Women in Language: Day Four (Spring 2021)

Well, that’s it for another year. Women in Language 2021 is over.

It’s been a lot, these past four days. So much advice about learning languages, growing as a learner (and a person), building your community, finding your purpose… And I was speaking to Elle Charisse (Speaking Tongues Podcast – go check it out!) on Twitter yesterday and I was like, I think my mind’s exploding.

Obviously, she pointed out that there’s plenty of time to re-watch all those talks, so I said I was gonna have a Victorian-style lie down (anyone got a spare chaise lounge lying around?) and hopefully I’ll know where to go from there.

Well, I’ve taken tomorrow off work, anyway.

But before I get into all that, I did attend a couple of the talks today – so here’s my thoughts!

Let Me Speak: 10 Things to Tell Your Inner Critic

I think I wasn’t really sure what to expect from Emily’s talk, but like many other times throughout these four days, there were plenty of things she said that really resonated with me in a way that I hadn’t anticipated. She explained what she’s been doing the last couple of years: she left her job, she’s been taking care of terminally ill relatives, she’s been (like we all have) in lockdown, and she’s channelled whatever’s left over of her incredible energy into learning Portuguese.

Her main point is that our inner critic isn’t actually there to work against us. We can harness that voice, use it to drill down to what we’re really afraid of, and then pull in ideas that will help us overcome those fears.

I love this, because it’s, I think, a companion to what I’ve spent a long time learning about writing. I’ve been taking part in NaNoWriMo for over ten years, I think. I’ve been writing my whole life. What NaNo pointed out is that ignoring that inner critic – for a certain amount of time; in their case, a month – is conducive to the first hurdle: getting words on a page. And, later, you’re supposed to work with the inner critic again to take all those words and weave them into whatever it is that works for you.

Emily doesn’t advocate for the ignoring of the inner critic because that can backfire – but I think the idea of being conscious of that voice and making it work for you, is a great one.

She then went through the different doubts we have as language learners and methods for overcoming those. What was especially great was that her talk was also very much focused on language exchanges, which is something I have very little experience of. I’ve always found language exchange apps more annoying than useful – and part of that is definitely because of how some people act on those apps, but part of it is also because I didn’t know what to do going into them.

Here’s a couple of the doubts Emily explained – I’ve picked the ones that really spoke to me:

‘I have nothing meaningful to say’ / ‘I’m a boring person’ / ‘I’ll have to talk about my private life’

Oof, this one hit me. Honestly, you could make a list of everything I’ve done, everything I’m interested in, lay it out, and if you told me you were describing someone else, I might think they’re interesting. But I really, really don’t think I am. And it’s not sad, or anything; I just don’t think I am – but I accept that other people do? Sometimes, anyway.

Plus, the idea of talking about my private life with a stranger… Well, I mostly don’t think it’d be interesting but I also don’t always like talking about myself.

So, instead, Emily says to ask yourself, ‘What would I be talking about if I already knew I was [x] enough?’ And replace [x] with anything. What if you knew you were interesting enough? Funny enough? Well, find those things – because the truth is, we don’t know what other people find interesting. We are never ever ever going to know the truth of what another person is thinking.

So, you might think your life is boring, but the fact is that the ‘boring’ things you know and do might be fascinating to your language exchange partner. Emily suggested you could, for instance, take people on a tour of your house, or your town, or even your cupboards. Talk to them about what you know about your local area. Send them fun videos you find online and talk about those. Make a list of ‘big’ questions – ones that aren’t related to you and your life, like, do you believe in ghosts? – and ask those. Share your screen and you can both chat about a site you’re on, or you could even have a watch party! Use story prompts.

This takes some of the pressure off you – because I think that’s part of what this doubt is, a pressure to be interesting or fun or whatever in that moment.

Oh, and, you are interesting, I promise.

‘I haven’t studied enough’ / ‘I haven’t had the right opportunities’ / ‘I haven’t found the right teacher’

Not having studied enough is another big one of mine and it’s how I procrastinate on all my active skills. Emily points out that this is just another variation on the doubt ‘I’m not ready’.

The fact is, there’s never going to be a perfect moment. Not for anything, not really. I know that when I’m thinking this, I’m procrastinating because I don’t feel confident, but that confidence isn’t going to come if I sit around not doing anything.

Like, it’s obvious, right?

Emily’s solutions to this one? Start where you’re at. The advantage of being a beginner is that you’re not expected to know everything. So, start there. Find some common questions and work out how to ask and answer them. Ask lots of people, try out lots of partners, and you’ll become more and more confident each time.

She also had another point in another doubt that I think can apply here too: make sure to find a partner who’s at a similar level to you in their other language, if you can. That way, you’re not feeling left behind by them, and you should be able to practise similar things!

I’m also going to highlight one of the questions that was asked in Emily’s session, which I feel deals with some of the more practical aspects of language exchanges: What sort of time should you aim for, when it comes to your language exchange? And, what’s an ideal number of partners?

For time, Emily suggested starting small and working your way up. Don’t feel pressured into chatting for half an hour; start at ten minutes. Speaking a language is a difficult thing – I know that the main thing I’ve noticed, when I’ve travelled to places where I speak the language and I’m intending to be for a significant amount of time, is that the first week or so, I’m so tired. It’s not just the jet lag, either; it’s adapting to your other language and dealing with it. So, if you’re a beginner, don’t expect to jump in for an hour – start small, work on your stamina, your confidence, and grow.

As for an ideal number of partners, Emily likened it to speed dating. Start off trying out lots of different people for a short amount of time. As things go on, you’ll find the people you click with and you can spend more time with them.

I actually redownloaded the Tandem app after this talk. I haven’t logged back in yet, but I’m feeling a bit better about finding language exchange partners in future! (Not today, my brain is tired.)

Oh, and Emily’s releasing a book! After finishing a book of Portuguese dialogues and finding the English to be riddled with errors, she’s written her own and is hoping to publish it this autumn. Find out more about Emily on her website (it’s brand new!) or by checking out her Instagram.

It’s Not Always About You: How to Contribute to the Communities Whose Language You’re Learning

This talk was an incredibly thoughtful and thought-provoking one.

Eliza is from the US and was featured in several articles when her Instagram account where she was posting Malayalam studygram pics went kind of viral. Now, despite having 34 million speakers, there are plenty of people, I’m sure, who haven’t heard of Malayalam. Or at least, I know I hadn’t before I started learning about it at work – because while it might not be a rarely spoken language, it is underrepresented.

Eliza’s talk, then, was about what you really should think about if you are a learner engaging with an underrepresented or minority language. She started with a short discussion about the languages we’re learning: where are they spoken? Where are native speakers based? How much of their language use has been lost due to migration, colonisation, or globalisation?

This was an interesting one to think through, especially as I know Mandarin, for example, actually contributes to the loss of other indigenous Chinese languages, but also that as a white, English-speaking woman, I am definitely treated differently as a learner than heritage learners might be.

Scottish Gaelic, too. I don’t know that I’d call this a heritage language of mine, since the half of my family from Scotland don’t speak it, because of the policies implemented by the English hundreds of years ago that have pushed it to the brink of extinction. I don’t know that I would necessarily get any more (positive) attention than anyone else for learning Gaelic, as many of its speakers are of a similar ethnic makeup to me and also speak English, but I still don’t have the experience of having had that part of my identity taken from me in the first place, which is something to consider.

There’s definitely more than that, of course. I think this talk will be rattling around in my head for a while. But there were some questions of Eliza’s I want to share for us to all take forward with us.

When you’re creating content, discussing language, and interacting with underrepresented communities, ask yourself:

  • What are my intentions? How much do I know about this community and what are my sources?
  • Is the content, exchange, or cultural portrayal acceptable in my own culture, language, or society?
  • Who benefits more from my content and exchanges and what can improve the balance?
  • What narratives from the community can I include in my work?
  • What do community members have to say about my work?
  • What cultural and personal boundaries must I be aware of?

And another thing that was pointed out at the end was that even with major world languages, even those that are represented everywhere, you should try and expand where you’re looking. I’m actually really excited about this! Basically, instead of just looking at Parisian French, take a look at French spoken across North America, or parts of the Caribbean. For Portuguese, take a look at Mozambique or Angola.

I think this intersects really well, first of all, with Elle’s book list, because she did a great job of exploring different cultures within a language, and I’m also interested in looking around. I’ve already done a quick look for German (because I’m already a little more interested in Bavarian/Austrian German than Hochdeutsch), but I’d forgotten that German is a recognised national language of Namibia. Pennsylvania Dutch exists. Not only will doing this research make you more understanding of good practices when it comes to the communities of speakers you’re interacting with, it’ll also give you a better understanding of the language you’re learning.

Check out Eliza’s Instagram here.

Final Thoughts (For Now)

So, firstly, about the day: it’s my brother’s birthday today, so we had to run out and (safely) drop off his gifts, and then all celebrate on Zoom. I got back to the computer in time for the closing ceremony, but I did miss the rest of the talks (got the first ~fifteen minutes of Phelan’s, and I’m excited to catch up).

As a final note, I definitely have a lot to think about. That’s obvious, right? This conference has been more than taking note of practicalities to implement (though there’s been those!) to make my language learning more effective, or efficient; it’s also been a place to reflect on ourselves, to reflect on our awareness, to reflect on our intentions, and to reflect on our community.

I’ve been pretty quiet in the chat and on the Facebook group, but I’ve still seen what’s already growing out of them. Like I wrote in one of the other posts (I don’t remember which one, I think we’re about 10,000 words in right now), I wasn’t sure how much I personally needed this event. I wasn’t sure how my being a woman had any impact on getting a language into my brain.

And yet, I’m taking more away from these four days than I have from any event I think I’ve ever attended.

That image there is all the ideas that came pouring out of me yesterday. They’re just ideas for this blog, by the way, so nothing there about what I’m adding to my language learning, and nothing about the things I know I need to ruminate on. That’s four days of listening to successful women who are being honest and compassionate about what they know and what they’ve done and how they’ve overcome hurdles to get there.

I feel refreshed. I feel inspired. I feel… kind of sad, almost, that it’s taken me this long to get here, but it doesn’t matter now I’ve made it. I feel like I’m part of a community that’s here to lift each other up.

So, I think the final thing I want to say is thank you.

Thank you to Lindsay, Kerstin, and Shannon for organising this incredible event.

Thank you to every single speaker, whether I’ve mentioned you or not, for taking the time to share what you’ve learnt, for being so generous and so fearless with it.

And thank you to everyone else for being there and making this conference a great place to be.

I thought I’d finish by sharing the stats Kerstin had for us in the closing ceremony (as I am also a big numbers fan).

In this, the fifth iteration of Women in Languages, there were 599 of us in attendance. We came from 56 different countries around the globe. Thirty-four people inspired us with their talks.

So, thank you, for all of that. I guess I’m gonna go work on a bunch of stuff until the next Women in Language conference!

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