Guest Post By Sam Gendreau
Editor’s Note: Sam is currently one of the TOP 3 finalists in an international Korean speaking contest hosted by Korea’s largest broadcasting company, KBS. Watch him put some his advice to use in his entry video, and be sure to vote to give him a chance to fly to Korea this September! Click here to vote for him, or here to see his 3-min long video showcasing his Korean skills!
“Man often becomes what he believes himself to be. If I keep on saying to myself that I cannot do a certain thing, it is possible that I may end by really becoming incapable of doing it. On the contrary, if I have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it even if I may not have it at the beginning.”
― Mahatma Gandhi
If I could get a penny for every language learner that has spent years learning a foreign language without ever having a conversation with a native speaker, chances are I’d be millionaire. There’s even a term for it: xenoglossophobia. Yeah, that one. In comprehensible language, it’s called “foreign language anxiety,” and it happens so much that speaking is often cited as the most anxiety provoking of foreign language activities. But I bet you knew that.
In fact, very few are the grown adults who can just learn a few sentences in a foreign language and start chatting up the natives without any fear of sounding ridiculous or making dreadful grammatical mistakes. Indeed, most of us seem to be hard-wired to have a desire to achieve perfection before ever opening our mouth in a foreign language. It happens to experienced language learners too.
Of course that’s a classic example of a “chicken-and-egg problem”: a skill (i.e. speaking in a foreign language) can only be developed through practice (i.e. speaking). If you’re still hanging to your pipe dream of speaking perfect Chinese without ever speaking broken Chinese first, I’m sorry to have to steal away your rose-colored glasses, but that’s not going to happen. So what’s the fix?
Three Pillars to Successful Language Learning
I have always thought of success in foreign language acquisition as being built on top of three pillars, each one shouldering an approximate equal part of the weight of the fortress built upon it.
Original Image by Scallop Holden on Flickr.com
These three pillars, in my mind, would be confidence, attitude, and motivation. These qualities will get you much farther than any special memory tricks, textbook, or other gimmicks. They feed one into another and act as a springboard to successful foreign language acquisition. Used in tandem with the right habits and learning strategies, they will allow you to quickly build up your language learning fortress and become a capable and successful language learner.
That being said, a lot of people fail to properly recognize the importance that confidence has to the successful acquisition of a foreign language. Others simply don’t know how to go about boosting it. So what’s the solution?
Develop Your Confidence
Fear of failure, of being ridiculed, of falling short of expectations; these are things we all face to some degree. The question is: how can you overcome these fears? Here are five ways to get yourself started:
1. Get to know yourself: In order to develop your confidence in speaking in your target language, you’ll first need to get to know yourself. If you don’t know what the problem is, it’ll be hard to find a solution. Get a pen and a paper, and write down what springs to your mind when looking at the following questions: What exactly are you afraid of? Why do you think you are afraid of this? How do you think you could overcome your fear? What is the worst thing that could happen if you overcame your fear and started speaking in your target language? What about the best thing that could happen? Before you keep on reading, I really want you to take 1 minute and write down your answers to those questions.
2. Get prepared: Think about it: what are the topics of conversation that are highly likely to come up in conversations with native speakers? The truth is, the same small number of topics will come over and over again, and it’s easy to prepare for them. Having an arsenal of phrases guaranteed to spark small talk can really help to boost your confidence in engaging native speakers in their language. From my own experience, people will invariably ask things such as why you’re learning their language and how long you’ve been doing it for. Get ready to answer these questions by memorizing a few key words and sentences. Practice them out loud to yourself and, if possible, with a tutor or a native friend.
3. Set small goals and achieve them: If you’re dead afraid of speaking to natives in your target language, chances are you won’t start having long conversations tomorrow just because I tell you it’s important. But hey, how about starting with very small goals, such as saying “hi” and “how are you” in your target language when meeting natives, just to test the ground? Then you’ll be free to switch back to English if you feel like it. By starting small and progressively building up on your progress, you’ll develop confidence and a desire to open more to others. Plus, you’re likely to get a lot of positive feedback and you’ll see that people show curiosity for your interest in their language.
4. Act positive: When thinking about a situation, you automatically make “movies” in your mind that represent the situation. These movies completely determine how you feel about the situation. What you have to do is to make a conscious effort to make these movies as positive as possible. Instead of imagining failure or rejection, imagine yourself confidently speaking to natives with your newly acquired Spanish skills, for example, making new friends and having a good time.
5. Smile to others and laugh at yourself: Finally, remember to smile and laugh at yourself. You made a mistake? It’s not the end of the world! Keep your chin up and have a good laugh. Smile to people and show genuine interest in them and in their culture. And if you want to ease the mood, try learning a couple of funny jokes in your target language.As you meet natives and the opportunity arises, drop a few funny lines and see how people react!Jokes are a great social lubricant and when you’ll see people laugh at the ones you throw at them, your confidence is sure to grow and you’ll be sure to have a good time, too.
If All Else Fails, Just Remember: The Sky is Not Going to Fall
Learning a language is all about expanding your comfort zone. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the key to living a fulfilling life is by constantly stepping outside of your comfort zone.
Leave your doubts behind in your comfort zone.Don’t tell yourself “I will never meet any native speakers until I’m absolutely sure that I won’t make any mistakes when speaking their language, otherwise I surely will die in embarrassment.” Really? Think about this: whatever you do, the sky is not going to fall and no, people are not going to roll on the floor and start laughing at you because you butchered their language’s grammar. Just stay relaxed, keep an open mind, and show curiosity. The rest will follow.
Are you afraid of speaking in a foreign language? We all are to some extent. But by making conscious efforts to develop your confidence and step out of your comfort zone, you’ll start to see amazing change happen.
What do you think? Have you tried any of the tips outlined above? Do you have a solution for getting around (or over) foreign language anxiety? Tell us your stories in the comments section below.