How Do You Overcome A Mental Block?

I have been slowly realizing that my lack of using Greek is something far deeper than, “Oh, I just don’t have time/don’t have as many opportunities to use it.”  It’s actually something far more along the lines of a psychological block.  I get incredibly nervous when I even THINK about using Greek, my brain mentally throws up when I try to formulate a sentence in my head, and I have reverted to only tentatively saying, “Ευχαριστὠ” and ‘Κἀλη μἐρα” on a VERY irregular basis.

What happened!?  You might remember that at one time, I was writing hilarious letters to fictional girlfriends in Greek.  Looking back, I can only conclude that taking the second level of Greek classes right after the first was a very dumb decision.  I was struggling that first month, and I just barely survived.  I needed a break, but after one short weekend, I was back in class, and everything immediately fell apart.  

When I mentally put myself back in that classroom, my heart seizes up even now.  That first day was a NIGHTMARE – the other three students were speaking confidently and chatting…and I couldn’t understand anything.  I could not understand how they had leaped forward so decisively without me.  And the gap between us just grew as time went on.  I learned how to look like I was understanding, which is still screwing me up because people assume I’m picking up more than I am, and I faked my way through three more weeks.

I mean, I DID learn things.  I aced the final.  But practically?  I left that class a mess.  I had that meltdown, and then I skipped two days in the last week because Jenna was visiting and I didn’t want to go.  And the last day of class, we all hung out afterwards to celebrate Emi’s birthday, and I distinctly remember the feeling of sitting in the conference room chair, smiling tightly so that I wouldn’t cry as everyone talked and talked and talked and the teacher tried to ask me questions and I just didn’t answer because I COULDN’T until finally everyone felt bad enough for me that they switched to speaking in English.

It does not escape me that this is my worst nightmare:  feeling dumb, making mistakes, being less than perfect, being less than the best.

It also doesn’t help that it is SO HARD to learn a language when there are PEOPLE all around you saying people-ish things (aka well-meaning but often debilitating things).  Last weekend I had a great conversation with a Greek woman about all the things that make me feel awful, and she very kindly and perfectly said, “Wow, I didn’t realize how my words could impact someone.  I’m going to try to be more careful in the future.”

She could have just as easily said, “You’re an unpleasable nutjob,” because that is also true, though slightly less helpful.  Here are some of the things that hurt and help me on my way toward trying Greek again.

Unhelpful Things:

  • Telling me, “I had a friend who didn’t speak Greek for three months, and all of a sudden she just started speaking with perfect grammar.”
  • Noticing, “I worry about you.  You are losing a lot of the things you learned.”
  • Over-translating, a la: “She said ‘okay’.”  “They called number seven.”
  • Under-translating, a la: “You probably understood that, huh?”  “….No, I did not understand that apparently easy comment.”
  • Calling out, “Who are our non-Greek speakers here?  Will you stand up?  Great, can someone please translate for them?”
  • Saying, “I heard that you used to know a lot of Greek!”
  • Offering to do Greek-related things with me and then not following up, even when I follow-up and you still say you want to do it, but then you never do.
  • Asking, “Why don’t you know Greek yet?”

Helpful Things:

  • Speaking slowly and clearly.
  • Repeating yourself even more slowly if I am staring at you with glazed-over eyes.
  • Giving me five seconds in between my struggling words without filling in my silences.  I will ask if I can’t find the word!
  • Saying, “Do you want me to write that down for you?” because I am only capable of learning through seeing, not through hearing!
  • An ex-pat saying, “It took me three years to feel comfortable enough to speak.”  THANK YOU for giving me realistic goals!

I have also learned INCOMPARABLE empathy for everyone who is learning a new language.  Someone moves to the States and ten years later can still barely communicate in English?  IT’S OKAY, BOO, YOU TAKE YOUR TIME.  I will communicate with you via smiles and gestures for as long as necessary.


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