Always Push Boundaries And Conquer Fears

"Do one thing every day that scares you." — Eleanor Roosevelt

I talk about fear a lot. Perhaps more than one might expect on a blog about learning languages. But I talk about it because I think fear is such an important thing to conquer. It is the thing that holds us all back from being who we really want to be.

Pushing a boundary

Have you ever stopped to think about what that phrase really means? What does it mean to push a boundary? Many of us hear that phrase and we think of people doing things that border on what is acceptable. As a photographer, for instance, when someone refers to me pushing boundaries, I often understand it to mean that I am making photos that risk offending people. But that's not pushing a boundary, that's testing a boundary.

Pushing a boundary means moving it. It's finding the line that you're afraid to cross, and pushing it out further. It's expanding your horizons. It's conquering your fears.

Let me make an example.

Think back to when you were a kid. Maybe you lived in a small house in a safe neighborhood. Maybe you had a mother who cared about you and didn't want you to get hurt, so she would tell you it's okay to play in the yard, but you're not allowed to go out into the street.

The street was your boundary. And you, a little kid, were given your mother's healthy fear of that boundary. But one day, your ball bounces out into the street. You look, and you don't see anyone coming, so you go out and get the ball. It wasn't so bad, was it? You're back in the yard, and alive, and all is well.

Now depending on your nature, maybe that was all you needed, or maybe you had to do that several times, but eventually a day came when the street wasn't scary. You had pushed your boundary. The street was now a natural extension of your playing area.

But bigger than the street was the neighborhood, and eventually you had to push your boundary again, crossing out of the neighborhood.

And then out of your city.

And then out of your state, or province, or countryside.

And then out of your country.

Eventually, you managed to travel somewhere you never imagined as a kid. And when you look back, you think of that old street as a silly boundary. How could anyone be scared of that? It's hard to even imagine!

Conquering fears

Your first time driving a car was probably scary. So many things to pay attention to. So much to remember. And people everywhere, ready to beep the horn at you when you make a mistake. But after doing it a few times, it became easy. Now you don't think anything of getting in the car and going where you need to go.

Maybe flying was scary the first time. Maybe the first 10 times! But you get on a plane and you ride for a while, and when you get off, you're still alive. Before long, those little pockets of turbulence aren't so scary, and the flight that used to be so exciting and scary is now boring and trivial.

And this is how it is when you're learning a language. You can study all you want, spend years in a classroom or with your nose buried in books, but none of it is going to make that nervousness disappear when you first talk to someone. The only way to get over that fear is to talk to someone!

If you need to, do it gradually, just like you did with crossing the street. You can start by writing meaningless blogs on Lang-8 — even using a fake name if you need to. And when that's not scary to you anymore, write an email to someone in your new language. And when that's not scary any more, find someone to chat with. And if you're still scared to talk to someone face-to-face, try Skype first.

But eventually, when you've pushed your boundaries enough, your fear will be gone. You won't be afraid to talk to people anymore because you've already done it.

Why do you think that so many bilingual people become polyglots? It's because once you've pushed the boundary of the first language, it becomes addictive. Without that limit holding you back, you find yourself wanting more.

Once you extend the boundary of people you can talk to into a new language sphere, it becomes more and more enticing to extend it again. And again! With barriers gone, with fear conquered, confidence builds. Life becomes more fun. And all of life's doors start to open up.


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Author: Yearlyglot
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  • Nice blog this morning, I shared it on my fb page! I have always particularly liked this quote by Eleanore Roosevelt..."Do one thing every day that scares you"... and this doesn't necessarily mean go and jump out of a plane...it means also do something that challenges you mentally that you have put off because you are afraid of failing

  • Thanks!

  • Hey, thanks for the inspiration... very timely as I am a few weeks away from a big move to Sweden from the UK! Not yet fluent but making good progress in that direction and I know this will improve once I can immerse myself fully over there - hopefully in time for my job teaching music in Swedish:)
    Excitement has an undercurrent of fear when making a big life change but it is great to get encouragement along the way. I agree that learning languages and soaking up new cultures can have an addictive quality. Opening your eyes and ears and learning about how others live in the world gives you quite a lot of perspective on your own life so far too...

  • Good luck with the move!

  • I like you point about the phased approach, I noted the same thing, curious about the Skype thing though, I have noticed a lot (possibly most) people feel more comfortable talking remotely in a new language at first. I find the opposite, it is much much easier for me to talk face to face early on, am I the only person who feels this way?For my second language I have managed to work out when I personally should talk for the first time, https://chris-thai-student.b... I am going to use the same criteria for any language I learn from now on.Do you have a similar set of criteria or just wing it? I guess if you are in a country of speakers you can be less cautious, with more limited access to native speakers I don't want to waste experiences.

  • I think there are those who are naturally more comfortable starting straight off with in-person conversation, and then there are those who prefer a more remote step (eg Skype) at first.For myself, it's not so important to me which I use, though I will say that early on, I tend to end up on Skype more because I want to practice with people who either don't speak English, or with whom I have no history of speaking English. The foreign language speakers I typically encounter in person are too quick to switch to English if I have some trouble. But by Skype, I can more easily find someone who won't do that, and they'll slog through the rough spots with me... which helps me to learn more.With regard to your criteria for when to start speaking, I don't have anything like that. But in general, I agree with yours. Specifically, your point about having a knowledge of basic phrases that you confidently know, rather than a bunch of prep shoved into your head. I definitely wouldn't want to try to have a conversation with someone if I was struggling to understand basics like "how are you?" or "what do you do for a living?"

  • Actually thinking further on it I wonder if I went off Skype for Chinese because it is highly context driven, the tonal nature also means their is less emotional (less not none) in the sound of someone speaking. Possibly means that it is more comfortable to judge emotions face to face when still in the early stages. Ironically I guess you will have the most problems with a Chinese speaker who has no English and less exposure to Western culture.

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