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Verbal Typos, Foreign Language Anxiety, and Why Native Speakers Don’t Notice Your Mistakes Posted by on Apr 4, 2016 in Language Learning

We all struggle with foreign language anxiety. I speak three languages most days of my life here in Medellín, Colombia, and I still get nervous about conversing in the two foreign ones just about every day.

foreign language anxiety stage fright

Look familiar? A lot of the time, gearing up to speak a second language feels something like this. Photo by Kian McKellar via Flickr under CC BY 2.0.

I learned both of my languages, Dutch and Spanish, pretty fast, and got used to speaking and using them in my day-to-day life nearly as quickly. But I’ve never actually gotten comfortable with it: that feeling of being foreign, of not belonging, of fumbling around with a toy that I don’t know how to use and isn’t mine to play with in the first place.

It still happens to me in Spanish at least once a day that I say or do something wrong and as soon as my own voice circles back into my eardrum I feel like I’m standing naked in front of the entire building or city block while they stare at me and think, stupid gringo.

foreign language anxiety laughing

via Giphy.

If you’ve learned a language and you’ve never been there, I’m pretty sure you’re either a liar or a robot.

But here’s another familiar scenario: you get through a couple minutes’ long exchange in your foreign language, and after a fledgling effort to throw together a few viable sentences that made some sort of sense, hearing and cringing at your own mistakes as you go, only to receive an enthusiastic compliment on your language skills.

It feels patronizing sometimes, but for the most part it’s just native speakers commenting casually and honestly on what they see.

foreign language anxiety not bad

That’s because what natives see is different than what you see when we’re talking about language. The conscious focus and deliberateness with which you think about and use a language as a language learner is fundamentally different from how natives look at their language, to the extent that they even look at it at all.

Language learners, and especially beginners, tend to think of their target language as an object, a thing with black and white edges and a learnable, finite structure to it. The fact that we even refer to it as a “target language” reinforces the idea of learning a language as some sort of nearly physical thing we’re striving for in the hopes of eventually grasping in our hands.

foreign language anxiety target

Working towards a “target language” is fine, as long as you know that that bright red bull’s eye exists only in your imagination. Photo via Pixabay under CC0.

But this mentality always leaves us looking at a language: we get caught up thinking about siéntate as the second person imperative form of the reflexive Spanish verb sentarse, “to sit down”, sometimes failing to remember that, more importantly than that, siéntate is an utterance of polite but assertive invitation, a phrase often heard by visitors in Colombian homes, somewhat loosely translating to “just sit down, you’re not going anywhere until I’ve fed you at least twice”.

Most native Spanish speakers don’t really know off the tops of their heads that siéntate is the second person imperative form of the verb sentarse, yet they use it right every time.

Whereas learners and second language speakers are prone to looking at a new language as if it were an object, natives look through the language, understanding it as a process through which people communicate and build community.

Have you ever noticed how many ‘mistakes’ you make in your mother tongue?

Polyglot problems aside, we all consistently forget some words, spontaneously mispronounce others, suffer from ‘tip of the tongue’ moments, and compose horrific sentences from time to time.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but the more I think on this, the more I notice myself saying things like “can you put the this thing in the… over there” in English, my native language. Even native speakers make mistakes.

telescope

While you’re fussing with lenses and angles and polishing the outside of your binoculars, natives are peering into the eye hole and enjoying the view. Image via Pixabay under CC0.

As a native, I get away with this ten times out of ten, partly because being a native means getting the benefit of the doubt. But by the same token, when you ask a native speaker of your target language to “hand me the that thing” or tell them that “I like this ones”, it’s usually a non-issue.

The big secret is this: the reason natives don’t care when you make mistakes is because they hardly ever notice.

While you’re staring so hard at the language, natives are staring right through it, using it as the communicative tool it’s meant to be.

foreign language anxiety magnifying glass

Photo by marco magrini via Flickr under (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

When we hear our native language, our brains are already so busy trying to predict what comes next that we actually, frequently, fill in a ‘correct’ version of what someone’s saying without ever even listening to see if they mess it up.

We treat our own native language like a process, not a thing: native speakers aren’t really paying any attention to your words and sentences because they’re too busy communicating, interpreting your idea, and mentally composing their own response to it.

While you cautiously hunt and peck with your two index fingers, deliberately selecting each letter and punctuation mark, the native across from you communicates in a ten-finger flurry without so much as a glance at the keyboard. But the result is the same: a communication with a few typos and spelling errors, but one that gets the message across.

foreign language anxiety typing

via Giphy.

And just like you’re the only one who notices that “glaring” typo on the essay or blog post you wrote six months ago, you’re just about the only one who notices your own verbal typos, cringe-inducing though they may be to your own egocentric ears.

So instead of failing by not trying, just try shifting your attitude a bit.

First, let go. Once in a while, you’ll say something absolutely ridiculous, and depending on the severity you’ll be a public joke for a couple seconds to a couple minutes. Try to laugh at yourself, to learn from your mistake, and not to take it personally.

And once you let go a bit, you can stop staring so self-consciously at the language, neurotically scrambling to decline every noun to perfection, and start looking through it, typing away with all the fluency of a native without ever distracting yourself with that keyboard.

How do you overcome your foreign language anxiety and practice your target language with natives? Share your tips with us in the comments!

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About the Author:Jakob Gibbons

I write about language and travel on my blog . I often share my experiences with learning languages on the road, and teaching and learning new speech sounds is my specialty.


Comments:

  1. Warren Millward:

    This article is spot on and was very reassuring for me to read! Having just returned from a trip to see friends in Brazil this really resonated with me. I’ve been learning Brazilian Portuguese for 6 years now but often revert back to English for fear of sounding stupid; this is much to my friends’ annoyance who really don’t care whether I’ve used the future subjunctive correctly or not they just are happy to be able to converse in their language! I will try to bear this in mind in future! Thank you

  2. Ruth Valle:

    Hi Jacob, Thanks for trying to reassure the language learner, but trust me, they notice every mistake you make unless their own language skills are poor. I once was asked in my Spanish class by a native speaker of Spanish if I spoke it perfectly. I thought that was a great compliment actually. But this student obviously didn’t quite have his own language skills up to par. Also, I am a native speaker of German, and trust me, I notice every mistake anyone makes. This doesn’t mean now for us to give up learning languages, it’s just a task that’s never done. So let’s just keep trying.

    • Emily:

      @Ruth Valle Ruth, I agree, and I was wondering if there was any evidence to support the claim that native speakers don’t notice errors. I have been corrected, and I correct others. It depends on the context. The point should be that most of us don’t mind overlooking people’s errors in polite context, especially if we understand that they are learning.

  3. Kim Muth:

    I have to respectfully disagree with the above comment that every mistake is noticed. Perhaps they notice or hear that mistakes are made, but I think most natives certainly do not dwell on every mistake. When I talk to non-native English speakers I expect them to make mistakes, and this is something that I think many language learners forget!! To the listener, it doesn’t matter! Most natives are excited that you’re taking the initiative to speak their language and could care less about the mistakes! Would love to share your post with my language classes if you don’t mind!


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