I signed up for Hebrew class because I wanted to have conversation partners. I needed access to practice. I considered less, what role I could best play.
I can control the topic, attempting to restrict it to where I could maintain participation longest. And, vocabulary. I begin to explain, and when I realize I don’t know all the words, change the way I form my statement to work around my own gaps. Still, the conversation would be limited to my current skills, and my growth slow.
The conversation would be broader. Language learners have access to a larger listening vocabulary than speaking. Someone else could guide me. I might recognize their logic, especially in how they construct each phrase and multiple uses for words I already know. And, pacing. I worry that as I analyze my possible next use of what I think I now understand, I easily fall behind. Since it is not their task to educate me, they may move on to speak with someone else. I run the risk of no conversation, shifting to stare at the nearest blank wall or available coffee mug.
Both roles have their opportunities and their restrictions. Both may expose lack of knowledge and gaps in skill. I may feel uncomfortable, or even a complete failure, at least for the day. For many skills we need to have more productive conversations, we are not lucky enough to have the luxury of a learning space modified by a knowledgeable individual. What good is the ability to decode a word, literally, if you cannot express it in your own voice, and be understood?
Yesterday, my niece helped me learn the correct pronunciation of the word ‘scared’. I had looked it up in several places. I attempted to pronounce the ordered letters by reading the vowel markings. I sent an audio message, and her sweet voice came back to me with corrections. I thanked her, admitting that I had made mistakes and needed her help.
As I practice with my niece, I build our relationship. I celebrate help when it is given, but I don’t expect it. I study on my own and I compensate knowledge when it’s appropriate. I often share my experiences as a language learner, but I am also attempting to challenge us all to varying applications of ‘language learning’. Feelings of fear or frustration are real, but not helpful. Impact occurs not through the construction of the perfect sentence, but the relationships developed because we were a little less afraid to make mistakes. Success is the acceptance of both our roles in the conversation, their limitations, and their opportunities. This classroom door remains open to another conversation, another chance to do better.
Speaking plus listening should be a conversation. This is exchange is as equally about me, as not. About my partner, and not. Our goals, our histories, and more than anything, I am reminded how much conversation is about showing up, regularly. I don’t mean to a scheduled class once a week. Last week at work in a difficult conversation about religion and race, I listened but was not as brave as I could have been. I did not feel eloquent in my explanations. I was afraid of how people would hear my words. Even terrified that I would not be understood. I missed some opportunities to grow as a speaker and grew from others to be a listener. For others, the opposite may have been true. We never know exactly how each listener, or each speaker enters the conversation. They may be their most successful engagement or not representative of who or what they are capable of.
In short, I am lucky to have access to a class twice a week, at least for Hebrew. For the remaining conversations, I must find all the small opportunities around me to practice. My most successful role in language learning is always as a reader. I can go at my own pace. I look up the vocabulary as needed. I determine whether the concept is of use to me, does it meet me where I’m at? I can recommend titles to others without doubt that if I acted as the messenger, the message may lose fidelity. In this case, the role before (reader) and after (reader) is my most important responsibility.
I encourage you to explore two series on this blog to build your own future conversations:
Witness to a Year and Two Books: A Conversation.