Confidence in Language Learning

If nothing else, I'm at least confident that I'm not very confident.

Something fun that gets said a lot in regards to people who know multiple languages is that their language skills improve when they’re drunk.  There are very few talents that a person can have that get better when inebriated, and when thinking about it from an abstract angle, I’d be inclined to expect that it ought to be the opposite with something that relies so much on memory and quick-thinking.  I’d imagine being drunk would result in me getting lost and blathering nonsense.  But, from another angle, I think it makes perfect sense.  One of the most important behind-the-scenes factors with second languages is confidence.

Confidence is a key feature in a lot of the research on language acquisition, though usually as part of the background discussion.  Free Voluntary Reading is a central pillar of the comprehensible input hypothesis, concerned with the benefits of reading for pleasure and interest, where language is acquired as a side-effect.  The key feature that defines the reading as being free and voluntary is that the reader is choosing to read it because they want to, not because it was assigned or they feel they have to, and there’s nothing that will make reading a book feel more like a homework assignment than having a lack of confidence.  Language Shyness is a problem noted in people with Heritage Languages (people who grew up with a different language spoken at home than the primary societal language) where they have an aversion to using their heritage language out of shyness caused by outside pressure—usually from other native speakers expecting them to have a more commanding grasp of their heritage language and thus being extra critical of errors or accents—resulting in a lack of confidenceThe Pleasure Hypothesis out and out digs into how activities that a student enjoys doing are helpful, while activities that are not enjoyable, and often painful, are not helpful, and not having confidence is a good way to turn any activity into a slog at best, and a pain in the ass at worst.

There’s an overlap with other factors.  After all, you can overcome a lack of confidence in your reading abilities and get through a book over your head if you’re really interested in the subject matter, there are other things going on than just confidence when dealing with language shyness, and some activities are boring and unpleasant regardless of how comfortable you are on the subject-matter or not.  That said, confidence can be a major make-or-break factor in a lot of ways with language learning, because not thinking that you can do it will get you down, push you into doing only “safe” things, and shut off an openness to learning and using tools.  It’s no wonder that being drunk helps with your ability to speak another language; they call booze ‘liquid courage’ after all.

It’s an unfortunate reality, though, that it’s very difficult to cultivate confidence.  There are a lot of people out there who’ve made a career out of selling others the promise of more confidence, and if there wasn’t a market for that advice, they’d be selling something else.  It’s obviously a factor with a second language, and especially in the early going when it’s pretty much impossible to be ‘confident’ in a skill that you don’t really have yet.  It takes an overwhelming sense of willpower and self-assuredness to use a language you have only a handful of words in with confidence.

I don’t really have a magic bullet for it, but I’ve noticed with myself what skills I am and am not confident in.  I’m very confident when reading, pretty confident when watching television/listening to podcasts, pretty confident when writing, a little confident when listening to native speakers in real life, and not confident when speaking.  Unsurprisingly to me, that gradation is directly proportional to my experience in each subject.  I think doing things and (importantly) seeing positive results time and time again is what really drives a sense of assurance in a task, and while I’ve had failures in every category, I’ve had successes, too, and the more I’ve done something, the more successes I’ve had.  I’m confident in reading, because I’ve read dozens of books in Spanish, followed them along with strong understanding, enjoyed myself, and done it again with the next book.  I’m never nervous when looking at Spanish words, because I’m expecting to understand them, and if I don’t, then at least to get an idea and add a bit more to my vocabulary.  And most of the time anymore my expectations are met.

Where things get interesting to me is when we start talking about my listening comprehension and its two distinct “modes” for me.  I said I’m ‘pretty confident’ when it comes to watching media, but that’s honestly split.  Am I watching a show like She-Ra or Bojack Horseman in Spanish?  Because I’m very confident that I can follow a cartoon.  The sound quality and delivery speed for that variety of Spanish has become old hat for me, and I’m going into them expecting the same level of success as when I’m reading.  If, instead, I’m listening to something like Club de Cuervos though?  Totally different story.  I’m not particularly confident at all.  I can make out a lot of what’s said, and can follow the basic gist, but I’m not going in expecting success, I’m going in expecting to struggle.  And it’s even worse with the people in real life I overhear Spanish from, where I find myself genuinely surprised to have understood much of anything, sort of an opposite confidence, where I’m expecting to not get it.

On both counts, I am expecting to build that confidence over time.  When I’m able to follow the highest level recorded Spanish content and have a lot of successes, my expectations will grow, and I’ll start going into that sort of media confident that I’ll be able to understand it.  And likewise with native speakers in a natural setting, after enough successes of understanding things, I’ll begin to expect it there, too.

This raises a different question, since if exposure and successes are the driving cause of confidence, why am I not putting as strong of an emphasis on exposure to those specific things?  Well, that links back to the other research that set me off on putting all my focus on reading, that strongly suggests that skill and ability in speaking and writing is caused by language knowledge rather than creating it, and that language knowledge comes from reading.  I can gauge my listening comprehension improving bit by bit over time from my check-ins, and I can tell my output is steadily improving based on the strings of Spanish that pop into my head without me thinking about it, but those improvements are being driven by all the reading I’m doing.  When I’m satisfied that both skills are up to snuff to where I could actually use them as more than just a cheap parlor trick, that’s the point I’ll start concerning myself with boosting confidence in them.  For now, reading is the most important thing.

But something that’s been a common worry for me (and lot of other second language learners) is the perceived gulf between what I can understand, and how out of my element when trying to figure out what I can say.  Speaking in a language is the common yardstick for judging fluency, and with my might-as-well-be-zero experience in it and total lack of confidence, it’s easy to feel like there’s been no growth for me at all, that I’ve learned practically nothing.  And with that feeling comes doubts that it’s even possible to acquire a new language.

Understanding the role of confidence in things puts that fear into better perspective, though.  Having little confidence makes the whole affair of talking into something icky, and likely to do more harm than good if it becomes something to stress and dwell on.  But when the time comes, I can start getting experience, adding successes, and building confidence, and some day when I open my mouth to speak in Spanish, I’ll do so with the same expectations that I have for English.

Okay, let’s look at this week’s numbers.

Tuesday 4/16

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/5 of Dioses Menores, ~180 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Wednesday 4/17

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/5 of Dioses Menores, ~180 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Thursday 4/18

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/5 of Dioses Menores, ~180 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Friday 4/19

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/10 of Dioses Menores, ~90 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Saturday 4/20

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/10 of Dioses Menores, To the Moon, ~420 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Sunday 4/21

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/10 of Dioses Menores, 1/10 of Lores y Damas, ~180 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Monday 4/22

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/5 of Lores y Damas, ~180 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes
  • Total Duolingo: 140 XP, 0 minutes
  • Total reading: 1 and 1/5 books, 1 video game read, 1230 minutes
  • Total speaking: reading out loud, 210 minutes
  • Total Time: 20 hours 30 minutes

This week was an unusual one, at least as far as Friday and Saturday are concerned.  Friday was Passover, and I spent most of the night at a Seder, so coupling that with everything else I had going on, I didn’t have time for much that day.  Saturday, on the other hand, was a normal day in terms of my usual stuff, but I was also really in the mood to play To The Moon, a story-driven indie game that I really enjoyed back when it was new, and as luck would have it, had a Spanish version.  The game’s pretty short as far as games go, but that meant it took four hours to play, and I played it in one sitting.  As a result, Saturday was an overwhelmingly great day for Spanish studying.

I don’t know how content-rich To The Moon was for time spent, though it’s a game that’s mostly text, so I can’t imagine it was a content-poor use of my time.  And plus I really enjoyed experiencing it again.  One of those experiences that always makes me emotional, and the impact wasn’t dulled by it being in Spanish.  All wins in my book.  Though it was a visual experience and all, the game doesn’t have a voice track at all, it’s all written dialogue, so I counted that time as reading time.

I finished Dioses Menores this week, which was pretty solid, though not one of my favorites of Discworld thus far, and started in on Lores y Damas, which is another book in the continuity that follows the witches.  At this point, the witches are definitely my favorite of the returning casts of characters in Discworld (though I have the chance of having that opinion swayed by the Night Watch, there’s just only been the one book with them so far to go off of) and I’m having a good time reading about them again.  I’m working my way through these Discworld books at a pretty good clip.  I imagine that I’ll need to start thinking about what I should read next as the series starts to dwindle.  I’ve got a while before then, though, I’m only about a third of the way through the series.

Speaking of reading, next week’s blog lands directly six months after a blog I wrote that added up all of the words I’d read in Spanish up to that point, and I’m curious to see how many more I’ve read since then, especially after switching over to reading as my primary focus.  It’ll be fun to go through and figure all of that out.

All that said, I’ve been reconsidering that ‘primary focus’ a bit.  As I talked about in the main body of the blog, I’m all in on the reading, but I’ve been left questioning how valuable my listening check-ins are.  By which I don’t mean I’m considering whether or not I ought to stop checking in as often, but rather whether I ought to be doing it more frequently.  I don’t do it very often right now, and because of the limited time focus, I’m very reluctant to choose options that aren’t “pushing my limits” out of concern of wasting the time that’s supposed to be reserved for testing out where I’m at.

The problem there being that it’s turned all of my listening time into something that’s almost entirely hard, and frequently frustrating, and I think it’s coloring my perception of listening unfavorably.  It is, in a sense, lowering my confidence in my listening ability.

I of course still need to be listening to things at the top end of my listening comprehension ability, just to be able to judge where that top end is at a given time, but I would like to be adding more chances for successes to boost that confidence, because I think having a better attitude about it might result in having a positive effect on my overall listening comprehension.  I don’t want to sacrifice reading time more than I already am in a given week or month for it, but I’m going to be considering ways to supplement my current time a little bit more with more listening practice, so I can feel good about listening to some easy-wins sorts of material.

Anyway, that’ll wrap up this one.  TTFN.

2 thoughts on “Confidence in Language Learning

  1. Confidence, while speaking, is something I still find myself working on, and I find it amazing just how often it ebbs and flows and can just be so utterly inconsistent or dependent on my mood or environment.

    One time I started a Verbling lesson with a new Spanish tutor and had a bunch of technical problems in the first ten minutes: my mic wasn’t working, I couldn’t find the cable to use my HD Webcam and had to use the built-in camera, my internet was being slow, etc. The conversation that followed was painful. I was flustered and off my game and made simple mistakes—which only made me more flustered and caused me to make even more errors. Another time I started an iTalki lesson after an extremely long day at work. I was so tired that I could barely follow a conversation in English, let alone Spanish, and I it was a struggle for me to grunt out the most basic responses—again, being aware of how hard it was to speak only made me want to speak less. It was a massive regression and I actually kind of felt bad for my tutor afterwards.

    I’ve also had the opposite experience. I once had a conversation with a Chilean that flowed so well, with so few errors, that afterwards I didn’t want to book that tutor again. We had such a great conversation that I didn’t want to follow it up with additional lessons where it was just a matter of time before I gave away how limited my speaking still is. It was this great memory that made me wonder if one day I’d be able to have conversations like that all the time and it wouldn’t even be note-worthy.

    When you start to focus on speaking, one thing I recommend that you do is to think a lot about what you want out of a tutor exactly. I went through a long trial-and-error process of talking to different people at different times and on different days all while being uncertain about what I was looking for. Some tutors wanted to do formal grammar lessons. Some tutors would correct me constantly. Some tutors wanted to just chat. Some tutors would want me to watch videos on YouTube and discuss them after.

    Ultimately, for me, I found that I wanted was very simple: enjoyable conversations with minimal corrections. Some tutors, I think, offer corrections because it feels like what you should do when you hear a mistake, but in my experience I’ve felt that those correction mostly made me feel self-conscience and aware that I was speaking in another language. I know Steven Kaufmann asks tutors to give him corrections at the end of a lesson instead of throughout—I think that’s a smart way to approach that issue as well.

    After I realized what I wanted I started speaking to numerous tutors until I found three that I liked and had similar interests to me. That took awhile. But now I always schedule them for the same hours/days and I find that confidence while speaking is less of an issue. The familiarity, the routine of it, the enjoyment I get out the conversations—all of these make me focus on meaning and make me less aware of how awkward and artificial it feels to speak in something other than my native tongue.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I imagine I’ll have a similar uphill battle when I start speaking with tutors. I’m not certain what it is exactly that I’ll be looking for in a tutor when that time comes, but I’m thinking that I probably won’t be looking for much in the way of corrections at the beginning, but rather just the opportunity to make conversation and get used to using Spanish in that way. But, I’m thinking after I’m comfortable with that sort of thing and talking comes fairly naturally, that I might be interested in sitting a C2 Spanish test at some point—it’s a rather artificial sort of capstone for a project like this, but it isn’t a bad one—and I think that having a prep tutor for that would probably be a good idea. But at the time I’d be working on that, I’d also need to be pretty strongly cemented in all of the fundamentals to begin with, so I feel like receiving corrections would both be easier to take and also have more of a result.

      Right now I feel like I could probably take corrections with the right sort of attitude, but I don’t know that I’d be able to do much in the way of putting those corrections into ACTION, there’s still just too much background noise and uncertainty in the language for me to be able to really sweat the details unless I’ve discovered and assimilated them on my own. At a point where I was ready to start prepping for a test, there’d be less uncertainty, and having something fiddly pointed out would be less of a demand for me to try and memorize something that’s probably not going to stick, and more of a guiding hand helping me notice and assimilate something for myself.

      Quite a ways before I get to that point, though.


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