In about a month I’ll be starting the first of several intensive missions of 2011 to learn to speak a new language well starting from scratch. It will be totally unrelated to any language I’ve learned to date, and yet I’ll be speaking it confidently from day one.
How can I be so confident about something I know next to nothing about?
I’ve got a whole book full of strategies to make it happen, but one aspect of what I’ll be doing that I also apply to other aspects of my life to get over shyness, have a successful website, dance, sing and achieve so many of my other projects is my fake-it-till-you-make-it approach.
Self produced confidence
I met a British girl the other day with rudimentary Spanish. She couldn’t conjugate verbs, had poor vocabulary skills etc. and yet she was confidently conversing with me entirely en español with a spunky attitude for over 20 minutes, and even made a few jokes!
Technically she “couldn’t” converse well enough yet, but she had convinced herself and me that this wasn’t true and was going with the flow, not hesitating with doubts. Her confident view of her Spanish drowned out any doubts others listening might have.
There are others I meet all the time with way more internal skills and actual knowledge of the language than she currently has and yet sadly, they don’t speak at all. Nothing but their lack of trying is holding them back.
My approach to starting to speak the next language in January will be precisely like that girl’s. I will learn a little on the flight over or in my first days and use it all immediately with an air of “I know what I’m doing”. Apart from with Parisians, this approach has always worked successfully for me.
People are always surprised that I have only been in a country for a few days or weeks when I speak to them. It is NOT because I’m throwing out obscure vocabulary or having my case endings agree perfectly. It’s because of how confidently I’m speaking.
Technically, I guess I have no reason to be confident. I’m just winging it most of the time.
Seriously; I’m just pretending like I know what I’m doing when I start to speak a language and everyone falls for my manufactured confidence. I can’t seriously say my level is fantastic and if I stopped and thought about it, I’m sure I could come up with a list of excuses for why I should wait until I’m “ready” or why I’m not “good enough” to speak yet.
Instead I tell myself “I’m Benny the Irish polyglot! I know what I’m doing!”
That statement is silly and has no factual information at all in it relevant to speaking a language, and yet fooling myself and others about how confident I am when I start to learn a language actually makes it become the reality and because of this, I do know what I’m doing.
Act as-if and it will become natural to you
The power of this technique is incredible and I wish more people would realize it.
In research at Wake Forest University, for example, scientists asked a group of 50 students to act like extroverts for 15 minutes in a group discussion, even if they didn’t feel like it. The more assertive and energetic the students acted, the happier they were.
Yes, this means forcing something at first that may seem hard or unnatural. This is how new habits are formed; they are unnatural at first, but you get used to it.
The fact of the matter is that both a positive AND a negative feedback loop are powerful tools. When you have your filter set to find all the reasons why you can’t do something, you will not be able to do it! But what drives me mad is that people genuinely think it’s the excuses themselves holding them back. In reality, most of the time it’s their devotion to those excuses that is the real problem.
But this also works the other way. When you are selectively looking at the positive and ignoring unhelpful negative feedback, then you will be way more likely to make progress.
This year only one native (out of hundreds or thousands that I’ve met) has told me that my language level was not good enough for him to listen to. It happens so rarely to me because I create this new “reality” for those interacting with me through my behaviour that is so strong that anyone who opposes it starts to look silly themselves, because they can’t possibly oppose it with the same confidence as I’m promoting mine with.
I brushed that guy off as being an asshole rather than thinking “Oh gosh, he’s right! I should stop speaking the language immediately and abandon this project!” and when everyone saw how I reacted by showing him where the exit was so he wouldn’t have to hear me any more, rather than back down and give up, they started to agree with me.
Didn’t you hear? I’m the popular guy!
People ask me a lot how I make friends when I travel – applying this technique has helped immensely. For example, the other night I went to a Couchsurfing party and when I arrived I didn’t know a single person.
Most people in such a situation might humbly introduce themselves to someone at the edge and tone down their personality until they got to know people better. That’s fine, but I have a different approach.
I act like everyone should know me. I pretend like I’m the life of the party and like I’m not the new outsider and it becomes the reality. Rather than a humble introduction, my first words to the group where a loud and proud “Don’t worry everyone, I’m here! The party can start now!” Normally a stranger (or at least, not a sober one) would never say this, so most of the group presumed I must know most of the others.
When I introduce myself to people, I may be saying “My name is Benny…”, but I act like I know them already with some humour and a pat on the shoulder for guys. All of these non-verbal cues communicate way more than the words I’m saying do and because of this I make friends much easier.
Acting confident isn’t just for my own benefit; when people see how confidently I believe in something, they start to believe it themselves. Subconsciously they start to forget that I am brand new to them and begin to synch with my body language and act like they’ve already met me.
When they see me speaking a language so comfortably, that drowns out the mistakes.
If any of you are shaking your head thinking “No, I’d never put up with someone making so many mistakes in a language!” you are totally forgetting the context of social interactions and what’s involved. Confidence and charisma are way more powerful than noun gender agreement in convincing people you “deserve” to speak their language with them.
Whatever your goal is, presume it’s true
My approach to get what I want is to presume from the START that it’s going to happen. I then just follow the path that is most likely going to lead to that result.
There is no “maybe” in my mind. When I start a language mission, I presume from day one that I am going to be successful. This isn’t arrogance – it’s a crucial part of the strategy to make it happen. Any doubt is going to do me no good, so why should I embrace it as most people would?
If I want to make new friends, I go out and presume that I will have filled my phone up with new numbers and will have laughed with and gotten to know lots of interesting people, and go along with that presumption the entire night, while it is happening.
Negative self-fulfilling prophecies work really well, so I’m just doing the same thing for positive ones
Why not give it a try yourself? Let me know in the comments how changing your mindset about what will happen has changed the outcome!
“Whether you think you can or think you can‘t, you’re right.” – Henry Ford
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If you enjoyed this post, you will love my TEDx talk! You can get much better details of how I recommend learning a language if you watch it here.
This article was written by Benny Lewis
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