In my 20s, I learned to speak Spanish with a wave of refugees from South America. I just “hung out” and took a few lessons, sang in a small Latin folk band and eventually married a Chilean refugee. Because I had never properly studied Spanish or lived in a Spanish-speaking country, I had a lot of gaps in my knowledge and weaknesses in my listening and speaking abilities. When I had a miscommunication, I tended to blame myself, looking for what I might have misheard or misinterpreted. But later, I understood that many of the times in which I had immediately judged myself to be the “issue,” this was often not the case.
By this, I am not recommending we don’t look at our role in miscommunication – not at all. Self-awareness is critical to strong communication. But sometimes, due to lack of confidence, we focus entirely on our “issues” and overlook other factors. When there is miscommunication, people often go one of two ways – “it was because the other person did X Y Z” or “it was because I don’t speak (the language) well enough, I have a strong accent, I don’t understand the vocabulary, etc.” It is either the other person’s fault or my fault.
Regardless of our own weaknesses in a language and our limitations in understanding cultural expectations, always blaming ourselves is neither beneficial nor correct. Having self-awareness and taking our limitations into account is certainly important for communication. But having the confidence to clarify and verify, having the ability to laugh at one’s own weaknesses, using intuition to feel out where the other person is coming from, looking at the interaction from the other person’s perspective – these are critical steps towards developing strong communication skills.
In my work, I have seen this same dynamic. Some clients are basically confident – they can laugh at their mistakes and mispronunciations; they ask questions and confirm their understanding; they take initiative to communicate with others. These clients tend to make notable progress towards their language goals. On the other hand, some clients focus on their insecurities, their fears, their mistakes, and their response is to pull back and self-criticize.
An insecure learner is often dealing with other issues that have nothing to do with accent or language weaknesses. And yet their perspective is from this lens. Sometimes overcoming this insecurity is simply a matter of reframing the situation, gaining a few skills and learning a bit more. In other cases, the work needing to be done has nothing to do with language study.
I believe these are things we need to learn as we grow and mature, as we move through life with all its difficulties and joys. Developing self-awareness, taking different perspectives, having the confidence to reach out and initiate interactions, being able to laugh at ourselves, refining our intuitive skills and trusting where appropriate – these abilities can help us to communicate and develop enjoyable interactions and strong relationships.