Brutta Figura

“Il meglio è nemico del bene”
The best is the enemy of good

In 2013 the mayor of Madrid, Ana Botella, stood in front of a packed audience and spoke for less than 3 minutes. By the end of those few short minutes she would become the most infamous woman in Spain.

For days she was the subject of every television show and major newspaper in Spain, and the response to her words was so vicious that she was even put on a list created by Time magazine that included corrupt officials, rapists, and drug dealers.

So what was her crime? What line had she crossed in Spanish society to deserve the total destruction of her image?

Her crime was that she had spoken English, with a Spanish accent.

Now you might think that I’m exaggerating. She must have made some offensive vocabulary error, or produced speech that was completely unintelligible to the audience. But that wasn’t the case. She spoke clearly, and with emotion, and nobody, except the Spanish, saw any problem.

Understanding what happened to Ana Botella is important for anyone who is learning English because it contains themes of identity, bravery, and self-sabotage, and it’s a reminder that the barrier to fluency is often constructed inside us, and we need to fight the enemy within if we want to succeed at learning English.

In Italian culture the self image is described as a figure, and it has two faces that you can present to the world.

The bella figura is the confident, organised, intelligent person dressed in black that we are proud of when we look in the mirror. This is the person we upload to Instagram.

The brutta figura is the person in pyjamas, without makeup, on a Sunday morning.

We want the world to see our bella figura and we hide our brutta figura away, and we bury it deep inside us. This is natural human behaviour. The problem is when apply this behaviour to others.

Instead of admitting that all of us have a brutta figura inside, we deny it, and when it appears in ourselves or others, we try to destroy it.

Instead of supporting each other when we see imperfection, we attack, afraid that one day it might be us that shows our weaknesses to the world. We hope that if our imperfections never see light, they will disappear.

How naive we are.

Instead of dying in the shadows, our weaknesses gain strength and they become a monster that slowly makes our light smaller until one day our brutta figura, made of hate and judgement, is the only figure we have left.

But what does this have to do with learning a language?

Because learning a language is a process of making mistakes.

  • It requires you to be wrong.
  • It requires you to be slow.
  • It requires you to embarrass yourself.
  • It requires you to be different.
  • It requires you to show your brutta figura to the world.

But more than anything, it requires authenticity. For you to show all parts of yourself and deny none.

The Spanish people were upset with Ana Botella because she wasn’t willing to hide the fact that she was Spanish, and that her English wasn’t perfect. And that requires bravery, especially when the consequences can be so severe.

But how can you be brave when you are so afraid of those consequences? Well, it’s actually the only time you can be brave.

It doesn’t take any courage to decide that you are never going to use your English, or that your accent is bad. It doesn’t take any courage to hide who you really are.

I invite you to show your imperfections, and to applaud them when you see them in others, because when you judge others who are just like you, you’re really judging yourself.

And when you look into the mirror, I want you to treat yourself kindly.

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