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Moving On: Post-traumatic Language Learning

“We’re going to take your questions to people. Go out there and ask them, and note down the answers.”

We got the pens, paper and umbrellas (Wales!). We walked slowly to the Tourist Information Centre.
Ms Y walked up to me. She was a young Saudi lady, dressed traditionally and covered up. We walked together for a while.
“I have bad experiences with these kinds of lessons,” she said in her intermediate English. She told me of the last time she went out to speak to people as part of her English lesson. One of the local teenagers she spoke to took her worksheet and scribbled his answer – a string of abuse that she couldn’t understand until somebody explained this to her.
“I couldn’t come to school for a week, I was so depressed,” she said.
And yet she was with the rest of the class, walking out there, ready to speak to strangers in a strange language. Ready to be at risk, out of line. Smiling and looking forward to it.
Moving on.
This post is inspired by people like her.

1. The Hurt

Things will go wrong when you learn a language. Ms Y got it pretty bad, but even less drastic things will hurt you. Saying the wrong thing in class (the chuckles, or roars of laughter, when you call someone a “he” instead of “she”), saying the wrong stuff in public (“beach” and “sheet,” ah, the tricky words…), failing to understand or be understood – the list could go on and on.
Sometimes, it’s no big deal. You shrug and move on. Take the test again if you’ve failed it, say things differently. Things return to normal, and you’ve learned something in the process.
But some other times, it’s going to hurt really bad. There doesn’t always have to be a reason: maybe it’s just a bad day – or it’s your best buddy who brings the snafu about. Nor is the thing always instant: sometimes the shock and numbness grows on you day by day (culture shock, anyone?). One thing’s for sure: when learning and using a foreign language, you will get hurt, shocked and traumatized sooner or later.

2. The Scar

So here’s what you could do about it. Two options:

  • Keep replaying and returning to the situation that brought you down. Keep returning to where it hurts, and to how it feels. Keep believing that this is it, this is true and accurate, this is what learning and speaking languages feels like. And when you’re convinced, when the trauma sank in, move away. Drop out of your course. Go back to the safety of your mother tongue.


  • Go back to what you know, back to the basics. Speak in simple sentences, write the most basic of emails. Review the well-known grammar, revisit the lessons you’ve learned by heart. Celebrate what you know, appreciate what you managed to remember. And when you’ve regained momentum – when the language you’re learning feels good, useful and friendly again – venture back out. Do the thing which hurt you before. Do it right, get over it, see that the wound has healed. Move on.

The second choice sounds so right and easy…it’s not. The whole situation is frequently too messy and convoluted to think clearly. There are, however, things you can do: a “first-aid” procedure for dealing with language-induced traumas.


3. The Help: Dealing with Language Traumas

– End the trauma. Walk away from a failing conversation. Stand up and give back that test paper. Close the book that’s giving you hell. Walk out on the unhelpful classmates. You don’t need this, and you don’t deserve this.
– Seek help. Speak to your teacher, the school director, your language learning mates, your tribe. Ask other language students. Be clear and don’t hold back: you wouldn’t keep a broken arm a secret from a surgeon – so why would you shy away from saying how painful and infuriating your language experience was?
– Get clean. Ms Y needed a week to come back to class; you might need more or less time to think of your language again, without the heebie-jeebies. Make sure you figure the whole thing out, talk it through with the people you trust – and get rid of the anger around the whole situation.
– Don’t rush it. Painful experiences like these throw you off balance. You lose confidence, pick up things slower and are more prone to mistakes. One more trauma is the last thing you need. Start small, demand more time and slack from your teacher, and work your way back to your normal language-learning speed.
– Get the good stuff in. Celebrate your progress. Reward yourself. Explain to your teachers why you need to be praised now (this short talk summarizes that need perfectly). See and remember the good moments that your language can bring. They will help you regain the confidence and trust that you’ve lost.

Folks, I hope you will be able to steer clear of moments like that. Your language learning should be as fun and rewarding as possible! If you have a trauma story to get off your chest – or a technique for dealing with situations like these – let us all know in the comments below.

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