For Those of Us Who Aren’t Fluent in a Second Language, Even in Our Dreams

I’ve heard it’s the holy grail of fluency: dreaming in your target language—walking around in your dream world, saying whatever you want to say and understanding everything that’s said. Sounds pretty cool.

Has that ever happened to me? Nope. I do sometimes dream that I’m back in Taiwan, but the people around me tend to say a lot of nonsense words, and when I open my mouth, I can only say the most basic of sentences. Sometimes I’m lost in the city, late for a meeting. I can’t remember the address of where I’m headed, can’t find the subway station, and have no money for a cab. It’s the cross-cultural equivalent of dreaming that I’m standing in my high school’s hallway, finding out I have a test I haven’t studied for and not knowing my locker combination. Oh yeah, and when I look down I’m not wearing pants. I think my dreams have found me pantsless on the streets of Taiwan a few times, too.

Or what about daydreaming about complete fluency, gleefully imagining the moment you take your seat as a translator for the UN? That, too, is a nope for me.

If your dreams are filled with fluent encounters in a second (or third or fourth) language, if language learning is your forte, if it’s as easy as ah, bay, tsay, or if it’s simply a piece of gâteau, this post probably isn’t for you.

But if your language learning has been a struggle, if you’re disappointed in your progress, or if you’ve reached a wall with no door in sight, read on. . . .

Before moving overseas, I’d earned a degree in English and considered myself a good communicator. I was a student of a language already, after all, and I thought picking up another one wouldn’t be too hard. But that’s not how it worked for me as I studied in Taipei. It was slow, difficult, and slow. After I’d worked on Chinese for several months, a more newly arrived, and much younger, cross-cultural worker at our school asked me how long I’d studied for one of the unit exams. He wanted to make sure that he didn’t waste too much time. I told him I hadn’t spent more than a few weeks reviewing. Oh, he said. He was hoping it wouldn’t take him more than a few days.

That was hard to swallow, but he didn’t mean to criticize me. Others weren’t so indirect, though. There was the cab driver who pointed out that my wife’s Chinese was better than mine and a Taiwanese acquaintance in a coffeeshop who overheard another foreigner speaking and said something like, “Now her Chinese is good.” Of course, the voice inside my head was even less gracious when comparing me to others. By “others” I mostly mean other foreigners. I figured I’d never speak like a local, but I was disappointed that I couldn’t reach the level of so many Chinese learners around me.

There was also our landlord who wasn’t very patient in her communication with us, especially over the phone. And there was the man I met on the street, whom I came to think of as a friend. But one day he became angry with me, complaining about my inability to understand what he was saying, stopping just short of accusing me of misrepresenting myself when we first talked.

And there was the helpful official who had me address an envelope to myself so he could mail a document to me. I had studiously practiced writing the characters in anticipation of such an opportunity, but when the letter arrived, he had rewritten it. He wanted to make sure it was legible so that the document would actually make it to our house.

Sometimes I could laugh at my mistakes, such as in low-stakes adventures ordering at McDonald’s, and when I called myself a bicycle instead of a missionary. (It helped that a friend said she’d done the very same thing.) But it’s easier to laugh when the mistakes seem like silly aberrations, rather than everyday occurrences. Those are the things we laugh about with others. It’s not so fun to be laughed at.

As with many language learners, it was easy for me to fall into the trap of simply agreeing with whatever was said to me, thinking I could figure out the meaning later. One day I was talking with the director of our language school to set up a one-session introductory language class for a group of college students visiting from the States. We were standing in the office surrounded by teachers at their desks—a group of people I really wanted to impress. She asked me a question that I only partially understood. Yes, I said. She asked me again. Yes, I said. She asked me again. Yes. But it wasn’t a yes-or-no question. The teachers laughed, the way I’ve laughed when hearing someone unskilled in English do the same thing.

There were some times when I did feel pretty good about my communication skills. It was fun to get a reaction from people who were amazed that someone who looked like me could say “Hello” in their language. And I was never more fluent than when groups from the States came to visit. For all they knew, my Chinese was flawless. And from time to time I’d have a deep, meaningful conversation with a national where my vocabulary didn’t fail me. That helped a lot. There were even times when I truly believed those who encouraged and complimented me. But mostly I was reminded of my limitations.

It wasn’t for a lack of trying on my part, though I now wish I’d tried harder smarter better. I’ve recently learned about the difference between fixed and growth mindsets, and if I could have a do over, I’d like to start with a mindset adjustment. Someone with a fixed mindset believes that talent is mostly innate. Either you’re born with it or not. Someone with a growth mindset believes you can increase your talent with effort and practice. There are a couple ways a fixed mindset can hinder you. One is when you believe you’ll never be good at something, so you don’t try. Another is when you think you are good at it, but avoid challenging yourself for fear you might fail and show others, and yourself, that you’re not what you think you are. As much as I want to have a growth mindset, I see how my tendencies point to the fixed end of that spectrum.

But I see a limit to the growth mindset, too. So if I could start over, or start again, I’d also want to develop a more complete understanding of who I am. While I shouldn’t give up improving myself, I don’t believe it’s true that “you can do anything you put your mind to.” There are just things I’m not going to achieve in this lifetime, whether because of my inner makeup or outside circumstances. I’m still working on being more comfortable, as they say, in my own skin. If I could do that, if I could try less to become more like the people around me and do a better job of trying to maximize who God has gifted me to be, then I think I wouldn’t wander around frantically nearly as much in the world of my dreams.

So how about you? Are you having a hard time with language learning? If so, I hope you’re able to continue to grow in your abilities. I hope that if you’re not thriving in your language acquisition, you’re able to keep on striving. And in your striving, I hope you’re given the time and space to do your best, or as close to that as you can get. When you struggle, I hope you can allow yourself to strive softer. And when your studies can’t take you any further and you fall short, I hope there’s still a place for you on your team and in the work you’re doing.

When encouragements are directed your way, I hope you can trust them. When others point out where you’re lacking, I hope you know you’re not alone.

And finally, when you move about in your dreams, if you feel lost and can’t understand what people are saying to you, I hope you run into some extremely kind people who make sure you get where you want to go, even if they have to use hand gestures for you to understand them. And if they’re extremely, extremely kind, they might even help you buy some pants.

[photo: “Sunny Spot of Greenery,” by Timothy Krause, used under a Creative Commons license]

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Published by

Craig Thompson

Craig and his wife, Karen, along with their five children, served as missionaries in Taipei, Taiwan, for ten years before returning to southwest Missouri. His experiences, as well as conversations with other cross-cultural workers, have made him more and more interested in member care and the process of transitioning between cultures. Craig blogs at ClearingCustoms.net.

Discover more from A Life Overseas |

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading