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The Perfect Age to Speak Up

Hebrew is my third second language. However, the gap between learning Hebrew and learning the other two is significant, roughly twenty years. I learned Spanish as a teenager and Kaqchikel in my mid-twenties. My way of being as a middle-aged adult, I’m realizing, is also different and particularly fascinating in the unanticipated way it altered my language learning trajectory. It appears I am no longer afraid of speaking up. I smile no matter the accent on the words that come out of my mouth, because I dismiss all the reasons that kept my mouth closed in all languages for so long.


First, the stakes feel higher. This learning experience is not hypothetical, nor academic. My language need is more personal than before, which creates a greater sense of urgency. It isn’t an extra. My niece and nephews are increasing their interpretations of the world daily, and I am desperate to keep up.

Second, I made the goal public in a variety of ways. I put a value on it, this time a monetary one. My credit card bill is the proof. Moreover, class attendance adds another dimension of accountability. In short, my perceived advancement, or lack thereof, on any given day lands a deeper emotional impact.

Lastly, and most importantly, my learning is very specific to my increased decrease in caring what an outside perception of me might be. The language learner today is directly influence by the me today. When I work with teenagers, the fear of speaking up is most frequently connected to admitting a vulnerability. In short, the fear of speaking up is one of expressing individual need, using all the tools I am given and not hesitating to request those that are missing.

Language learning today makes me consider what the root issue of not speaking up or the fear of public speaking was as a young woman. This hesitation was never the fear of speaking but of hearing my own voice through the ears of others. Moreover, any disappointment was my own lack of clarity in the reason for speaking.

Despite bad accents or wrong words, messages will be understood when shared with purpose for those who are meant to hear them. This weekend when I land in Israel with my family, I may miss Hebrew class. Still, I will do what I practiced: Ask questions and get them answered. Focus on the process and move forward. Keep my pace not someone else’s. Most importantly, don’t wait for perfection.

So often we language learners are taught to envy young children in their freewheeling fluency. Yet, I’m well accustomed to my niece’s squinted, uncertain face. She leans back into her parents’ translations instead of into the video call. There is so much I tried to make matter that doesn’t matter. It’s air. It’s noise. It’s there and then it’s gone, dissipated in phone static or a jet engine’s roar. Of any age, I’m coming to believe that past forty is the time to learn a new language, when we finally conquer our fear of speaking up.


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