Lots of question marks. Don't be afraid to ask questions! Image by Kerbstone, FreeImages.com

Stupid Questions : Learn to Love Getting Stuff Wrong

“There are no stupid questions, only stupid answers.” That nugget of wisdom, often attributed to Carl Sagan, reminds us to keep seeking knowledge, even if we make (sometimes very public) mistakes.

And nothing feels more public and exposed than whole group or class teaching. That gut-churning anticipation will be familiar to most of us. Waiting your turn to speak in front of your peers, especially on new subjects we are only just getting to grips with, can really bring out the sweats!

Back into the Fray

Lately, I’ve had to contend with it all again myself. I’ve side-stepped back into uni study with a brand new subject. Exciting, but just a bit scary when you’re in a class with others who seem so confident and clued up already. 

No matter that the group is just ten or so fellow students. The pressure to get it right and sound, at least vaguely, like I know what I’m talking about, feels immense each session. I listen closely, half-formulate a handful of ideas, but feel afraid to let them out. Maybe it will just be incoherent babble? Maybe I will be outed as the one in class who doesn’t quite get it? If I ask my stupid questions, will my cover be blown?

By the time I’ve worked out what I’ll say, how I’ll say it, and somehow found the nerve to try, somebody else has taken the mic.

Lessons from Languages

I’d have left it at that, perhaps, struggling along with my impostor syndrome, if it hadn’t been for the flip-side of that very experience at the same time. For as well as that brand new subject, I also started a course in something totally new, but also very familiar: a language learning class.

That language is Swahili, a language which is quite a departure for me. Now, I have zero experience with Bantu languages. Nearly all my language learning experience is with Indo-European tongues. In short, I come to class with very little pre-knowledge – much like my other course above.

The difference?

I have no fear speaking out and asking questions – even if I’m not 100% sure of myself!

Any Questions?

So there I was, every week, dreading my non-language class, whilst looking forward to my conversation class in equal measure. I had to get to the bottom of this to garner some tips to carry over to the other class. I needed to find out what was so different about Swahili class. And it is something very particular to language learning:

Embracing the art of getting it wrong.

After years of evenings classes and iTalki lessons, I’m used to just giving it a go. I try to speak up whenever I can, even if what I say isn’t perfect. Chiefly, it’s wanting to make the most of the chance to communicate, which is the joy of learning together. We throw things out there – they may not be perfectly formed – but then, with the instructor, we bash them around until they start to take on a neater shape.

With languages in particular, there is that extra veil of difficulty. It’s the notion that languages are generally just a bit harder, a bit more challenging. After all, they involve whole new ways of communicating. That challenge somehow makes us more accepting of the fact that we’ll stumble repeatedly. But in reality, those other subjects that scare us are also new ways to communicate too. We shouldn’t be surprised if they also take some trial and error.

Accepting that makes the whole business of asking questions – whether you think they are stupid or not – a lot less high stakes.

Get Stuff Wrong!

So how to take this forward? Remember that nobody expects perfection from students. After all, if students were perfect, there would be no need for classes and professors. If you’ve done the lesson prep and homework, you have more than enough to guide your questions and contributions.

This isn’t about simply not caring whether you’re right or wrong. Rather, it’s finding the fun and utility in getting things wrong. When we make mistakes, we laugh about them in class. Not malicious or mean laughter, but a knowing giggle – yes, it’s funny to mix up the words for mango and person, but we’ll never forget them again after that.

Learn to love getting stuff wrong – those stupid questions are actually a fast track to improvement.

Impostor syndrome can leave you feeling exposed and anxious. (Picture from freeimages.com)

Impostor syndrome? Prescribe yourself some polyglot community!

This week, I’m blogging from the grand hall of the Union Hotel in Ljubljana, Slovenia, as an excitable, kid-in-a-candy-store, first-time attendee of the annual Polyglot Conference. As expected, it’s been a bit of a language wonderland. I’ve been stuffed full of fresh ideas and inspiration for new projects.

But one concrete lesson it has taught me is this: impostor syndrome, that fear of not being good enough, is pretty much ubiquitous. However, more importantly, community is the antidote for it.

The sumptuous hall at the Grand Union Hotel, Ljubljana, venue for the Polyglot Conference 2018.

The sumptuous hall at the Grand Union Hotel, Ljubljana, venue for the Polyglot Conference 2018.

Now, I am naturally quite a shy person. A shy polyglot – what a frustrating thing to be. All those languages, and all that extra anxiety speaking to new people! Needless to say, it was quite a leap to book my conference ticket. But it was completely worth it, not least for the “people practice”, as I like to call it. An especially valuable observation has been a tonic for my confidence as a passionate polyglot.

Impostor alert

You see, imposter syndrome is BIG. We all feel it from time to time, even the most outwardly confident people. The phenomenon of internet celebrity plays its part – sometimes it’s hard to feel good enough when our heroes and idols appear to be such runaway successes.

It is that feeling that you are not on the same shelf as all those other impressive people. You’re a pretender to the throne, just blagging, a bit of a fraud. You can’t really speak all those languages. You know just a bit at best, and would crumble under scrutiny. In short, you aren’t really a fully-fledged polyglot – just a wannabe who can say a few words.

But let me tell you two things. Firstly, you are absolutely not alone in feeling this. Secondly, none of those fears are based in truth.

Look yourself in the face

One wonderful thing about the polyglot community is that it acts like a mirror. Be bold enough to look into it, and you see yourself reflected back multiple times. You realise the universality of your experience.

Put a few hundred language enthusiasts in a room, and it leaps out at you. We are all achieving, succeeding, thriving. In different ways, at different levels, yes. But nobody is a fraud. Revelling in a love of language learning is all it takes to be part of this club. There is no such thing as the fully-fledged, perfectly shaped polyglot.

Something quite sweet happened to me at the conference, which confirmed the truth of this.

Anti-social security

At the best of times, socialising with hundreds of unknown people is daunting. Very few of us are natural schmoozers. And so it was that I found myself, lunch plate in hand, hovering alone around groups of people that seemed so much better at small talk than I am.

Serendipitously, my forlorn wanderings were noticed. I was rescued by a kindly (and similarly floating) delegate, and naturally, we got chatting about our language journeys. It was an easy point of conversation; all delegates bore self-decorated name badges, including sticky flags representing our languages and proficiency.

A little push…

The thing was, my conference friend started to mention her experience of languages not on my name badge. Each time, I piped up: oh, I know a bit of that! And each time, the reply was the same – so where is your flag? Exasperated by my explanation that I just don’t know enough of it!, she dragged me to the table of flags and insisted that I add them.

Shortly afterwards, we found ourselves in the language room, an area with designated tables for a common ‘big’ languages to encourage speaking. Thanks to the extra flags, I ended up having conversations in old / discontinued / parked languages I never expected to use.

And guess what? I coped!

What’s more, nobody else was the perfect, native-fluency wizard I built them up to be. We simply shared the joy of language. I spoke to people who shared my fears, felt too shy to speak, but once prompted, just couldn’t stop communicating. Understanding each other’s common experiences, polyglot friends were patient, kind and encouraging. All it takes is a bit of self-belief to get going (and sometimes, a little push from someone who can spark that it in you).

You are good enough. Be sure of it.