The Anxiety of Learning a New Language

A page from a Russian book, photographed by Doctor Yuri on Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/27557398@N04/2568132807/in/photolist-4UWmpR-8xBupm-dx31xW-DHvQWN-4LXyeZ-6BBfLe-dDdxsx-84cLxC-6AgD4x-pcGx9T-hyguhK-eqNAEv-dcEdfW-4qoeQA-RzmPRU-6tk1kK-4qYRms-qu8q2o-oWMJ6w-8rShYs-5RiP9k-SScDb2-p2T8j8-s8sbhs-9owLLR-WKXTPx-aubWUg-5SG3Hu-6AgE5Z-eyfQ92-ds8Wre-9kACiB-8EEP5H-bSWqYR-2aTwrG-oKDQph-riFHnA-r2z8AX-dcEbGP-dxbCSx-kWPKB-6AgCYi-o3JWw4-pBxm4X-r4sT1q-6AkLDA-6mnSWX-8xBuqY-5D5gKj-mQGnKa/

I walked into the first day of RUSS001 excited to finally learn the language and culture that always left me in awe. The art and aesthetics I loved as a teenager were typically Soviet or Russian, from Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita to t.A.T.u. I was going to take it freshman year at Penn before my pre-major adviser suggested taking Spanish to fulfill my language requirement, and then to take Russian if I was interested. She warned me of the agony if I decided to take Russian but ended up hating it. I took her suggestion, figuring that it didn’t hurt to improve my Spanish. Now that the language requirement was out of the way, I could have fun. I was ready.

Not so fast.

We were expected to master the alphabet by the end of the first week. Okay, that can’t be hard, it’s just the alphabet, I thought. Except that it’s an entirely new alphabet, I was in four other classes already assigning hundreds of pages of reading a week, and I was just coming back from a leave of absence and wondering whether I could even finish the semester. And don’t get me started on the fact that all handwriting was to be done in cursive. That was a lost art I hadn’t done since fourth grade, and now I was going to have to do this every day.

Almost immediately I was intimidated and overwhelmed, to say the least. I was feeling the fight or flight urge, the same urge I felt when I was in ECON001, which in retrospect I should have dropped. I also knew that my course load was too much for me, and Russian was the only class I didn’t need to fulfill any requirements. Given this, I was confident in just dropping the class, and pretending the whole thing never happened. However, my friends who knew how excited I was to learn Russian pushed me to stick with it, and to not fear being vulnerable. Knowing deep down that they were right, I hesitantly agreed, and instead dropped a research methods course.

Sticking it out has not been easy. I don’t master the material as quickly as I want. My speech is clumsy at best, and completely horrendous at worst, and everyone, will hear me make those mistakes. Besides the technical difficulties of learning a new language, what really got to me was the vulnerability of not knowing anything. I completely undifferentiated from everyone else in the class. I was used to being either the best or one of the worst, but never just average.

Certain aspects of the course, such as presentations or having to record myself speaking, have been terrible for my anxiety. This is especially frustrating since when I practice, I am satisfied with my performance, but once the pressure is on, I crack. I’m not upset for making mistakes, but upset for not living up my potential. It’s even worse when it happens on tests, since I have always relied on the fact that I am a good writer. There also never seems to be enough time to master new material. This seems to come from the course itself, as we are constantly learning new material and integrating it with what we already know, but it also comes from being an academically and socially overwhelmed Penn student.

Given all of this, I often wonder why I choose to take a class that meets five hours a week and requires at least twice the amount of time working outside of class. I immediately feel guilty afterward, as there are billions around the world who don’t have a choice in learning a second language; for most, it’s an urgent requirement. I feel spoiled, and I begin wonder if I could ever be successful if I wasn’t a native English speaker. Of course, this ignores the fact that I would be a completely different person if I was from another place, and such conclusions are therefore impossible to make, but anxiety is never rational.

I could have taken a history class, a subject I’ve very good at, and learned something new without sacrificing my dignity. But when I pick up words when listening to Russian songs or reading posters, or when I realize that the friends I’ve made this semester have almost all been from that class, I remember the purpose is not to be the best, but to learn something for pleasure.

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