Assertiveness in language learning

Assertiveness in language learning

In popular meaning, being assertive is often mainly associated with the ability to say “no”, while in fact, assertive refusal is just one of the aspects of assertiveness. 

Assertiveness is the ability to fully express yourself in contact with other people, without being aggressive or disrespecting the rights of others. It includes expressing your opinions and needs in a clear, direct way. It also entails the ability to defend your rights, give others honest and non-judgemental feedback, be confident and self-assured.

I like to think that assertiveness is a more than just behaviour, it’s a style of living, it’s an overall approach we can choose to take, and we can learn to take.

Assertive behaviour might not always be the only right choice or even the most desirable one (I wouldn’t practice saying “no” to someone demanding money from me during an armed robbery, nor would I always venture giving negative feedback to a faint acquaintance who hasn’t asked for my opinion). However, I’d say that the ability to take an assertive approach truly makes life better. 

It is the comfort of being true to yourself and giving yourself the right to be as you are, and the right to improve. 

It is a way to gain more respect from others, by showing that you respect them, but also yourself.

It is a clear guideline to building relations with others that are based on honesty and clarity.

According to Fensterheim, a psychologist and author of books about assertiveness, to test if a particular behaviour is assertive, we can check if it increases our level of self-respect, even by a little.

If it does, such behaviour is assertive.


Does this relate anyhow to language learning?

When talking to my clients or students and reviewing my experience as a language learner, I discover that it does!

Think about the following:

  • Even though making mistakes is an inevitable part of learning, we often fail to give ourselves the right to make them
  • We know we can only learn and become better by speaking up and practising – but we decide to keep silent, just in case we don’t get those tenses right (or pronunciation, or articles – you name it!)
  • We want to develop and get to the advanced level – but we feed ourselves with self-doubt and sabotaging thoughts

Assertiveness isn’t only about contact with others, but also about contact with ourselves. How assertive and supportive are the sentences that you think quietly to yourself?

We all have a “voice” in our head and it can be supportive or… just the opposite. We’re so used to it that we sometimes don’t even notice this voice, but it is there and it has a huge impact on us.

A point to remember here is that criticism and beating yourself up will usually not help you. 

If you feel that you can relate to any of this, for a start I’d recommend noticing your inner talk in relation to your language goals. Awareness is the first step. Write the sentences down if you want to and think how to modify them so that they are really helpful for you. 

You might also try the following affirmations. Check how you feel with them, note down any moments where you feel resistance and what this might mean to you. If resistance is big, you might try adjusting the sentences in a way that suits you better – but keep the sentences supportive.

I believe in myself.

I am okay, even if someone doesn’t like my English.

I am important.

I have the right to make mistakes.

When I don’t understand, it’s okay for me to say so.

I have the right to learn and grow.

When I speak up, I’m doing a favour to others by speaking my mind openly, even if my English isn’t perfect or they don’t agree with my opinion.

It has cost me a lot to speak up, but I did. Each time, I’m getting better.

It’s normal when I’m nervous when I’m doing something new. 

I am able to achieve the level I want.

To make it clear – I do not encourage you to stop developing, stop caring about mistakes and forget all grammar.

But I do encourage you wholeheartedly to try and switch off the inner censor (the inner critic, the critical voice in your head) when you speak. 

If you make a mistake, you make a mistake – it’s not the end of the world. Check if you have been understood anyway, if not  – paraphrase or tell the person you’re having difficulties to explain it (they’re likely to help). Remember that language is about communication (not perfection).

And I do encourage you to “embrace your incompetence” – to accept that you won’t be perfect because you are a learner. But you can become better, fluent, advanced – step by step, and there’s someone whose support you need here more than anything else: you yourself.

The affirmations above have been partially taken from or inspired by the book “Trening asertywności” by M.Król-Fijewska.

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