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Automatic English For The People

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Identity: Podcast

by AJ

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Identity is a powerful thing. What we believe about ourselves- and how we define ourselves- will determine our speed of progress, our enjoyment of a language, and our ultimate success or failure with a language. A negative identity can destroy our motivation and thus our ability to learn a language quickly and easily. A positive identity can do exactly the opposite- it can be rocket fuel for our language acquisition engine.

Tony Robbins, an inspirational speaker, talks a lot about the power of identity. In a CD of his called "Lessons In Mastery" he makes the following point:

"See, to get to where we wanna be we gotta take on a new level of thinking. We gotta know that what we've done up until now has been great- there's nothing wrong with it, its fantastic.

But to get to the next level we've gotta look at life in a new way, and one of those new looks is we gotta perceive ourselves in a different way. Not just our capability, but who we are right now. Not someday. Today.

That shift begins the minute you begin to consciously define yourself, instead of letting the environment do it for you. Cause think about it- how do most of us define ourselves? Where do we come up with our identity anyway? Well it comes from a variety of environments but maybe the best way to answer the question is to ask a different one: How do you define the people around you? How do you know if they're a friend- if they're a good person or not?

The way we define other people. The way we discover their identity is we watch them. We listen to them. We judge people's identity usually by their behavior. Isn't that true?

I mean think about it, somebody treats you real harshly several times, each time you're around them-- pretty soon you go, "I know that person. That person's a jerk."

You know what the challenge is? Once you decide that they're a jerk, and if that becomes a belief- or worse, if that becomes a conviction where you KNOW they're a jerk-- nothing's gonna change your opinion about it. Then even if they're a really nice person later on, they were just having a horrible day, maybe they were being a jerk that day, but that's not who they are.

Once you define them that way, guess what, nothing they can do can change it.

So you gotta know that sometimes we do the same thing to ourselves. That's the danger. "


Tony makes a good point. Defining ourselves can be very very dangerous. For example, for many years I defined myself as "a terrible language learner". I had failed to learn a language in High School. In college I took two semesters of Mandarin and I didn't learn anything. I failed to learn Japanese while living in Japan. And I failed to learn Thai while in Thailand.

These experiences built upon one another. Each time I started a language, I already had the belief that I was a bad language learner. When I failed again, this identity was strengthened. In Thailand, I began telling people that I was a good language teacher, but a horrible language learner.

As long as I had that identity, I was sure to fail at any language I tried. But luckily, I chose to change that belief. I began to realize that I was not "bad at languages". Rather, I had had bad teachers in the past, and had used ineffective (and horribly boring) learning methods when studying on my own. I began to read research about language acquisition in order to become a better teacher- but this information also helped me change my learning identity.

Then I began to talk to successful language learners like David Long and Steve Kaufman. The methods they used were totally different than those I had tried. After one conversation with Steve in particular, I had an epiphany. I was not a bad language learner. With the right approach, I could learn a language just as effectively as Steve, or David, or anyone else.

I changed my identity. Suddenly, Spanish became exciting and fun. I've been learning it for four months now, and I'm more motivated and more excited than when I first started. I'm making steady progress. I don't know if I will be fluent in one year, or two years, or when-- but I do know that within the foreseeable future- I will be fluent. I have no doubt that I will be successful. I have a new, chosen identity-- I am an enthusiastic and successful language learner!

Another self-defeating identity we can create is a nationalistic one. If we identify too much with our native country and culture, we will be closed to other cultures-- and thus other languages. For example, if an American goes to Thailand and avoids Thai food, makes no Thai friends, lives near Sukhumvit Road with other Westerners, and constantly complains that "America is better"-- what chance does he have to learn the Thai language.

Likewise, if a Japanese student comes to America-- but lives with other Japanese people, has only Japanese friends, eats only Japanese food, and constantly wishes they were back in Japan-- what chance do they have of mastering English? Very little. And even if they do, it will require a herculean effort of willpower.

To my mind, the whole point of learning a language is to connect with other people and other cultures. Why would I learn Spanish if I didn't want to travel in Latin America, meet Spanish speakers, learn about Spanish football, read about Latin American history, etc. I mean, I'm dying to take a trip to Mexico, or Ecuador, or Venezuela. I've already got a long list of places I want to visit. That's what makes the language interesting and alive.

But to do this, I must let go of my "I'm an American" identity a little. Of course I was born here and I'll always be an American. But its only a small part of my identity. I like many things about America, and dislike many things too. Likewise, there are many things I love about Thailand, and Japan, and India.

I've changed my identity, from "American" to "World citizen".

These beliefs may not seem to be directly related to language learning- but they are. By redefining our identity- as language learners and citizens-- we can radically improve our ability to learn another language.

So forget your past beliefs. Forget past English "trauma". Forget all those boring classes and terrible teachers and tests and grades and criticism. None of that matters. Its not you. You are not bad at English. You are not bad at languages.

You are an enthusiastic, engaged, successful language learner-- if you choose to be.

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