How To Overcome Fear Of The Unknown

Human nature is to fear the things we don't know or don't understand. When people act in a strange way, or talk in a strange language, it is easy to become fearful or distrustful of them. But once you start to learn, the fear is erased, and often replaced with curiosity and even a thirst for more.

Fearing the things you don't know

I recently told this story in my post about the Greek alphabet, but it's applicable here so it's worth repeating:

Growing up in the United States, I was surrounded with anti-Russian propaganda. Movies and pictures in Russia were scary, filled with strange writing and ominous architecture. But with a little study of history, a big building with a fancy dome has stopped being an ominous building, and is now recognized as a church. And since learning the Russian language, what once used to be scary, strange writing is now easily recognized as a boring old pharmacy, or a restaurant.

All the propanada didn't matter. All the ominous music in all the unrealistic movies became meaningless. What used to sound like an brutal, evil, scary language now sounds beautiful to me. In fact, Russian is now my favorite language... even more so than English!

To extend that thought further, I began learning Russian while dating a Ukrainian girlfriend, and I remember the natural tendency to become distrustful of every conversation in Russian. During every Russian phone call, the inclination is to think it was about you... but once I learned to understand the Russian language, I quickly realized that girl talk is every bit as boring for Russians (and Ukrainians) as it is for English-speaking Americans.

Sadly, I had a friend at the same time who had a Russian wife, but he never learned enough of the language to understand. He always distrusted her, even at those times when I was there and could reassure him of everything that was being said. If you don't know, you have fear, uncertainty, and doubt. In the end, it cost them.

Conquer your fears

Mexican immigration is a hot topic here in the US, but there is an interesting facet to the discussion that few people seem to be aware of: those who have the biggest distrust of those immigrants are those who don't speak the language. Younger people, who grew up learning Spanish in school and from friends don't seem to have a problem with immigrants. Instead of fear, even a small bit of knowledge can provide comfort, and even curiosity.

The curiosity is the interesting thing. When you learn even the smallest little bit of information, you start looking for every opportunity to use it. Learn that mi casa means "my home", and you listen for it in everything you hear. Add a handful of additional vocab, and already you've stopped fearing and started paying attention, listening for every opportunity to recognize something you know. Fear of the unknown disappears, and curiosity takes over.

So who do you fear?

What is the unknown? A different language can be a little strange and scary. Add to that a different alphabet — something you can't even read — and it becomes even more unknown and scary. Especially if it's completely new, like the pictograms of Chinese, or the right-to-left script of Middle Eastern languages. Add to that the new, strange culture, different religion, different beliefs, ways of dressing, etc.

Are you afraid of Greeks or Russians, with their strange alphabets? Are you scared by the Chinese and their pictograms? Maybe you're afraid of Hebrew people with their left-to-right alphabet, or Arabic people and their confusing, elaborately scripted words.

Stop being afraid. A few hours learning the alphabet are enough to begin breaking down that fear. Learn how to pronounce the words you see — even if you don't understand them — and you'll already have built the curiosity that changes a heart and mind.

If you can read the word, you can learn the word. And if you can learn one word, you can learn two. If you can read a few words, you can read a sentence, and you can learn a language, and you can lose that fear forever.

Isn't it worth it? Isn't it worth a few days, or weeks, or months learning about the language and the people in Afghanistan, or Pakistan, or Uzbekistan, or Egypt, or Georgia, or Somalia, or Cambodia, or Bosnia? Would it be worth trading the time you spend watching one tv show to learn, rather than spending the rest of your life fearing whole groups of people? To trade that fear of the unknown for a healthy curiosity about a whole part of the world, with fascinating culture, unique music, delicious food, and much more?

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Author: Yearlyglot
I'll lead you through a 12 month journey from knowing absolutely nothing about a language to having professional fluency.

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  • My ongoing flirtation with learning Korean led me to learn their alphabet. It took me all of 2 hours on (spread out over a month or so). Learning a new alphabet is cake. Now I can kinda read Korean when I see it, and if the word sounds like English, Japanese, or Chinese, I can sometimes understand a word or two.Learning Chinese characters in Japanese or Chinese is not cake, but it's not particularly hard ether. It's just a matter of putting the time in.

  • Not only that, but it's about resolving to learn and understand, rather than complacently accepting fear of an unknown.Even without knowing a single word of Korean, I can already imagine how just the ability to "sound out" the words you see would give you a certain comfort and curiosity... perhaps it's just enough to replace the scary image of a Kim Jong Il with nuclear weapons, with a more human image of a nation of people with a culture and a language and interesting things to learn about. :)

  • This is especially true on websites (where there tend to be more English loan words). For example, a while back I realized that simply knowing how to read the Hangul alphabet (not knowing any actual Korean words) is enough to understand 9 distinct words on the Korean language version of the Google homepage. (Nine words doesn't really sound like a lot, but there is very little actual text on that page, so it's a rather decent percentage.)In fact, one of my future goals is to learn as many scripts as possible, even for languages I have no plans to actually learn. Hangul is the only one I've tackled thus far, but that's due to the fact that I'm actually learning Korean.

  • Wow, as many scripts as possible? What's the impetus behind that?

  • Just to clarify, I don't mean every script I can find, but rather all the better known scripts (Cyrillic, the Japanese Kanas, Hangul, Thai, Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, etc.).Learning a script doesn't generally take all that much time, but doing so unlocks a host of loan words immediately (especially once you get the hang of how each language adopts loan words containing sounds they don't have). So I see it as a decent return for not much investment of my time. This is especially true with scripts that are used in multiple languages (like Cyrillic and Arabic).

  • I completely agree. The investment of a few hours - or even days - to learn an alphabet pays off disproportionately well in comprehension, due (as you said) to cognates and loan words.I'll add that previous foreign language experience of any kind adds even more cognates and loan words. For example, the word camisa is useless in English, but is a cognate in almost every other language I know.

  • That makes sense. After one year of it at a local college during high school, my Russian sucks, but I can still pick out cognates easily when looking at anything written in Cyrillic.I take it you left Chinese characters off the list because there are so few cognates written in them?

  • It's not completely useless...

  • I didn't include Chinese characters, because they aren't an alphabet or syllabary like the other systems and due to the sheer numbers of them, they don't have the same return on investment. Also, while the Chinese do sometimes make loan words based on the sound of the characters, they often simply construct their own new word instead using the character meanings.However, I've already started learning Hanja for Korean (even though they aren't *really* required for Korean now since Hangul is so ubiquitous) and Japanese is on my future "to-learn" list (hopefully via Korean), so I'll still be learning Chinese characters anyway (just not with the Chinese readings).

  • There is also camisole which apparently comes from the diminutive form of camisa:

  • So, basically, we managed to turn a word that everyone thinks means "shirt" into several forms of women's undergarments.

  • Chinese usually imports words using character meanings, as opposed to the sounds. By using the meanings, they end up with very logical words based on the meanings of the characters, as opposed to the random giblets of sound we get when a new word is imported into English.That said, there is a small amount of ("cool", another loan word from English) is that the word also literally means "black guest", so you can imagine some furtive guy all dressed in black traipsing around the innards of your computer, like something out of a film noir.Where have you been getting the hanja for learning Korean? When I start learning Korean (I think it's gotten to the point that it's a "when" rather than an "if"), I'll definitely want to piggyback on my knowledge of the characters from Chinese and Japanese to learn Korean, but a quick search of dictionaries aimed at English speakers didn't have the hanja. Come to think of it, I should probably just try to learn Korean from Japanese…

  • Since I'm not really actively learning Hanja yet, I just record a Hanja character in my SRS whenever it grabs my attention for some reason (so I only have a few in there currently).Korean Hanja characters are very heavily based on the Traditional Hanzi characters, though, so existing knowledge of those would help tremendously. Also, since you are coming from Japanese, you will pleased to know that Hanja has one reading per character.I've not really noticed Hanja appearing in the web K/E dictionaries, but my MinJung Korean-to-English (unidirectional) print dictionary (which is not cheap, but has been very useful) does have Hanja characters included, where applicable. Also, if you already know the Sino-Korean word and want to find out the matching Hanja character, you can go here to look up Hanja characters by reading.

  • Since hanja will undoubtedly be a big help in learning Korean when you already know Chinese or Japanese, I've also been considering seeing what I can find going from Chinese or Japanese to Korean. I don't think I ever want to buy a printed dictionary again (since those that I have tend to just collect dust), but I'll bet I can find something online that suits the goal (once I actually look).And having one reading per character is great news!

  • Reading your reply made me realize that some info in my post above turned out to be a bit off.1) The correct wording is that *most* Hanja have one reading per character. Some do have two readings, but one reading per character is far more common.
    2) As much as I love my MinJung dictionary (and used it very heavily at first), you are right. I now find myself using when I need stroke order info on a Hanja character).From what I've read, there are quite a few resources available for learning Korean from Japanese (and vice-versa).

  • Really just a great article and comment section. I think that just knowing I’m not the only shy person out there will help in social situations

  • Thanks! 

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