San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Go Ahead; Make a Fool of Yourself

Ticos have an expression: “En boca cerrada, no entra mosca” (“In a closed mouth, no fly enters”). This means that the way to stay out of trouble is to keep your mouth shut. It’s true much of the time, but not always.

The fact is, if you really want to learn to speak Spanish, you’re going to have to open your mouth and make a fool of yourself. For you to understand what I mean, I need to tell you about Paolo. Paolo was an Italian boy who was an EFL (English as a Foreign Language) student of mine many years ago. I tell you about him because he embodies, more than anyone I have ever known, the wisdom of the foolish language learner. Paolo had no fear whatsoever of making a fool of himself to learn a language, and it worked.

When he first came to me, he knew very little English, but he rattled on anyway, whether it made sense or not. He took hold of whoever was handy and talked and talked, often to the listener’s complete befuddlement. Three months later, Paolo was still making lots of mistakes, but he was speaking astonishingly fluent English and was thinking in English. A year later, he was fluent. Moreover, he had a whole string of people whom he had practically bullied into friendship with his determination. He wasn’t choosy. He would talk to anyone: beefy football players, the janitor, the president of the college, about practically any subject, from American literature to American football.

Paolo was a sharp contrast to many of my longtime Japanese students, who could write perfect essays they spent hours preparing, but could barely speak a word. Paolo’s essays were chaotic, full of long strings of words he had learned and words he was trying out just to see if they worked.

The difference between Paolo and the Japanese students was as cultural as it was personal. The Japanese demanded perfection of themselves; Paolo couldn’t care less. The Japanese students felt that they had to reason out and formulate their sentences correctly before they said them, which made communication slow and halting and led to very little actual practice. In contrast, Paolo’s general method was to take an Italian word and Anglicize it to find out – by way of his listener’s reaction – if it was indeed a word in English. If he got a blank, open-mouthed look, he knew it wasn’t.

The problem was that he often had to try out more than one word, which led to rather convoluted conversations. A typical conversation with Paolo went something like this:

PAOLO: You can tell to me where is da bibliotech (biblioteca = library)?

LISTENER: The what?

PAOLO: Da bibliotech not it is? Dat is, da post where one keeps da books (posto =place).

LISTENER: The post?

PAOLO: Yes, one dere go for to read da books.

LISTENER: Oh, you mean the library.

PAOLO: Yes, the library! Many tanks.

Paolo, in such an interchange, had gained two things: he had practiced speaking English a few minutes more, and he had learned the word “library” in a way that he (and the person with whom he had conversed) was unlikely to forget. Since Paolo did this about 100 times a day, he got lots of practice, learned lots of words and left a lot of baffled people in his wake.

I’m not going to suggest that you go out and faithfully practice Paolo’s steps to instant fluency. You have to be a kind of wonderful kook to go that far – in which case you probably don’t need my advice anyway.

Nor do I mean to put down the Japanese will to perfection. It’s gotten them to a lot of good places. Taking great care in foreign language conversation, however, simply doesn’t work. By the time such speakers have worked out what they have to say, either the conversation has passed them by and a different sentence is in order, or their listeners, being too busy trying to fill in the awkward silence or to figure a way out of the boring situation, have ceased to listen.

So, if you find yourself thinking a lot about what you want to say but rarely getting a chance to say it; if most of your conversations with others exist in your fantasies because you are tongue-tied during the real thing; if, as a result of this, you think you are just not good at learning languages, think again. Perhaps you just have too much pride to make mistakes. Perhaps you need to go ahead and make a fool of yourself. It’s very much like jumping off a high diving board. You have to just jump without thinking and handle the consequences as you go down.

Of course, it’s a risk. Paolo found out about risks one night when he was playing cards with his fiancée, a North American girl, and her father, a Seventh-Day Adventist minister. Paolo knew the card game, but kept getting confused and making errors in the roles of the ace. His future father-in-law kept correcting him until finally Paolo realized the Italian version of the game was slightly different.

“Oh, now I understand,” he told the good reverend. “You see, in Italy, we play with the ass.”

You’ve got it. The word in Italian for “ace” is “asso.”


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