Facing Your Fears: Learning a Language

by Amy Azzarito

I remember the exact moment when I realized that I was lying to myself about facing my fears. I was in the car, with my friends Lacey and Gina and was congratulating myself for how brave I had become in my thirties. I had, after all, learned how to long board – even falling face down on Bedford Avenue, I had gone surfing (aka practiced falling off a flotation device) in the Rockaways, and I had just taken up aerial silks. BOOM. I was fearless. At the exact moment that I was congratulating myself most heartily, I realized there was this one nagging thing that I was still afraid of: attempting to speak a foreign language.

In my defense, this was a well-founded fear. I grew up in a small town where there were two language options, Spanish and French, and only two years offered in schooling for either language. (Two years of a foreign language in high school does not a fluent speaker make). I took French,  studied hard and aced the course. I thought about continuing French in college, but then a scholarship opportunity fell through and I ended up at a college with no foreign language classes (welcome to America). I went to France shortly after college and tried to practice my limited high school French but was met with blank withering stares that were enough to convince me not to open my mouth again. When I moved to New York, I decided to hang up the French hat and give Italian a go. In the second meeting of the class, we went around the room reading aloud.  When it was my turn, I read the sentence and the teacher said, “Repeat.” So I read it again, and he said, “Repeat.” And again. I felt like I read the same sentence 100 times. And in my embarrassment at my poor Italian skills, my eyes began to water, and tears began blur the words. I finally just waved for him to go on to the next person. After class the teacher apologized, and I said brightly, “Oh it’s no problem. I’m fine.” But I never went back. And so I decided that the language ship had sailed for me. –Amy

(pssst: Don’t miss Max’s post on getting his learner’s permit! Go Max!)

See more of my language  journey after the jump!

But then life threw me a curve ball. I started dating someone whose first language wasn’t English. And while he spoke English perfectly with me, he spoke Spanish on the phone, with his mom, on Facebook and with his friends. And perhaps my self lesson here is that I’m more nosy than I am afraid. So I made the decision that I was going to give this learning-a-language thing another go. I signed up for a class at Fluent City and committed to working everyday on my own.

What was different? This time, I never promised myself that would speak Spanish. I just promised myself that I would practice every day. It was a similar philosophy that I’ve applied to other things. I wasn’t trying to be a professional surfer when I gave surfing a shot and I certainly wasn’t planning to win any long board competitions. So I just told myself that I would study every day and see what happened.  Six months later, I’ve logged nearly 300 hours of Spanish practice. I get up early and I spent two hours each morning studying. I haven’t skipped a single day since I made that commitment to myself, I studied on Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year. I’ve made mistakes every single one of those days. It’s not easy, and I still wouldn’t even say that I speak Spanish. It’s a little corny to say but I feel like the path for my Spanish work had been set in a lot of ways by my yoga practice. For me yoga has never been about how flexible you are, or whether you can stand on your hands. It’s about showing up. In a way, almost anything that’s worth doing is just about showing up. Not worrying about the big goal but taking baby steps, every single day and trusting that you’ll get there. I get frequently discouraged – particularly when I lose focus from the little steps that I need to take and look up at the mountain ahead of me. But then I rally again, and remind myself that I just need to concentrate on my two hours for the day and those two hours will turn into hundreds and soon – who knows?


So what have I been doing? I started off with a course at Fluent City. I’m a school person and I like being in a classroom but for me, the classroom was just where I got to practice with other people who were also learning. The majority of my time was spent in self study. If you’re near a Fluent City, I can highly recommend it for a laid back language attitude.

Audio Courses
Synergy Spanish – This is a great beginning resource taught by an American who married a Mexican woman. It’s great because it gets you speaking in sentences right away rather than worrying about conjugations. It’s one of the best resources out there and was the first thing I started with.

Language Transfer – Another audio language course (For Spanish, there are both a beginning and an advanced). Seriously fantastic. Oh and it’s free!

Listening Practice
Destinos – A telenovela for language learners. There’s 52 episodes in this series that follows LA lawyer Raquel Rodríguez around the Spanish-speaking world as she solves a family mystery. Each episode gets progressively more difficult.

Extr@ en español – another video series for language learners. This one takes its cue from Friends.

Notes in Spanish – a 10-minute podcast with Marina, a Madrileña, and her British husband Ben. The couple live in Madrid and each episode is just a conversation between the two of them. It’s great listening practice.

Speaking Practice
italki – By far, the thing that has helped me the most in my language learning effort. I’m usually the tutor function of italki so I meet with someone a couple times a week and we practice speaking. You can also find a partner for a language exchange or practice writing and get corrections from native speakers. For me, this has forced me to open my mouth, and I’m growing more and more comfortable with speaking. I find it amazing that you can connect with people anywhere in the world and learn a language – any language! My high school self would have loved this!

Anki – a online flashcard system that utlizes spaced time repetition.

How to Learn Any Language – I found a great support team over at this forum. Not only is it filled with tips and tricks for learning a language but I get so much support from the people who’ve already done what I’m trying to do. Having a mentor is always a good thing and I have lots of them here.

Suggested For You


  • You think learning a foreign language in America is hard? Try teaching it, it’s worse. Thank you for sharing your experience and I’ll pass it on to some of my American high school students who don’t know the meaning of self-motivation. Bravo to you and your efforts! Effort, with anything, is what it’s all about.

  • Hello! Great post, well done on sticking to learning Spanish!! Memrise.com is also a great website for helping you to remember vocab. You can make your own lists or use the set ones, it challenges you bit by bit by encouraging you to ‘water your garden’ of knowledge, I’ve been using it for the past couple of years to learn German and it’s been really fun and has helped me more than post-it noting everything in my flat! ;)

  • Thank you for this. Learning French has been on my someday list. Four years of it in high school did practically nothing. I tried to keep up with it in college, but had a similar experience to your Italian – and that was in a 101 class!! Now I really want my kids to learn a foreign language, but the only immersion schools available are private and too expensive (thank you America!!). I was thinking of getting the Little Pim series to try and all learn together. There’s no way I can devote 2 hours a day, but I can probably find 30 minutes a day to start. Thanks again for the inspiration!!

  • I loved your post! I’m a native spanish speaker and I also fluent in english, but I’ve been trying to learn french for a few years without success. I’m going to follow your advice and start practicing.

    I noticed that you have a typo on “telanovela”, the correct word is telenovela, from televisión + novela.

    xo. :)

  • You can do it, Amy! I’ve been trying to become fluent in Spanish and French for 12 years in total and still struggle (and stumble) a lot. In both languages. But, the little victories make it all worthwhile. I’m eager to dive back into formal studies when I move back to the States this summer. Thanks for the links to various resources, and bon courage ! Or, buena suerte :)

  • I understand your frustration, I’ve tried to learn greek and some Italian but been pushed away by me getting discouraged after some time. I checked out all the websites you gave me, but I already know Spanish (learned it from my parents), so I might have to go on a hunt for some Italian teaching ones.

  • For those of you looking to learn French, I love Geraldine’s videos at Comme Une Francaise. She teaches you how to do everyday things in French and is actually fun and nothing like a stuffy text book. I have no affiliation with her — just passing along a site I find helpful. http://www.commeunefrancaise.com/

  • Hola Amy! Con lo que has dejado reflejado en tu ensayo no traduciré este comentario porque sé que serás capaz de entenderlo perfectamente. Como española, y por lo tanto ser el español mi lengua madre, admiro a todas aquellas personas que intentan aprender el idioma por las complicaciones que tiene. Estoy segura que si hubiese nacido en otro país ni me hubiera planteado aprenderlo por la dificultad que genera. Simplemente decirte que mucho ánimo, y que seguro que puedes con ello, por toda la fuerza de voluntad que has reflejado. Keep going!!

  • This is such a great essay! I really love when you guys post these! Before I get into the language part, I just wanted to say how AWESOME it was to see the quote about just showing up and doing baby steps. I sort of recently reaffirmed this for myself after struggling for a while with my life not being where I thought it would be by this point, and it’s so good to see the same sentiment confirmed by someone else.

    The language part – I was born and raised in Russia, and my family moved to US 17 years ago, when I was 17, so I had to learn the language fast and furious-like. Obviously, it happened, but it happened out of necessity. I am so impressed when people just up and learn a foreign language when they are NOT immersed in it and when there is no pressure for them to learn. I did French for 3 semesters in college, but by now, I just use it to understand lyrics in my favorite French rap songs, and can’t really string a sentence together. Studying for 2 hours each day is very impressive.
    One last thing I would like to add is that one HUGE motivator in my study of English was my deep desire to read some of the books I loved growing up as a child in original English. So I had my Lord of the Rings book in my lap together with a note-book where I wrote out all the words I did not understand as I read, and when I had a page, I stopped reading and went to my dictionary to translate them all. My vocabulary was REALLY weird for a couple of years, until I evened out ^_^

  • What has worked great for me is DuoLingo.com (and the phone app). It’s free and they make learning a language into a game, so you’re encouraged to keep practicing every day because you want to win! Even better, you can add friends who are also on DuoLingo and “compete” with them. It’s really the main reason I log an hour a day practicing – to beat my husband on our quest to learn Italian!

  • I second what Amy said–Duolingo! I love it. I also took 2 years of French in high school, but I could only remember a handful of phrases and basic conjugation (-e, -es, -e, -ons, -ez, -ent). I do it before bed every night and it’s just so fun. Highly recommend.

  • I’m on the other side of the ocean… I’m French, and I’ve been studying German at school for about 20 years of my life. For some reason, I hated that language (not the country, not the people, just the language). When I had enough of irregular german verbs and Cs in German, I watched Friends, in unsubtitled or subtitled English. I “learned” without classes, without verbs to remember, because, for some reason I can’t explain, the English language suited me. I love the way it sounds and its energetic and poetic vision of the world.

    I love living languages, learning them by practicing them, and, the most important thing ever, interacting with people. I’ve been a few times to the United States and each time, I’ve met incredible people because I understood them. That’s why I study language: to meet people on their own terms (pun intended).

  • Hi Amy,

    Congrats for your determination of learning Spanish! It’s my mother tongue and I understand that it could be difficult… But, at the same time, it’s a very rich language and culture and I’m sure you are going to enjoy it a lot :)

    By the way, you can visit the Instituto Cervantes in NYC:


    It’s an institution that was founded by the Spanish government to promote the Spanish language and Spanish and Hispanic-American culture.
    It could be a good idea to immerse yourself in our culture to keep you motivated :)

    Thank you for your inspiring posts!

  • Gracias y feliciadades! I’m bookmarking this post, since one of my lifelong goals is to become fluent enough in Spanish to carry a conversation. I’ve taken classes in high school and college, and Spanish lessons with a tutor a few years ago. I’ve been wanting to keep it up and carve out time to practice, especially with a one year old baby. However, these are amazing resources, especially the listening resources. I love the idea of just a little time a day to practice. Buena suerte! Thanks again!

    It’s also so empowering to see how many of my European friends who aren’t as scared to practice their foreign language skills in other countries. Inspiration!

  • I love this story. When I moved to Germany at the end of 2007, I didn’t speak the language. I took a couple of classes to learn the basics. I learned a lot from class, and I also learned a lot from speaking with friends who knew English as well, and from all the interactions with native speakers – at the butcher, the baker, and the market. People were very friendly and willing to help me when I wasn’t getting it just right. And those who spoke English were often excited to get to practice talking with an American.

    I had so much fear when I first started learning German. But then my confidence grew from the little things I did. And when I came back to the States, I felt sympathy for those who are here learning English. It must be scary for them, too.

  • I speak French, my English is ok, but I live with my italian boyfriend for 9 years now, and I’m still too afraid (or too lazy?) to learn his language.
    Right now, I’m learning Japanese, because we’re moving to Tokyo in 3 weeks. It is not easy, but baby steps, yes, that’s a great way to begin!

  • I love this post! It is doubly inspiring for me since I’ve wanted to take up both surfing and learning a new language for a while now… I guess I should get practising! Thanks for sharing!

  • This is one of the sad facts about school and language learning in the States, and it’s only getting worse. So few people speak another language whereas in Europe everyone…everyone… speaks at minimum two languages and it’s no big deal! I had 10 years of French in school, then totally dropped it for 25 years and became afraid to speak and too embarrassed of making mistakes. Ten years ago I started in again, go to France every year, have French friends, read books and magazines etc. and am SO happy I made the effort. It opens so many windows on different cultures and people!

  • Your blogpost could not have come at a more appropriate time for me. Just weeks ago I began learning Italian with the Duolingo app, and using my old Living Language lesson books and CDs for reference. I agree that learning a new language is very much a yogic experience—showing up and being with each moment—not judging, not racing ahead, but just being present. I try my best to use this gentle-but-steady approach for almost everything in my life now—from the novel to the ordinary. ~ ciao, and namaste!

  • This post really hit home for me. I have loved travelling in Spain and South America and had taken some spanish classes off and on over the past few years. I could “get by” and understand the basics – but really wanted to get immersed and speak more fluently (ie actually learn what all the fruits and vegetables in the market are called instead of just pointing to things :)). But i really hesitated to ever speak spanish unless i had practised what i wanted to say a million times in my head first and knew that whatever i was going to say was going to come out perfectly. well that is no way to learn a language as you know! anyhow I quit my job last year and moved to Buenos Aires and like you, am still struggling to overcome that fear of just diving in and speaking. but the baby steps are indeed a victory. Thanks for the resources Amy – some of them I knew about but i am definitely going to check out Destinos!

  • One thing I love about language acquisition is how humbling it is! No one, no matter how innately gifted, speaks well initially when learning a second language! I think of my daughter, now 18 months old, as she repeats words and bungles phrases, uses very simple grammar and is excited every time she says a new word. And everyone around her delights in it because we know she will learn! I think there are many people in other countries (and hopefully America!) who feel the same way when someone steps up and puts forth the effort and humility to try and speak when they are still far from perfect. I am grateful for all the people who suffered my mispronunciations and mistakes to help me learn to speak Italian and Portuguese, and can honestly say there is nothing in my life that I’ve found more rewarding than communicating with people in a language that is not my own. Way to go, Amy. Fearless, indeed!

  • Good for you! I can’t even tell you how long I’ve been saying I’m going to learn Spanish. I will definitely take a look at the resources you recommended.

  • I would suggest trying Duolingo. They have lessons either via their website or app and it’s completely free. I’ve used books, worksheets, Rosetta Stone (the worst) for the past 3-4 yaers and I’ve learned more French than I have with all three combined. Plus they tell you to go back an refresh certain courses when necessary. Of course it’s not perfect and the audio repeat sections let you pass when even when you don’t enunciate correctly but I can’t argue with my progress.

    My 2.5 years of high school Spanish (my third year was a joke thanks to my teacher’s philosophy that football players must focus on ‘preparing’ for the game, so no work on Fridays) also did nothing for me. After all those years, I never learned something basic like animals beyond cat and dog. Ten years later I remember almost zero so that was a waste of my time.

  • I am English and currently living in Vietnam. Whilst I find learning a language so different from my own extremely hard, I also find it forever true that willingness goes a long way, and also that much of communication is non-verbal. Here so few Western people speak Vietnamese that just a small amount is enough to get people interested, and often they want to help you to explain yourself, and will help you to learn more. The highest graded student for French at my own high school spoke in a way that was dreadfully full of errors, and her verb tenses were all wrong, but she also filled her conversation with expression, enjoyment and energy. I think that in the real world that counts for more.

  • Ey!
    I’m following you blog because I love it!!!
    I’m really glad to read something about spanish people. Thank you so much!

  • Learning a language is always hard but it can be difficult to stay motivated when you’re learning alone and you’ve got work and life to also maintain. I’ve spent the last few years learning German and slowly but surely I improve in some ways and regress in others. It’s a daily struggle but I would encourage anyone to learn a language!

  • Amy, this is so inspiring and filled with many great resources–thank you! Your advice about baby steps is important in so many things–but two hours a day, wow, that’s really impressive!

  • this is such an inspiring post! I’ve been living in Belgium for about five months now and I really need to motivate myself to learn Dutch (uuuugh there are so few resources, why isn’t this language more popular!?). My son is going to pick up Dutch from daycare and school, so that’s a good motivating factor. Congrats with your language pursuits and good luck!

  • I love this post. Love. I spent eight months in high school living in Germany and then two more months there in college at the university. While I was there my German was great and I learned it quickly, but there are still nuances of the language that get me every time! There is always room for growth, and what a comfort that is for me, that there will always be a new vocab word or really descriptive verb waiting for me!

  • One of the strangest things about language acquisition is how humbling and empowering it is at the same time! No matter how gifted someone is, we all sound silly at first! I am especially aware of this as my 18 month old daughter learns to speak… She bungles pronunciations and grammar and phrases, but we delight in all of it, because we know she will learn! I am so grateful for the people who encouraged me despite my prolific mistakes as I learned Italian and Portuguese… but I was almost always met with the same enthusiasm that my family is showing my daughter. I think most people (that you would want to know, anyway!) are moved by our efforts and proud of their language, and happy to share it! Way to go, Amy!! Fearless, indeed!

  • I’ll add another YES for Duolingo. It’s a great, FREE, way to jumpstart language studies.

    I would say that the one down side to the program is conversation/speaking practice. I’d find a conversation partner for that.

    In terms of Spanish, telenovelas are terrific, but you’re not limited to just soaps. There are spanish language versions of a lot of popular programs – The Voice (La Voz), etc. Tons of programming on Telemundo and Univision.

    AND! There are tons of tv programs from all around the world on VIKI.COM. It’s a great free site that uses crowd-sourced transcription.

  • I am an English and French-speaker and just moved to Albania…it’s a language unlike other European ones and it’s so hard to find the courage to jump in and make horrendous mistakes as I learn! For me, the only thing that really works is classes with a professional teacher in person, and lots of practice in everyday situations. Plus, soap operas! Because everything is over-acted, you can pick up a lot even when you don’t understand all the words. Thanks for this reminder to be gentle with yourself, take your time, and most of all just show up. It does pay off in the end.

  • I am with you…I aced French in High School and when I attempt to speak it to native French speakers they always say quoi quoi? It’s frustrating and I can’t get that accent. I’m pretty proficient in Spanglish though. I have my little ones starting early so they don’t sound like their mama.

  • Amy, this is really great. You have touched on the key factors that separate success and failure in a second language: sticktoitiveness and fear.

    I have a very similar story where I failed French in high school and learnt Spanish as an adult and now I help others learn Spanish.

    There are a lots of tools out there and you have listed some great ones. But it’s not the tool, software or training course that makes the difference. If you want to be successful you have to show up everyday and have the courage to go and face your fears, make mistakes and actually use the language even if you feel you aren’t ready.

  • Thank you for this honest post! Love the quote, “It’s about showing up. In a way, almost anything that’s worth doing is just about showing up. Not worrying about the big goal but taking baby steps, every single day and trusting that you’ll get there.”

  • this was so wonderful and inspiring! and yes, it is truly about just showing up and taking the baby steps. bravo amy…i was in my 40s when i figured this out!

  • This is really helpful, thank you so much for sharing. I’m moving to Leipzig, Germany in July and struggling with learning German (especially the grammar). I’m writing about my experiences on my blog too if anyone wants to share their learning :)

  • Just be happy you are not learning Mandarin or Cantonese or another tonal language … the same rough sound can take on half a dozen meanings based on how you say it. The classic example is the word for “mother”, if spoken incorrectly, can be the word for “horse” :)

    I’m really lucky to live in Canada, and I took French all through elementary school through high school. I took the “extended” programme that is available in some schools here, and it’s a bridge between basic and immersion — we took some of our classes in French (although most of us didn’t bother to speak). It helped stick.

  • I discovered a big change in my language learning attitude when I started telling people (including myself) that “I am learning Spanish” instead of “I am trying to learn Spanish.”

  • This is fantastic! Thanks for sharing.
    In high school I actually uttered the words ‘I’m never going to use this’, when referring to the French class that I nearly failed. Fast forward 15ish years later and I’m married to a Francophone, living in France, with my two daughters, that will soon be correcting my French. It’s a challenge everyday, but worth it in the long run!

  • Hi Amy, Just read your essay and I am inspired. I love your attitude and given it is Monday morning, I am going to try and adapt the ‘Amy Attitude’ as of today. The fear factor effects us so much and unfortunately some of us have more ‘fear’ reserves than others. It really effects our ability to throw ourselves into any new activity. I learned to ski when I was 40 while every fibre in my body was screaming “Stop this madness, go get a hot chocolate instead”. So yes, turning up is already a huge accomplishment and one baby step at a time … Cheers, you made my day!

  • ¡¡¡Muy bien!!!te felicito por seguir tratando. Yo estudié muchos años inglés y todavía me cuesta, así que a seguir adelante.
    saludos desde Argentina

  • Many people think American Sign Language (or any signed language) is easy to learn, but I can tell you it is 100% harder than when I was learning Italian. Now, after years of study, practice and knowing Deaf people, I can say that I’m an intermediate signer. What helped the most was meeting, knowing and interacting with native signers. I suggest (as did so many others) that you do the same with Spanish. Try attending church in Spanish, or a Latin club (you get to dance too!). It’ll be great!

  • ¡Hola! Me parece que eres muy aplicada y que muy pronto estarás hablando español fluidamente. Es un poco más complicado que el inglés en el trato a las personas el tú, el usted e incluso el vos en ciertos países. Aún así, cuando menos sientas estarás usando Spanglish jajaja más si hay ciertas palabras que no has incorporado a tu vocabulario. Por de pronto te mando ánimo desde Guatemala, Centro América.

  • Such a fabulous post. I started learning Arabic two years ago and have not progressed that far since. This post has now motivated me to get my studies up and running again. I find learning a language makes me feel like a kid again, but I’m determined to become fluent one day :)

  • How wonderful!!! I have been seriously thinking that I need to start learning Spanish since my husband and I may be moving into an area of Salt Lake City that has heavy Hispanic influences. I would love to be able to talk to my neighbors!

  • ¡Felicidades! Aprender español no es nada fácil, ¡sobretodo para los angloparlantes! Te felicito por tu entusiasmo y perseverancia, yo entiendo de eso, porque puedo hablar inglés súper bien y ahora estoy aprendiendo alemán. ¡La práctica hace al maestro!
    Ojalá entiendas todo lo que dije, muchos besos y saludos
    Sofía de Argentina :)

  • Learning a different language is a great fear I’ve ever faced. Since 2011 I’ve been practising to learn Korean. It’s indeed a tough language to learn and so far I’ve not full command over fluent Korean language speaking. Thanks for the nice words, these are inspiring.

  • As I speak four languages (and I’m trying to learn my fifth one) I totally understand what it means being ‘beginners’ but practice makes you perfect right? ;) So keep going, I’m with you!

  • ¡Excelente!

    Te voy a hablar en español porque espero que hayas aprendido lo suficiente para ponerlo en práctica :)
    Me encanta tu impulso para aprender y determinarte a estudiar dos horas todos los días, es un gran compromiso que no todos tenemos el valor de tomar.
    Sin embargo, tu experiencia me hizo tomar el coraje para decidir de una vez por todas, aprender italiano. Siempre he querido aprender a hablar italiano porque parte de mi familia es italiana, pero nunca he puesto de mi parte para hacerlo.
    Ahora sí lo haré.