It may not seem so, but learning a foreign language is a pretty unsettling event - at least from a psychological point of view. I heard somebody say some time ago that she could not even imagine conversing fluently in a foreign language. Why is it so challenging to learn a foreign language though? If one can learn to speak the native language, there is, no doubt, the ability to learn another.
It's all a matter of 'comfort zone': the native language is the supreme example of 'comfort zone'. Examples? Well known vocabulary, well integrated grammar structures and all the unspoken cultural rules that accompany communication. Not only that: it's also a matter of identity. The speaker identifies herself/himself with a certain group of people, which is something that is deeply ingrained in human psychology, and in doing so one feels 'safe'.
All of the above disappears when faced with learning a new language. Do you think this is extreme? On the conscious level, certainly; on the subconscious level it's a different story. When first learning a new language the individual is basically catapulted back to an ability similar to when they were young children (in terms of being able to actively use vocabulary and language). It can be extremely frustrating, especially if the speaker is very proficient in the native language.
Learning a foreign language is not only a supreme jump out of the comfort zone, it's probably also very brave, because you can imagine that all sort of subconscious stuff will come up - inner beliefs, feelings of insecurity, pre-verbal feelings linked to learning one's own native language, or perhaps positive feelings surrounding language, which is good. What about exploring a newculture, and a fascination with new strange words and new strange ways of structuring a sentence and using words? Language, after all, reflects something very profound about the culture where it lives, but like all tools, it ends up defining the people who use it.
Coming out of the comfort zone is what makes us grow as individuals, so learning a new language can in fact be a deeply cathartic experience. It's healthy to question and compare one's own cultural values, it inevitably opens the mind, if not consciously, definitely subconsciously. The subconscious, shaken with brand new information and views, inevitably integrates that on some level.
Elena Francesca Barbiero is an Italian Tutor and Therapist based in London.