How to Overcome the Fear of Speaking a New Language
“Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember one rule of thumb: the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”
― Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
If you’re anything like me, this quote sums up how you feel about speaking a language.
Speaking in a foreign language is one of the most intimidating challenges I've ever faced and at first, my reluctance to speak held me back from making the progress I wanted to make.
I would spend hours with books and flashcards and I felt like I was learning a lot! But when it came time for conversation, I was lost. I couldn’t get the words out and I was left feeling like all my hard work had been for nothing.
I was wrong though. All the hard work I’d put into learning vocabulary and grammar wasn’t wasted, it just wasn’t useful to me until I learned to overcome my fear of speaking. Once I did, the words started to flow faster than I could ever imagine. After all, the only way to learn to speak a language is to open your mouth and actually say something.
As you may already know, there is no feeling more satisfying as a language learner than that elation you feel after completing a conversation in your target language.
So, what changed? How did I go from being totally tongue-tied to speaking all the time?
Well, Fluent in 3 Months (Fi3M) certainly played a big role. It was the encouragement of this site that first convinced me to give speaking a chance. And it’s not an understatement to say that that change has transformed my life and my experience of language learning. I’ve gone from speaking only English to speaking four foreign languages. And that’s in just two years!
I’m hopeful that there are many more languages on the horizon for me. If you’re willing to give it a try, speaking your target language from the beginning can give you equally amazing results!
But believe me, I know it’s not as easy as just reading a blog post and starting to speak. There are reasons you’re worried about speaking.
3 Reasons You Struggle to Speak Your Target Language
Let's start by discussing some of the reasons why you might not feel comfortable speaking your target language.
1. You're Too Shy
Me too! This was probably my biggest reason for not speaking sooner. I'm not exactly a socialite. Give me a quiet night in with a good book over a night on the town any day!
I've always found meeting new people challenging, so the idea of doing this in a foreign language was incredibly intimidating!
2. You Don't Know Enough Words
This is most common excuse people have for not speaking and honestly, there is some truth in it. After all, you do have to know some words before you get started. But actually once you know a few basic sentences, you can easily have your first conversation.
In English the top 1000 words make up almost 86% of the words we regularly use in conversation. And this goes for most other languages as well. So you don’t need to know 10,000 words before you begin. In fact, to have your first conversation, you probably only need to know five or ten simple phrases!
I believe that it's best to start using the words you do know from the beginning so that you become comfortable with them and with the structure of your target language. Speaking is the best way to do this.
It will also become easier to incorporate new vocabulary as you learn it. Conversations will naturally be focused on the topics that are most interesting/relevant to you, so they'll help you discover which words are most important for you.
3. You're Worried about Making Mistakes
Most of us seem to have a stigma towards making mistakes inherited from our schooldays. Back then, every mistake was a accompanied by a big red mark, a lower test score and a negative comment from the teacher.
We were taught that mistakes are a bad thing and that we must try to avoid them. Nothing could be further from the truth!
In almost every walk of life, we improve by making mistakes and learning from our experiences. It's pretty much the foundation on which civilization is built!
So when it comes to learning a language, it's important to remember that making mistakes is actually a good thing.
One of the other reasons we tend to fear mistakes is that we fear people will laugh at us. This fear exists in our brains but in reality people love it when you try to speak their language, and they're normally extremely positive about helping you. They're not waiting for you to fail, they want you to succeed!
So, how did I overcome my fear of speaking and how can you do the same? Let's consider the practical steps you can take to start speaking your target language sooner rather than later.
A 5-Step Plan to Build Your Confidence in Speaking a New Language
How can you build your confidence in speaking a new language?
The first thing you need to do is build up your enthusiasm so that you're feeling excited and positive about speaking. My favourite way to do this is to use visualisation.
Basically, the idea is to imagine yourself successfully using your target language to have conversations with native speakers. The more clearly you can picture this image in your mind the better. The reason this technique is useful is that it helps to build up confidence to perform the action you’ve imagined; you’ve already seen yourself doing it successfully in your mind, so now it’s simply a case of repeating that process in real life.
If you don’t feel confident speaking your target language, try doing the following exercise for five minutes each day:
- Close your eyes and imagine yourself using your target language with a native speaker.
- Focus on the reasons why you wanted to learn the language in the first place. Use those reasons to reconnect with your motivation.
- Now see yourself successfully using the language with a native speaker.
- Picture yourself receiving a smile and positive response from the person you're talking to.
- When you picture yourself, notice your confident posture and how comfortably you speak the target language.
This exercise may be what you need to build up the confidence to have your first real conversation. And as you get more good conversations behind you, your confidence will continue to grow.
How to Find a Conversation Partner to Practise Your Target Language
The easiest way to find someone to speak to is through italki. Here you'll have two options to practise your speaking:
- Language Exchange – you can do a language exchange for free with someone who is a native speaker of your target language. You'll speak in their language for half of the session and in your language for the other half so that both of you get an opportunity to practise.
- A session with a teacher/tutor – You can book a session with a tutor or with a professional teacher.
Whichever you choose, you'll be having your conversation through the internet over Skype or another video chat application. This is easiest and fastest way to practise speaking with natives.
Both options have their benefits, but when I'm starting a new language I prefer to have my first few conversations with teachers. Here are some of the reasons why:
- Teachers can provide you with corrections on your pronunciation and grammar. This feedback is invaluable!
- You spend 100% of your time speaking your target language instead of only half the time, as in a language exchange.
- Teachers are generally more dependable. If you book a session, you will have a session. Language exchanges are wonderful but it can take some time to find an exchange partner who is as organised, reliable and committed as you are.
The main downside to choosing a teacher is obviously that you'll have to pay for your lessons,whereas language exchanges are free. Lessons can be expensive if you're working with professional teachers, but on italki you'll find lots of fantastic community tutors at lower prices who are just as good (if not better!). In fact, I only ever work with community tutors because I prefer the less structured, more relaxed environment they offer. And depending where you live, you may be able to take advantage of the currency difference to get classes that are affordable for you but still provide the teacher in another country a good wage.
When you're feeling confident, take advantage of that ‘moment of bravado' and organise the time for your speaking session. Once you've organised a time and someone else is expecting you to show up, it's much harder to quit at the last minute. At the time of writing, I'm studying Russian and I find booking all of my sessions one week in advance makes it much easier for me to just show up and practise.
How to Prepare for Your First Conversation
Ok, now you've got your speaking session organised, but what are you going to say?! After all, that's the scary bit, right?
In my opinion, the best approach is to pick one particular topic and focus on learning the vocabulary and phrases you need to talk about it. If this is your first conversation, then it will probably be centred around introducing yourself.
Here’s how I would do it:
- Think through a conversation you might have to introduce yourself in your native language.
- Make a list of the questions that come up and the main things you want to say about yourself.
- Start learning these phrases in your target language. If you're working with a book like Teach Yourself or Language Hacking, it will include a lot of the phrases you need. Another good place to search is [Omniglot] (http://www.omniglot.com/language/phrases/), which has lists of introductory phrases for hundreds of different languages!
- Make a cheat sheet to help you out in case you forget anything.
If you struggle with memorising the phrases, just try your best and fall back on your cheat sheet when you need it. That’s what it’s there for after all!
And don't forget, you can always have an online dictionary or Google Translate open during your conversation in case you get really stuck and you need to look up a few words. I found WordReference amazing for this when I was learning French.
Bonus Tip: Don’t Forget the Magic Words
There are a few particular phrases that I always learn before my first conversation and I suggest you do too.
- How do you say … in [target language]?
- Can you repeat that please?
- I don't understand
- Can you speak more slowly, please?
Combine these words with your cheat sheet and the phrases you've memorised and you're ready to start!
What Happens if You Make Mistakes?
Embarrassing mistakes can be something you laugh about later on. And actually, the strong feeling attached to laughter and embarrassment helps these words stick in our brains.
So if you make an embarrassing mistake with a word, you’re much less likely to forget that word again.
To illustrate this, I want to share my most embarrassing mistake with you.
My Most Embarrassing Mistake…
My girlfriend is from Argentina and we first met while I was trying to learn Spanish. She came to Ireland for a few days and I wanted to really impress her, so I took her to this beautiful valley near my home called Glendalough. As we were walking through the valley, we approached a lake with some ducks in it and I decided I was going to try and show off my Spanish skills.
“Mira, ¡hay putas en el lago!”
“Look, there are ducks in the lake!” Or not. Turns out the spanish word for duck is pato. A puta is something quite different altogether – a prostitute! So I’d literally just said there were prostitutes in the lake.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, a few minutes later I tried to say that we often see lots of birds in our garden but I mispronounced the word pájaros (birds) as pajeros (wankers)! Those were some pretty embarrassing blunders!
Luckily for me, she burst out laughing. And since then I’ve never forgotten the real words for duck or birds in Spanish. So when it comes to mistakes, embrace them. They can be embarrassing at the time, but often they’ll become funny stories that will help words stick in your memory later on.
What I’ve Learned From Speaking 4 Languages (And What You Can Learn Too!)
Speaking a new language is not as scary as it seems.
A couple of years ago, I couldn't see myself ever building up the courage to speak to someone in a foreign language. I was so intimidated by the prospect. But here I am a couple of years later and I speak foreign languages on a daily basis!
In fact, recently I’ve been learning Russian and I’ve focused intensively on using the language by doing a least five hours of speaking sessions every week.
Speaking has become the most enjoyable and the most rewarding part of language learning for me and this is just not something I could ever have imagined a few years ago. Far from being scary, speaking is now a fun and relaxing exercise for me.
I think that more than anything, starting to speak has allowed me to enjoy the journey of learning a language rather than getting too hung up on the result.
I’ve also discovered that speaking regularly is an efficient way to learn because it helps you improve your fluency and identify your weaknesses. Every time I speak, I learn something about which vocabulary I need to learn or which structures I need to review, and this helps me to keep improving for the next time I speak.
Getting started is the hardest part but I’d encourage you to stop thinking about it and just give it a try! Imperfect action beats doing nothing every day of the week. You’ll be amazed by how much it helps your language learning. Do you remember the quote from the beginning of this post?
“The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”
When you do it, it really does pay off.