A few days ago I was sitting on a lawn in Chile, looking up at the stars. Around me, a gaggle of expats from Spain chattered away. Normally I feel confident in my Spanish; here I just felt confused. Something about midgets? Strippers? Midget strippers? The jokes flew fast; some of the Spaniards had known each other since childhood. They shared common assumptions, background knowledge. As soon as I caught the thread or felt like I had something funny to say, the topic had changed once or twice over. I felt lost, and it felt good.
Traveling and studying other languages keep you humble. Little kids speak much better than you do. You struggle to express yourself. You make many mistakes. You learn to laugh over your blunders with strangers, try another way when your point isn’t coming across, feel awe at just how much little kids know. You become aware of your dependence on others, of the puniness of your knowledge compared with the centuries of history, variegated regional differences, and vast range of nuanced human expression that make up a living language.
Putting this kind of humility into action requires confidence. You know your accent is off, but you go for that rolled “r” anyway. You know you might be mishandling an idiom, but you launch into each sentence without looking back. This caring without worrying is the joy of being a linguistic novice. It’s why as soon as I get my sea legs in one language, I start jonesing to try another. Studying a new language opens doors to new people and places, no doubt. But the interior journey is just as exciting.