Language Learning and Brene Brown

Brene Brown

Language Learning and Brene Brown

Buongiorno. Welcome to The 5-Week Linguist Show. Today I wanted to talk about languages and the work of Brené Brown. I must admit I’m a little late getting to the work of Brené Brown. You hear the name everywhere. So I finally just had to check it out, and I’m so glad that I did.

I have read The Gifts of Imperfection, and I recently did her course on vulnerability, and she’s amazing. I don’t even know where to start. So essentially, she was a social worker, I believe, and studied through to a doctoral degree where she researched vulnerability and shame. So really negative emotions. And things that we don’t really talk about, or we certainly didn’t when I was growing up. I feel like Oprah changed all of that, that it became okay to talk about things that were not positive in the wider world.

And obviously, it’s absolutely crucial to do that because you got to deal with the problems to get to the good stuff at the end of the day. You can’t just gloss things over. And vulnerability and shame, you got to deal with those to be able to get to the good stuff. And that’s a big thing that I’ve taken away from Brené Brown’s work.

But I wanted to talk about what this looked like in language learning, because I think that her work has helped so many people. She’s funny, she’s engaging. She’s so human. And she’s gone and taken this quiet work of listening to so many people. She’s interviewed, I don’t even know, thousands of people, looking for common threads in ways that we can find what she defines as shame, embarrassment, vulnerability, and work through those emotions. Work through those feelings. And let other people know that they’re not alone.

So last year, when I read The Gifts of Imperfection, she talks a lot about courage, compassion, and connection. And I can’t tell you how important I think these are critical for language learning. You got to have courage. You’ve got to be willing to put yourself out there. Because it’s something that you’re going to make so many mistakes before you’re any good at it. And there comes the compassion part. You have to be compassionate with yourself.

Languages are interesting because if you’ve ever worked with young people, a lot of times by the time they hit their teenage years, they’re really self conscious, and they’re really worried about their appearance, they’re really vulnerable. So for them to really get into foreign languages is really difficult because they got to go through this whole ugly stage of making mistakes. And also, I’ve seen lots of people where foreign language is the first thing that really challenged them.

And then, of course, you got to seek connection. And all of those things, going through those uncomfortable stages that require a lot of courage and a lot of compassion are going to ultimately offer you a connection. And that’s really what our goal is when we’re teaching languages. We want to help people connect with more people, enjoy more things, connect with more content, connect with more ideas. Connect with more knowledge.

For years, I’ve been a proponent of learning other things through languages, and I’ve been director of a language immersion school, and I’m certified to teach English language immersion, and Spanish language immersion, where I can teach grades kindergarten through eight. Teach content areas, science, math, and social studies, et cetera, through another language.

And I am also a social studies teacher. But I really got that through being able to pass tests where I learned the great majority of what I knew about world history, and things that have happened in history, through reading in different languages and traveling. And when the coronavirus pandemic happened, I was really frustrated because I felt like there were countries ahead of the English speaking world. And it seemed to me a fairly clear pattern of what was going on. Every country, like Italy was two weeks ahead of the United Kingdom, for example. So when I didn’t see people learning from those lessons, I didn’t quite understand it. It seemed to be right in front of me.

And the brilliant doctor, Thomas Bach, pointed out on Instagram, “Learn languages and save lives.” His take on the messaging from the UK government. And I thought it was really interesting because I hadn’t made the connection that perhaps knowing languages makes you look at these other countries and simply take the lessons away. And maybe other people look at them with more trepidation if you don’t have a lot of experience with languages. Whether that’s true or not, I really believe the message is great. So it’s going to help you connect with people, their ideas and their experiences.

Brené Brown also talks about gremlins. The things that we’re really scared of coming out. And she referenced the movie Gremlins, which I’ve never seen, but apparently when they go out into the light, they die. So how fitting is that? All these fears, if you face them, or at least try to face them, eventually you can move past them. You just put it out there and it’s not so scary anymore. And I think that’s a really important thing, a really important concept to work with as you’re working with languages. Just start doing it and just keep doing it. So you’re going to make mistakes and it’s going to be take a long time to really make real progress unless you want to be really intense about it. But just recognize that those are there.

She talks about unconscious effect. And I feel like she said maybe five things, but the four that really resonated with me were shame, guilt, humiliation, and embarrassment. So obviously, really negative things. So shame is really deep based about who you are. And guilt is a terrible feeling about things you’ve done and embarrassment is about facing that publicly.

And I think that those words are really important to consider when you talk about making errors. We didn’t grow up in a culture where we were told, or at least I wasn’t, you know what, errors are good, errors are okay. In fact, you’re told that that’s the very opposite. That’s the opposite of how you should be. But we know in learning languages, successful language learners acknowledge these things. They acknowledge that this could be a really painful and humiliating experience learning a language.

If you’ve done any real work in languages, you’ve probably, as a beginner, had the terrible humiliation of not being able to express yourself. Or, if you could not being able to understand the response. And she actually talks about that and gives an example in Spanish. And you’ve also had probably the experience of saying something that you completely did not mean. That can be terribly embarrassing. And being laughed at. That’s happened to me plenty of times.

I remember one of my early experiences in New Mexico, I say early experiences, in college. I went to college 10 minutes away from the Mexican border. We moved to New Mexico when I was five. And I grew up part of the time there, and part of the time on the East Coast, just outside of Boston. My parents were divorced. They were two culturally completely different places. Completely different lives. And as I progressed in Spanish, I suddenly became the only person, as I got to the upper levels of Spanish, who was not a native Spanish speaker. And so while that’s really good in some ways, you have to sink or swim, you’re not talking about a room full of people who are spending a whole lot of time with learners.

So that was really hard. And I was embarrassed. I couldn’t express myself as intelligently as I could in English. It was hard. I always felt inadequate when I would go to class. It was a difficult experience. And we didn’t have the widespread, in language learning in general, as much about comprehensible input as we did back then. So it was a difficult experience.

And anybody else who studied Spanish, I know that you could easily say, a big mistake people make that we laugh about is, embarazada. I’m pregnant. Meaning to say you’re embarrassed. Or not writing your sign, not writing the letter eñe correctly when you’re talking about years, and you’re saying something extremely different in what you’ve written then you intended to. Or I thanked a French woman for her friendship, and I got the words mixed up. I kind of combined French and Spanish. And I ended up thanking her for giving me a disease.

So they are really funny stories, but you do have to work through a bit just to be willing to get there, and to hear a room full of people giggling at you and then you can kind of giggle with them. But if you have very little experience with this, this can be really hard.

She also talks about empathy. And I can’t tell you how important that is in learning new languages. So under she just finds empathy as perspective. Being able to see things through the lens of another person. I couldn’t agree with that more. And for a long time I’ve asked myself, “Is it the chicken or the egg?” Because I do think that I’m someone who has empathy. I do think that I’m able to look at things through another person’s lens. And I’m not sure that it’s a natural trait.

This has to come to you from studying languages. You have to learn how to look at things differently. So a quick example. If you’ve studied a language like French or Spanish, you’ll understand that grading is different, of course. And if you’ve studied French you’ll know that school grades, it’s really a scale of 20. In a lot of Spanish-speaking countries it’s 10. And in the United States, it’s A, B, C, D, et cetera. So, what do those things mean? Understanding how people look at things, how they see things, is so important to be able to relate to them. To be able to compare and contrast. We’re more alike than we are different, but you’ve got to understand, I think, some of those differences to be able to really communicate with them. And I think this is really, really important that not everybody has the same experience that we do.

And that’s essential. Because you got to study culture to be able to get to that point. We know that as language teachers. We know that culture and language are inextricably linked for that very reason. That you’ve got to have some empathy for the way other cultures look at things. We don’t have to agree with it, but we also have to recognize that we were raised with a different lens, a different way to look at things. And we’re just going to see the world differently. And I think one of the best takeaways that I’ve gotten from languages is that flexibility that all of that has been able to offer, meaning there’s more than one way to do things. And ultimately, when you understand that there’s more than one way to look at things, and there’s more than one way to do things, you can often find some, I think, better ways to do things. Just learning from everybody and everything around you.

Back to the coronavirus handling. I realize that every country is different, but when the numbers keep showing a certain pattern, and you’re two weeks ahead or three weeks ahead, then you’ve got some time to think about … You get to take away some lessons from that for positive outcomes. Studying the cultures, and then also taking into account the fact that things are different in different places. Maybe the health care system is different.

Maybe we know in Italy, it’s a very affectionate culture. It’s a very social culture. So it should be no surprise that things are going to spread really rapidly. It’s very family-oriented. People are out. People are interacting. Families are living together. People are in small spaces together. That’s the way they do things. So it’s going to spread more rapidly in a densely-populated Italian city than it would out in the middle of nowhere in the United States.

So we can get lots of takeaways. I think another great thing about understanding and learning from different languages and cultures is that the truth is always there somewhere in the middle. Isn’t it? I love that saying, because I do think it’s so true. It doesn’t say it’s exactly in the middle, but it says it’s somewhere, usually, not all the time.

So when you can take a step back and look at things, it can help you solve problems. And I think that she talks about this in a way of her lens is from people’s emotions. About being nonjudgmental. About understanding that people have different experiences based on what kind of background we came from, what kind of culture we came from.

And she talked a lot about the culture of shame. About trying to shame people in improving. And she talked specifically about obesity rates in the UK and some of the public health campaigns aimed at shaming people. And that that’s not effective. So shame is about making people feel bad about themselves. It’s different than guilt. Guilt is feeling bad about something we’ve done.

And the next lesson is vulnerability. It’s just all about putting yourself out there. And that’s what she means by vulnerability. Showing up. Well you got to show up to learn a language, don’t you? And that it gets confused sometimes with weakness. She talks about don’t confuse feeling vulnerable with being weak. Vulnerability, breeds strength.

So putting yourself out there. I love Benny Lewis’s whole “Speak from day one and get on Italki.” Okay, well, that’s vulnerable. You’re going to go speak with a native speaker. And he sets up all these great ways to be able to do it. He’s got it down to a science, but imagine doing that for the first time. How much of his own potential embarrassment did he have to put aside? And I know that’s different for different types of personalities, but I think it’s a good lesson. It’s all about showing up, and putting yourself out there.

I love how she talks about victim or Viking. So basically she’s talking a bit about all or nothing thinking, or black and white thinking. That things are crushed or be crushed. The things are one way or the other, they’re completely binary. And I liked how she talked about understanding that there’s lots of places in between. It’s like crush be crushed. Well, you know what, maybe there’s, there’s a softer place in between there.

And about trust. About practicing trust. So trust yourself to do small things towards your goal, and your skills will build. And I think she talks about a marble jar, which I really like about marbles are small and they build up. I know I’ve talked about in another episode, and I talk about it another place, where I talk about a money jar.

So it could be a jar really of anything, but something that’s valuable to you. I like the marble jar because you can visually see it. So maybe every day you practice, you put a marble in the jar and you watch it fill up. I like really tangible things like the money jar. So every week, every whatever set of time that’s consistent with what you’re doing, you put money aside for something that you really like. And your goal is to do the same thing, which are not as visual or as tangible necessarily as looking at a money jar, or a marble jar, but the concept is the same.

And I love how she talks about practice. About being really intentional with practicing things. Clearly, you have to do that with languages. But I like that she talks about practicing gratitude. So one activity I really like to do as a learner is write down things that I’m grateful for. And I had to do this with a lot of intentionality. I learned about it a few years ago, and I went through one of the most difficult periods of my life. I was about to get married, and that ended very suddenly without me expecting due to some serious problems that my ex had to move back to France. I was heartbroken. I didn’t see it coming. Then I owned a home in the States that had a squatter, and I’m a teacher, it was costing me thousands of dollars a month. Then it had all this damage from hurricane Harvey. Then one of my best friends was diagnosed with cancer, then died. My mother was falling down the stairs. She’s living in the States. I had to find care for her because I couldn’t quit my job.

It was a really awful period of life. And the one thing that really helped me was being really intentional with gratitude. And trust me, it wasn’t easy. But writing 25 things that I’m grateful for every day. And it’s a great activity for being a language learner, take a blank notebook. And even if you have to just list, to kind of look up words, it’s a great language-learning activity. And you will feel better each day because you have to find them. And they’re not always that easy. So during my difficult period, some of the things that were really positive that I got out of it, were I realized that I’m a strong person. Every day. Every day, I woke up, and I went to work, and I did a good job, and I worked on my blog, and I worked on my books and my writing. I didn’t let these really difficult things stop me from pursuing what I think is my life purpose of teaching words.

That’s just one example. And sometimes you have to go … It’d be a lot more concrete than simple, what I was talking about. Maybe you’re grateful just for having a nice dinner, or being able to sit and watch TV for an hour, or read a great book, or that you saw a beautiful picture, or a beautiful sunset. And when you’re down, it could be really hard to find things to look for that are really positive, but it will change your perspective. It’ll change your lens. So I love it. I think it’s really important psychologically, perhaps spiritually, but as a language learner, for sure.

And she also, she has a gratitude jar in her family. They put in things that they’re thankful for, and that’s a great language-class activity. So kids can do the same thing and you watch it build up, and you can have some sort of celebration when it gets to a certain point.

I also love how she talks about resilience. I think she describes it as the ability just to bounce back after difficult things. How important is that to try to be intentional about that? That we all have different points of maybe different, natural places where we do that. But I think it’s important to think about building that, being really intentional about it. That we’ve all got, I think she calls it our hard wiring. So some people may be just naturally more resilient than others, but that understanding where you are, and working with that to make the best of what you’ve got.

And she also talks about ways to develop that. One of them is letting go of the need for certainty, because we just don’t have it. You just don’t know what’s going to happen.

One of the things I love that she talked about also is a topic that absolutely fascinates me. And I just went, “Yes,” when she started talking about Dr. Stuart Brown. I’ve long used play in my language teaching. And I started using it for some very selfish reasons. Literally the word play, because I have a background in drama as well as languages, was probably the best tool that I had, besides my experience in learning languages, to teach languages, was literally plays. What do we do to be able to get up on a stage and to be able to talk without a piece of paper in front of us? That was really it. How do we learn how to do accents? How do we learn how to really turn those black and white words on a page? But how we learn to bring them to life in a way that stick in a person’s brain?

This was many years ago, and then it evolved in that I saw how powerful play was in the classroom. Stuart Brown’s definition of play is, or he’s got, I want to say seven principles. And I’m not even familiar with all of them. And one of them is that play doesn’t have a purpose. And so you can’t really say that language learning fits that definition, because it certainly doesn’t. But I think there’s some good takeaways that he’s got for language learning.

And in one of principles of play, that you don’t care what people think. Well, how important is that in language learning? You got to care what people think because you don’t want to offend them. You do want to be aware. You don’t want to hurt people. But not so worried about how other people are going to judge you, because you got to work through all of those errors.

And then also about losing yourself. And I think that’s really important. So think about enjoyable activities. Do you love to read? Spend a lot of time reading in a foreign language. Do you love to travel? Focus on that. Do you love connecting with people? Are you an extrovert? Betty Lewis is this great extrovert, go do that. Talk to people. Find something that’s comfortable. And that works for you that you would enjoy, that you would do for a long time. Do you love films? Do you love TV? Get on Netflix and watch in your target language.

Brené also talks about rest. And I really love this because she’s obviously in demand. And she talks about how she says no to most things because she wouldn’t be living a wholehearted life. So she would not be practicing what she preaches. So she’s got to maybe decide that things are going to take a little bit longer. And I think this is a really important lesson for language learners.

I’ve done the intense language learning thing, and I actually really enjoy it. I love going abroad. I love going to language schools. I love really hitting it hard because I love it. I love feeling that fast progress. But the reality is I don’t get to do that very often. I really don’t. And if I do, for most of my life, for 90% of my life, it would be extremely stressful because I’m doing so many other things. If I tried to fit it into working full time, it would be almost impossible. Or not almost impossible, but it’d be impossible to treat it with complete focus and intensity because I’ve got other things to do. And I would be exhausted. I wouldn’t get the rest that I need. And it would be an experience I very much would b looking forward to being over.

If you want to learn a language really quickly, I really recommend … Obviously, you’re going to ramp up the intensity and the time. Check out Benny Lewis, if you don’t already. He’s great. He focuses things with intensity. I’m not nearly as worried about getting somewhere quickly because I have to respect that I only have so much time for the journey.

There are summer times where I do have a lot of time to dedicate to the journey, and my marathon can become a bit of a sprint, but my life just really isn’t like that. And for example, last summer I moved and I did a lot of writing and I didn’t have time. I didn’t have time to study language in Italy like I wanted to. So my choices were going to be either to get some writing that I really wanted to do, get down, to do it or study language. And I just decided to clear and move clear the space. And my Italian? It’s taking me a lot longer than I had anticipated, but that’s life, isn’t it? You never know what’s going to come your way.

So I’m going to link to some other language-learning resources. Some resources for play and Dr. Brown’s work, because I think it’s helping me in so many areas of life in general, and in learning languages.

Until next time.

Thank you for listening to The 5-Week Linguist Show with Janina Klimas. Join us each week here and visit us at for more resources for learning and teaching languages.


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