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You’re Dead Afraid of Speaking in a Foreign Language: Here’s How You Can Fix It Posted by on Aug 13, 2014 in Language Learning

Guest Post By Sam Gendreau

“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.

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.

Conclusion

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.

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About the Author: Transparent Language

Transparent Language is a leading provider of best-practice language learning software for consumers, government agencies, educational institutions, and businesses. We want everyone to love learning language as much as we do, so we provide a large offering of free resources and social media communities to help you do just that!


Comments:

  1. Fernando Salazar:

    Danke!!

  2. Sarika:

    This article is very helpful to me. I studied French for six year in school, but the sad thing is that whenever I meet a native French speaker, I become quite paralyzed and can’t speak to them. Which is a shame. How can I improve my skills if I don’t overcome my fears? So, I will follow this advice

    • Lingholic:

      @Sarika That’s fantastic Sarika, I hope the advice will have proven to be useful! Let me know once you’ve started implementing some of them, I’m curious to hear about your progress.

      Sam

  3. Elisabeth:

    nice article. i used to be a language teacher (French – my mother tongue – as a Foreign Language to adults)…and now, i’m back in the student’s seat. i’m learning Hebrew (after learning English and Spanish and living in English and Spanish-speaking countries).

    my fear? when i tried to speak to natives (which i did a little last time i went to Israel, but i felt very self-conscious), people would reply something and *then* i would look at them as in: “what???” – cringing and feeling like i was “pretending” i could have a conversation but really couldn’t…i know that oral comprehension is my weak point. still, it’s frustrating. 🙂 i do try though, in the written form or orally, it’s the speed at which they speak that i fear and that paralyzes me…i can babble and ramble, i’m fine with that. i usually love the sound of the target language enough to enjoy hearing myself speaking it. it’s music, it’s vibration…but the melody gets interrupted when i cannot answer. 🙁 🙂

  4. Stacy:

    This is me EXACTLY. I’ve been studying Japanese for over 8 years now, I’ve lived in Japan, and I’m still TERRIFIED of speaking to someone in Japanese. But this article has helped me figure out a little bit what my problem is. If I run into a Japanese person who can’t speak English, I have no problem speaking to them in Japanese. I guess I’m just scared of feedback haha. Thanks!

  5. Janet Scobell:

    This article is tremedous. I’ve been studying Irish for a year and a half. I finally found Gaelskype where you can speal to native speakers. I stopped myself from participating because I felt that I needed to get to a certain point of perfection in studies before I’d allow myself to have a conversation. Now I see how silly that is. Thanks for the article!!!

  6. Eli:

    I’m a student, I study foreign languages (American English and Chinese) but my professors keep telling me I need to speak more for practising more. My problem is, when talking to native speakers, I’m so afraid that I don’t understand what they say to me and that they can’t understand what I’m saying because of my grammar and pronunciation mistakes. This article gave me a little bit of hope. I’m gonna try to only think about improving my foreign languages and enjoying them. I hope this works. Thank you 😉
    PS sorry for mistakes

  7. Mererid:

    Think to yourselves – are you practising your speaking skills or are you practising your comprehension skills when talking to a native speaker? In time, the answer will be both, but to begin with, just go for one skill at the time. The other will catch up naturally when you do this. I teach Welsh to adults and I can honestly say that the students who ‘give it a go’ and speak ‘imperfect’ Welsh with natives are the ones who go onto develop ‘perfect’ Welsh with time and become fluent speakers. The others become very good ‘readers’. If this is what you want, then great! at. Most, however, join a language class to learn how to speak a language but only a percentage go on to achieve that. I think that the well-known saying, ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’, rings very true when learning a language. One way to help ease your anxieties is to pre-empt the situation. Learn how to say, “I’m trying to learn….., sorry if I make mistakes”‘ before saying what you want to say. Don’t jump into a conversation cold at the beginning until you get more comfortable. When they answer you back with words you don’t understand (and why should you understand them at this point, anyway? That’s an entirely different skill to work on), you say to them, in English if you want, “‘I’m sorry, that’s all I know at the moment”. This will either prompt them to choose different words, speak slower, help you, or they’ll finish the conversation in English. Keep it light-hearted and friendly. This isn’t a failure if you’re goal was to approach a native and say ONE thing in their language. You don’t have to understand what they say back at this point. Stop someone in the street and ask for the time even if you have a watch. Chip away at that wall that surrounds your comfort zone. Don’t set your goal as ‘I’m going to have a conversation with a native speaker” at the beginning. You’re going to say one thing to them, accept that you’ll have around 3 mistakes in your sentence. (You probably won’t, btw, but give yourself this allowance). The test is whether they’ve understood you, NOT the other way around, mistakes and all. Be open to people guiding you and correcting you as this is what leads fluency. I liked the advice given in the blog today – ‘be curious’. I’m learning Italian myself and after kicking myself in the rear end, I do practise what I preach. I don’t know if it’s just the Italians, but the more curiosity I show when attempting to speak to someone, the more encouragement and guidance I get in return, from complete strangers. This is priceless. It’s made a HUGE difference to my confidence, which in turn has lead to developing an ease when speaking to native speakers or advanced learners. It’s all about having realistic expectations, knowing the difference between speaking and understanding. Don’t catastrophise. One last tip – smile when you speak! It’s catching.

  8. Clare Jones:

    Excellent advice from Mererid, above. I will be teaching all of my students how to say, “I’m learning French and I’m sorry if I make mistakes” – “Je suis en train d’apprendre le français et je suis désolé(e) si je fais des erreurs”.

  9. Brandon:

    Thank you so much for this post, I am learning Korean and just recently when I was on a trip, I visited a Korean restaurant and I accidentally made a grammatical error, so I was panicking and switched myself back to English speaking. Ever since then it haunts me when I see anything Korean related haha, but really I need to overcome my phobia!

  10. Tesfahun:

    i have spent one and half a year learning the chinese language. and i also have had the chance to go to china for a semester to learn the language. after i came back to my home country, i went to chinese construction company to work as a translator, before i made that decision, though i know that i just spent very little time learning the language and my skill at that time is just a bit higher than a beginner, i had the confidence to go and at least try and see what happens at the work place. spending a few days at the work place, had some aggressive arguments from the Chinese side since i don’t seem to understand what they are exactly trying to say. not so long i was fired being to told my chinese level is very low and i need to spend a lot more time in china to master the language, and was left afraid not to try again to speak Chinese with native before i studied the language well.
    after a year my Chinese is now a lot better and after i graduated, i am now working in a Chinese company in another profession. to do my job knowing English is enough which i can speak fluently but i always want to speak to my Chinese bosses in Chinese but that fear paralyze me again..
    now after reading the post, i have decided to make a step in speaking the language with the native speakers in my working environment and improve more.

    • Transparent Language:

      @Tesfahun We love to hear this. Take advantage of those opportunities! Let us know how it goes. 🙂


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