“I’d love to learn a new language, but I feel really nervous about actually speaking it.”
Does this sound like you?
Learning a new language – especially when you’re taking the first steps – can be a big struggle.
So it’s little wonder that language learners often struggle with feelings of low confidence. I’ve felt this way many times when starting a new language.
How can low confidence impact you?
Maybe you avoid having face-to-face conversations with native speakers. Even thinking about getting into a conversation puts butterflies in your stomach.
Maybe you hold back at language Meetups and sit quietly in the corner.
Or maybe you feel anxious about making mistakes in front of others, so you stick with Duolingo because you can study on your own. No one sees your mistakes. It’s safe.
At Fluent in 3 Months, we hear from people all the time whose confidence gets in the way of their language learning.
Check out these emails that arrived in the Fluent in 3 Months inbox recently:
I find these emails really powerful. For years I struggled with low confidence in my language learning – and it’s a really difficult thing to admit.
For many years I was in denial my low confidence, and especially about how much it held me back. I thought “sure, I’m not confident at speaking a new language, but I’ll make up for it in other ways”.
I did make up for my lack of confidence, through intensive study and being really disciplined with myself.
A few years down the line, I finally addressed my low confidence through steps I was taking in my (non-language related) career. With my newfound confidence I found I could learn to speak new languages much, much faster and more effectively.
I would have saved myself hundreds of hours of study time if only I’d addressed my confidence issues first.
Or, to put it another way, I speak 4+ languages at a high level now, but I could be speaking at least three to four more than that.
So, how does low confidence impact your language learning?
It’s really important to be honest about this, so you can start doing something about it.
Self-honesty is the first step.
To get you started, here are some of the most common signs that low-confidence is holding back your language learning:
1. You Feel Like Language Learning is a “Waste of Time”
You really want to learn a language. But when you sit down to study, you start to feel like “this is a waste of time”.
When you hit this frame of mind, it’s really easy to give up and find other things to do.
What’s going on here? Deep down, you know that your low confidence is holding you back. Without self-confidence, you’re unlikely to actually use the language you’re learning in real life situations.
So, learning the language feels like a waste of time.
In some ways, this is true, because it is really important to sort out your confidence.
In other ways, this voice of doubt is really unhelpful because the process of learning a new language can help you grow in confidence.
So, when you feel like learning a language is a waste of time – that’s exactly the time to keep studying.
Here’s another way the voice of doubt causes havoc…
2. You Constantly Compare Yourself to Other Language Learners
There’s never been a better time to learn a language. Technology has made it possible to connect with people all over the world.
Connecting with other language learners can be super inspiring.
But sometimes, seeing other language learners succeed can make you wonder about your own ability. You ask yourself: “Am I not good enough? Am I not smart enough? Am I not talented enough?”
Do you find yourself asking these questions? That’s a good indication that you struggle with confidence.
And the problem with these questions? They make you feel even less confident about learning a language. Comparing yourself to other learners discourages rather than inspires you. It’s a downward spiral.
It can mean you end up avoiding other language learners – and without that inspiration, it’s difficult to stay motivated. Talking of which…
3. You Only Study Alone
When you’re low in confidence, you worry a lot about what other people think of you.
So, you avoid reaching out to other language learners, and you study on your own. You do this to avoid comparing yourself with others (see #2 above), and because you're afraid of making mistakes in front of other people.
Don’t get me wrong: holing yourself up with a language book or a podcast can be a great way to spend time and can improve your skills. But if you’re only doing this, and hiding away from the real world, then you’re doing huge damage to your language learning potential.
4. You Want an Adventure – but that also Scares You!
Are you learning a language to tap into your sense of adventure? Maybe you want to travel the world. Or perhaps you want to meet interesting people from other cultures.
You’re not alone – this is a BIG reason behind many people’s language learning.
But… wanting to climb Mount Everest and actually doing it (with all the months of training and mental grit you need) are two different things.
Adventures are easy when they’re a dream for the future. When you make them real, they can be much more difficult than you imagined. Even more so when anxiety gets in the way.
That’s why, when you’re low in confidence, you can find it difficult to take action on your language dreams. Especially when it requires you to go beyond your comfort zone.
5. You Keep Changing Your Mind
One day you’re learning French. The next day, Mandarin seems like the perfect language. A week later, you’re onto Spanish.
And that’s just choosing a language. Don’t get me started on how difficult it can be to choose the right tools for learn a language!
When you’ve got a confidence block, you have trouble making solid, long-term decisions because you worry that you'll make the wrong choice. You struggle to trust your own judgement, especially when it comes to deciding what you want. Sometimes, this means that you let others decide for you, even if it isn't in your best interest.
When you can’t stick to a decision, it’s little wonder language learning is such a struggle.
Let me tell you, after years of struggling with confidence – it feels great to just choose something, then run with it!
6. You Put Things Off Until the Last Minute
You want to learn a language… you really do.
But you find that you only think about language learning at the end of the day… when you’re already exhausted and Netflix seems like a good option.
Or maybe you schedule time for language learning – but when the time comes, you suddenly remember all the cleaning and washing that needs doing, and you give that priority.
Procrastination isn’t always a sign of low confidence (it can be caused by many different things), but if you’ve got this symptom along with two or three others in the list, it’s likely that your low confidence isn’t helping.
7. You’re Terrified of Eye Contact
Rather than making eye contact, you tend to cross your arms over your body, look down, and feel awkward smiling. You may lean away from the person you're speaking with or even glance around to avoid looking at them.
Eye contact is seen as a key indicator of confidence – at least in Western society. If you find that you struggle with eye contact, there’s a very good chance that you need to work on your confidence.
8. You Avoid Speaking Your New Language
As I mentioned in the introduction, during the years when my confidence was low, I did everything I could to avoid speaking that languages I was learning.
Honestly? I still prefer other ways of learning. I’m an introvert who enjoys studying alone. And I’m totally okay with that.
But I’ve also found that real conversations with real native speakers help me learn a language much faster.
If you avoid speaking altogether – or if you only speak your language once in a blue moon – then confidence is holding back your language potential.
9. You Replay Your Past Failures in Your Mind
What’s it like if this one is true of you? Instead of investing your mental energy into learning a new language, you spend hours going over how things could have been if only you hadn’t messed up.
Your failures haunt you. Your failed language exchanges or early efforts in your target language make it hard for you to try again. Instead, you find yourself dwelling on the embarrassment of whatever happened in the past.
Yes, it’s important to nurse your wounds and let them heal. But letting them fester is a really bad way to go.
10. You Self-Sabotage
In many ways, this final symptom covers all the others – and more.
Low self-confidence turns you into your own worst enemy when it comes to language learning.
Because of your fear of rejection, you often set yourself to fail from the get-go so that your rejection or failures won't come as a surprise. You also use these continued failures as excuses to avoid putting yourself out there the next time around.