"Do one thing every day that scares you." — Eleanor Roosevelt
I talk about fear a lot. Perhaps more than one might expect on a blog about learning languages. But I talk about it because I think fear is such an important thing to conquer. It is the thing that holds us all back from being who we really want to be.
Pushing a boundary
Have you ever stopped to think about what that phrase really means? What does it mean to push a boundary? Many of us hear that phrase and we think of people doing things that border on what is acceptable. As a photographer, for instance, when someone refers to me pushing boundaries, I often understand it to mean that I am making photos that risk offending people. But that's not pushing a boundary, that's testing a boundary.
Pushing a boundary means moving it. It's finding the line that you're afraid to cross, and pushing it out further. It's expanding your horizons. It's conquering your fears.
Let me make an example.
Think back to when you were a kid. Maybe you lived in a small house in a safe neighborhood. Maybe you had a mother who cared about you and didn't want you to get hurt, so she would tell you it's okay to play in the yard, but you're not allowed to go out into the street.
The street was your boundary. And you, a little kid, were given your mother's healthy fear of that boundary. But one day, your ball bounces out into the street. You look, and you don't see anyone coming, so you go out and get the ball. It wasn't so bad, was it? You're back in the yard, and alive, and all is well.
Now depending on your nature, maybe that was all you needed, or maybe you had to do that several times, but eventually a day came when the street wasn't scary. You had pushed your boundary. The street was now a natural extension of your playing area.
But bigger than the street was the neighborhood, and eventually you had to push your boundary again, crossing out of the neighborhood.
And then out of your city.
And then out of your state, or province, or countryside.
And then out of your country.
Eventually, you managed to travel somewhere you never imagined as a kid. And when you look back, you think of that old street as a silly boundary. How could anyone be scared of that? It's hard to even imagine!
Your first time driving a car was probably scary. So many things to pay attention to. So much to remember. And people everywhere, ready to beep the horn at you when you make a mistake. But after doing it a few times, it became easy. Now you don't think anything of getting in the car and going where you need to go.
Maybe flying was scary the first time. Maybe the first 10 times! But you get on a plane and you ride for a while, and when you get off, you're still alive. Before long, those little pockets of turbulence aren't so scary, and the flight that used to be so exciting and scary is now boring and trivial.
And this is how it is when you're learning a language. You can study all you want, spend years in a classroom or with your nose buried in books, but none of it is going to make that nervousness disappear when you first talk to someone. The only way to get over that fear is to talk to someone!
If you need to, do it gradually, just like you did with crossing the street. You can start by writing meaningless blogs on Lang-8 — even using a fake name if you need to. And when that's not scary to you anymore, write an email to someone in your new language. And when that's not scary any more, find someone to chat with. And if you're still scared to talk to someone face-to-face, try Skype first.
But eventually, when you've pushed your boundaries enough, your fear will be gone. You won't be afraid to talk to people anymore because you've already done it.
Why do you think that so many bilingual people become polyglots? It's because once you've pushed the boundary of the first language, it becomes addictive. Without that limit holding you back, you find yourself wanting more.
Once you extend the boundary of people you can talk to into a new language sphere, it becomes more and more enticing to extend it again. And again! With barriers gone, with fear conquered, confidence builds. Life becomes more fun. And all of life's doors start to open up.