When I was living in Germany working for the translation department of a company, I would listen to little kids talk—like 4 and 5-year olds—and they spoke much more fluently than I did. I would think to myself, “I can’t even speak as well as a little kid!” I was an educated person who had been studying German for years, and my verbal skills were “outmatched” by youngsters.
You can imagine how I felt.
I felt awkward.
I felt frustrated.
I felt vulnerable.
I want to talk about this word vulnerable today. It’s a great advanced vocabulary word to know, and it is a “hot topic” nowadays thanks to a professor named Brené Brown. Brené has been researching the topic of vulnerability for many years now.
So, what does vulnerable even mean?
According to Dictionary.com the first two definitions of vulnerable (adjective) include:
1. capable of or susceptible to being wounded or hurt, as by a weapon:
a vulnerable part of the body.
2. open to moral attack, criticism, temptation, etc.
When you see words like attack and weapon in a definition, it’s natural to think that the word is a strong one and not to be used lightly.
So, how could such a word be connected with language learning and ESL?
It’s because vulnerable can be used to describe how we feel on an emotional level.
Language is a powerful tool. We use it to express our wants and our needs. And, when we are unable to say what we need to say, we don’t feel in control. At a basic level, we might fear that our needs or wants will not be heard, understood, or met.
Or, we are afraid that someone might criticize our words. This can put a learner “on the defensive.” In other words, we feel vulnerable.
And, this feeling isn't just for beginner language students. It can happen to the most advanced speakers—maybe even more so because the pressure is on to "get it right" because they are so advanced.
Can you relate?
The Negative Thoughts that Play in My Head
Since I used myself as an example in the beginning, I'll give you an idea of the type of thoughts that sometimes go through my mind when I feel like my language skills are sub-standard.
What if they don’t understand me?
What if they are secretly making fun of me?
What if they think that this is all I am—an adult with the brain of a 4-year old?
What if...what if...what if...?
The Good News
So, this all sounds a bit negative, but the good news (and this is what Brené Brown’s research has uncovered) is there is a lot of strength and power in being vulnerable.
When I am mastering a language and am unable to express myself fully at times, I am showing my imperfections, my need for support, and my openness to learn and improve.
I am showing up as human—authentic and imperfect.
And, it is in this place that humans can really connect.
What do I mean by this?
Think about it: When you are watching a colleague give a presentation and he or she forgets where they are or fumbles for a word, what's your gut reaction? Usually it is not happiness that your friend is struggling! Your natural reaction is to offer up the word or help him or her with their thought. It’s human nature to want to help.
In the same way, when you are struggling with a word, thought, or phrase in a conversation, the person listening to you will mostly likely be supportive and understanding. They will either give you space to complete your thought or suggest a word that you might be trying to mentally locate. At our core, humans want to help other humans.
Sure, there will be the occasional jerk out there who wants to take advantage of our weakness, but those types of people are rare. More often than not, showing vulnerability is a good thing, so let's start using it to our advantage.
Here are 3 steps to becoming more vulnerable in your language learning:
1. Just show up.
My theory is that showing up for a challenging meeting, a class, or any appointment is 80% of the work. So, if you have signed up for an ESL class, a professional development workshop, or any type of class, just show up even though you feel scared. By simply showing up, you allow yourself to be vulnerable. When you are vulnerable, you are teachable, and people will naturally want to help you improve your skills.
2. Don’t give up too quickly.
This is especially true when you have a complex sentence or thought that you want to share. If fact, you might not "nail it" the first time you say it. You might feel stupid; it happens. This is vulnerability, and remember that vulnerability is a GOOD thing.
3. Let yourself be confused.
The tendency is to nod our head in agreement when we don’t understand what someone says. We don’t want to “let on” that we really don’t understand. Instead of nodding the next time you don’t understand someone, say, “I didn’t understand that. Can you explain that to me?” Why fake understanding when you can get clarification instead?
When you are able to show your imperfections (and feel like a 4-year old), you allow true connection to form with another person. This is how partnerships and communities grow. Sure, there is a time and a place to "Stay Strong!" and "Be tough!" but when it comes to language learning and building relationships, it's actually okay to be vulnerable.