Learning a new language opens a world of opportunities to experience vulnerability, especially if navigating your every day life depends on it.

Arabic writing

Just over a year ago, my wife and I relocated to Jordan in order to learn Arabic. In the future we want to work with Syrian refugees, and we know that speaking the language will open up a world of opportunities to connect with those who are most vulnerable.

We live in an area made up of refugees from different eras. There are the Palestinians who began arriving during the 1940s, the Iraqis who arrived during the 1990s and 2000s, and now the Syrians who arrived here during the last 5 years.

Everything from ordering drinking water, taking a taxi or buying vegetables depends on us finding the right combination of words, tone and pronunciation.

Each day in school, we take classes in formal Arabic grammar (Modern Standard), and the Jordanian spoken dialect (known as Ammiya).

Out of our many experiences of facing vulnerability through language learning, our reading class is the one I find the most humbling (humiliating).

In these classes we take it in turns to read out loud to a group of 8 people, while the teacher corrects mistakes and assists with pronunciation. When we’re finished reading, we summarise what we’ve just read in formal Arabic into spoken Arabic.

During the class I sit there anticipating my next turn to read. I feel tense, I mentally assess the abilities of my fellow students (comparing them with my own). The closer it gets to my turn, the more agitated I get and the less my mind focusses.

It’s exhausting.

The main source of tension during these classes comes from the fact that I really want to be good at reading.

I want to excel at the language and for others to recognise that I am good.

But the pressure to be good hinders my performance.

I so badly want to perform well that I psych myself out and end up stumbling over my words. When the teacher corrects a mistake, instead of absorbing the feedback and jumping right back into the passage, I waver and my mind jumps around the page. I start second guessing and totally lose my flow.

The problem with pretending is that with it comes the fear of being found out.

It requires maintaining a facade of competence, that requires a great deal of energy.

Learning to Let Go

So I’ve decided to work on my vulnerability issue. Instead of pretending that I’m good at reading Arabic, I’m admitting that I find it hard.

I’m accepting the fact that in order for my language to blossom, I need to take myself less seriously.

And I’m trusting that, as Brene Brown discovered in her research on the subject, vulnerability is the pathway to creativity and wholeheartedness.

By giving up worrying about what other people think of my abilities, I might just have the space to begin improving.

(Image credit: Neil Hester)