was a deeply serious business, and I’d risk ridicule if I got just one of my endings wrong. I was passionate about languages – surely that meant they were a matter of extreme gravity!

In fact, the opposite was true – by hyper-focussing on being right, I was taking the whole business of communication – the ultimate goal of language learning – to a really unhelpful extreme. Needless to say, it turned me into that paradox of the linguist who was terrible at speaking.

The turning point

It took a pretty embarrassing incident to change all that (and I’m thankful for it!). Spending a year abroad in Austria as part of my degree, I had the chance to entertain neighbours at my place. It was all a bit short notice, and I’d barely had chance to tidy up when they knocked on the door. “Come in!” I started, in German, “but I’m really sorry about all the diarrhoea everywhere!

Yes, I honestly said that.

It wasn’t planned, of course, and – mortifyingly – nobody said a word, until a friend (stifling laughter) explained what I’d said after the event. It certainly explained the sidewards glances and smiles, which I’d put down to my not-so-Austrian accent. I felt such a fool!

Laugh at yourself

It could have gone both ways, that incident. On the one hand, I was horrified at my mistake (somehow, who knows how, mixing up Durcheinander – mess – and Durchfall – diarrhoea). I could have thrown in the towel there and then, and been put off the language for life. On the other hand, it was genuinely pretty funny – it certainly made my friend laugh, and me too, once the horror had subsided! And it underscored for me the importance of silliness in language learning.

For one thing, I will never forget those two words. Ever! I mean, how could I? The whole tragic story is etched, indelibly, excruciatingly, into my memory.  But it also makes me laugh, to this day, and those happy, daft feelings are more than just the warm fuzz of nostalgia. There is lots of evidence to suggest that happy memories are ones that last longer. A wealth of psychological studies attest this Fading Affect Bias (FAB – great acronym), which seems to be one of the core drivers behind fun and play-based learning. When you fool about and have a laugh with language, it simply sticks longer. It’s one of the reasons that techniques like Linkword work so well, too.

The name of the game

Language teachers know this only too well. As a former classroom teacher and friend to many more, I can honestly say that we’re the most open bunch to in-school silliness. The language classroom is perhaps the most game-based and fun of them all (I’m biased, I know!).

However, it’s something we could all carry into our own individual learning too, at whatever age. I work in a multilingual office for part of the week, and it would be a crime not to take advantage of that as a linguaphile. It would be too easy to approach that in a very straight-laced way, and try to engage colleagues in formalised chit-chat (poor them, I’m sure you’re thinking!).

But it’s much more fun – and a heap less stressful – to have a bit of a laugh, say some silly things to practise your latest vocab, and make people smile and laugh. It’s clowning around, but it’s creating those fuzzy feelings around language learning that will make you want to carry on. I don’t expect to ever say “I need a sheep” in Polish, like I did the other day (you had to be there, I think), but I’ll definitely not forget the Polish for “I need…” after having a chuckle over it!

(Don’t) pity the fool

The crux of all this is simple: bring some uninhibited joy back into your language learning. When the time comes, you can play it straight. While you’re learning, though, clown around with words. Make happy language memories. Be a big kid. Play. Be silly and make people laugh – after all, the world’s a better place for it.

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