In the the first few months of learning a language cross culturally even a small trip to the grocery store can become a game of “how much stress will I have to endure this trip?”
One day as I was finishing putting all my groceries on the conveyor belt, the person ahead of me had just finished. The checkout lady turned to me.
“Salve, – (Insert a whole slew of Italian words in rapid succession here) – Ce l’hai?”
“Ce l’hai?!? Wait, what did you say?…Oh shoot, she’s staring at me…um…let’s see…’ce l’hai’…’ce l’hai’…oh wait…that means, ‘do you have it?’ I think so…shoot…wait, have what? Man that line’s getting long…hold on…um….’Si.’”
“Ok.” (the cashier holds out her hand waiting for me to put something in said hand).
“Shoot…I don’t think I’m supposed to give her my credit card now…but…ok…here it goes.” (Places said credit card in hand).
(A look of confusion mixed with indignity appears on her face as she places my card on the counter and begins to scan my groceries.)
“I think she was asking about something else.”
Language learning whilst living cross culturally is one of the most frustratingly difficult and taxing things we’ve ever done. There have been few spaces or seasons in life that have forced us to face fear, confusion, and uncertainty with such laser focused precision. Language learning in a different culture has a way of pinpointing every. single. insecurity. that you hold in your heart and systematically poke and prod them relentlessly.
Situations like this one in the grocery store regularly force us to make decisions. When learning language cross culturally, one is regularly faced with answering the question of what’s more important: to pretend I understood something that was said to me so as to not look like an idiot or, to be honest and just admit I missed what was said and don’t fully understand?
Read: pretend so as not to look stupid or be honest and look stupid?
The irony is that pretending to be something we are not in order to avoid fear actually often leads to more embarrassment and doubles down on creating fear in us. When we choose to function from a place of falsehood we are functioning from a place of fear. Often this is a result of not being centered. When we forget who we are and whose we are, we easily shift and function from a false understanding of ourselves. When we live out of our false self we fear that our lack of a true center for our identity will be revealed and that weakness will be exploited by others.
Our false self will almost always try to compensate by finding our identity in performance – “I am what I do.”
In language learning our false self says:
“If I can just speak better, then I’ll be good to go!”
“Don’t let them know you don’t understand, they’ll think you’re dumb.”
“Fake it till you make it.”
“If they at least think I understand, then they’ll think I’m really doing well at learning language and will like me more.”
In language learning it’s easy to think that because we can’t speak well we won’t be valued. If our false self is rooted in value, then our ability to perform (or speak) is directly related to our value. Every time I fail to understand or articulate myself, I’ve failed. To the extent our false self guides our life, we fear others. Life with others is a constant threat to our false self. Others may see through or expose our facades of competence, confidence and control. Others may discover and disclose that we are a person without a firm center. And so we get stuck. If everything and everyone is a threat to my value then I might as well just stay inside and never leave my house.
Anytime we try to root our identity in anything other than God we’ll find ourselves trying to fearfully protect an identity that crumbles at the weight of its insufficiency. In language learning, and in reality, most things – when I try to uphold an image that I’ve created for myself I will undoubtedly, out of fear of losing it, do whatever I can to keep that image afloat. We are learning what it looks like each day to let go of the images of perfection and achievement and trust that we are valuable because of who we are in Christ and not our ability to speak well.
Our identity must be centered in Christ. Mulholland writes in his book ‘The Deeper Journey:’ “The life hidden with Christ in God is one of such growing union with God in love that God’s presence becomes the context of our daily life, God’s purposes become the matrix of our activities, and the values of God’s kingdom shape our life and relationships; God’s living presence becomes the ground of our identity, the source of our meaning, the seat of our value and the center of our purpose.”
We have to daily choose to be honest with ourselves and with others with where we are at in the process of learning the language and trust that our value comes from Christ and is enough to sustain us even if we look like idiots, fail to understand something, or say the wrong thing at the wrong time.
It’s easy to say our identity is found in Christ and not in our ability. But each day we are given countless opportunities to actually live that out by making choices that allow us to live in freedom from the need to uphold something that we are not. It’s in the little moments like the grocery store interaction where in a split second I can choose to live freely or hide. Do I trust that I’ll be ok even if I admit I don’t know something or apologize because I can’t say something correctly?
When I’m confident in who I am, I don’t have to pretend to be something I am not, I can be honest with where I am at in the process and relax; trusting I’ll get it…eventually. The lady at the checkout counter becomes a lot less scary when I don’t need her to assign me value.
These days when I’m asked if “ce l’hai?” I can politely just tell the checkout lady the truth…”L’ho dimenticato” (I forgot it.)