The post was reviewed and corrected by Rachel, an English native speaker.
When I decided more than a year ago to leave my comfortable job to join Gizra, I knew it would be challenging, but I did not imagine it would bring me face to face with my greatest fear - speaking English. Gizra has a lot of overseas clients, and over the past year, as we become more distributed, most of our new hires have joined from abroad. Obviously, this requires communicating in English.
My romance with English went wrong somewhere in high school. There was this boy, who sat behind me in English class that liked to tease me. Everytime I opened my mouth to speak, I could feel his eyes at my back. By chance, I also had a crush on him, which made the whole experience even worse. Twenty years have passed and I still feel his eyes boring into my back whenever I speak English.
When I came for a job interview in Gizra, no one asked me about my English proficiency. It is reasonable to assume that if they had asked, I would have given up the job opportunity and stayed where I was. But for some unusual reason they didn’t ask, and when I realized what was required of me, it was too late. I was deep in the water and had no choice but to start swimming.
Suddenly I found myself having to do my job, that I do well, in a different language. It’s like asking you to eat soup with chopsticks. You are hungry, you want to eat the soup, but you can’t scoop it up. It is a frustrating experience. Most of the time I felt stupid, not finding the words for what I wanted to say, not succeeding in expressing my ideas. I managed to repress this difficulty and not really deal with it. But then came the annual talk with the bosses, my Job title changed and became one that required more interaction with clients, and Amitai said - “You need to improve your English”. I felt my stomach cramp and from that moment on, I knew, I needed to be all in or completely out. I decided to go for it, because when you leave your comfort zone, the magic begins.
How do I begin mastering my fear? Instead of continuing to bypass it, I made it a task. ‘Doing’ does not leave room for anything else. My first task was to find an English tutor. It did not seem right and in the end a search ‘fear of English’ brought me to an English Anxiety Therapist - yes, that is a thing. I just needed four sessions to continue on my own.
Last summer we were on a family trip to the United States. This, of course, was a great opportunity to improve my English, but it was not the most significant thing I learned on this trip. I discovered that my son speaks excellent English, which was inversely proportional to his grades in school. “How do you know English so well?” I asked him. “Well mom”, he gave me his winning look, “remember this question the next time you complain that I spend too much time on YouTube”. Then I realized - to improve my English, I have to make it part of my daily life. And to make it part of my daily life, I have to enjoy it!
Children learn to speak by hearing the language and then, one day, they just open their mouth and start talking, imitating what they heard. So I also started to listen to the language - I downloaded the TED application, found lectures that interested me, and turned on the English subtitles to help with unclear pronunciations. Learning English stopped being a goal that needed to be achieved, but a pleasant way to walk - it made learning a whole lot more fun.
The commonplace way to teach English in our schools assumes that the ability to speak fluent English will come from understanding the technical aspects of the language. Well, that’s not true. Remember that boy from the beginning of my story? I remember him very well and I know that the ability to speak fluent English will not come from knowing all the grammar rules but rather come from finding the courage to open my mouth and make mistakes.
One of the things I asked myself quite a bit is, how did my bosses allow me to train and meet with customers with my English level? After all, with clients we have to be presentable. But that’s what I appreciate so much about Gizra, they trust you and count on you to get better. All you have to do is the best you can - including making mistakes, so you can learn from them.
My first training session in English with clients was very stressful. I prepared by writing a script and began memorizing it, but at some point I understood that reading from the page would hinder communication. I reminded myself that not having the exact words does not mean I can’t communicate. I have other tools like alternative words, facial expressions, tone of voice, and a smile, that will allow me to get my point across. If I am confident in what have to offer, everything else will fall into place.
My Pilates teacher keeps reminding me that it is not about what we can do with our body, but rather what we can imagine we can do with it. Before a training session or meeting with a client that is conducted in English, I imagine a successful meeting. This way I teach my mind that it’s possible. It helps reduce stress, to relax, and concentrate on what really matters - the content of the session.
I still have a long way to achieving the level of English I would like. Writing this post is part of the process, in both working on my confidence and actually practicing my English. To admit to my co-workers, and then in front of the readers of this blog, that there’s something I am really struggling with, is not an easy thing to do, but I’m glad I work in a place where this is possible. At this point what is most important for me is that I finally set out on this path. From here I just need to go forward.
And if you wonder how the Chinese eat soup only with chopsticks… well, they don’t. They also use a spoon.