The simplest way to get over your fear of speaking a foreign language

3rd November 2018

Most of the advice on "how to get over your fear of speaking a foreign language" didn't work for me. Luckily, I found a very simple way that did!

You know that dream where you're standing in front of lots of people and you suddenly realise you're naked? Everyone’s staring at you. Panic squeezes your chest and makes your hands and voice go all wobbly. You want to escape but for some reason, you can’t. This happened to me last Friday. Only it wasn't a dream. Luckily for me (and everyone else in the room) I wasn't naked. But the rest is true. It happened while giving a talk at the Polyglot Conference in Ljubljana for the Friday Language Learning Event. My brain turned to swiss cheese and I kept forgetting what I wanted to say. At one point, I was shaking so much that I had to grab the mic with both hands. It reminded me of how I used to feel when speaking a foreign language - that moment when the nerves make your mind go blank and you can feel people waiting while you scramble to find the words. So I’m using the same technique that I used to overcome my fear of speaking a foreign language. It's a strategy that's so useful, I’m actually looking forward to my next chance to speak in public. It’s not fancy. There are no Jedi mindset tricks or motivational quotes with a beach in the background. It’s not a quick fix either - you actually have to put some time and effort in. But it works. And you can use it to feel more confident when you speak a foreign language. In this post, you’ll learn:
  • Why most advice on how to get over your nerves doesn’t work.
  • The reliable way to deal with your fear of speaking a foreign language.
  • A practical step-by-step guide to help you build your confidence and start speaking.

The simplest way to get over your fear of speaking a foreign language

I’m not a naturally confident person. I used to (sometimes still do) get very anxious about things like speaking foreign languages, job interviews and public speaking. I’ve tried all kinds of tricks to get rid of my nerves, such as:
  • Telling yourself that you’re not nervous, you’re just “excited”
  • Asking yourself: “what’s the worst that could happen?”
  • Making the listener(s) less intimidating by imagining them sitting on the toilet.
  • Positive visualisation
None of it worked. Why? Because trying not to feel nervous is a bit like trying not to think of a giant grasshopper crossing the road holding an umbrella. What are you thinking of? These methods made me feel worse, because they made me focus on my nerves and turned them into a personal problem that I couldn’t get rid of.

How I learnt to feel confident when speaking a foreign language

Despite not being naturally courageous, these days I don’t get particularly nervous when speaking a foreign language. And the reason is simple: I’ve spent an awful lot of time doing it. There is only one strategy that helps me feel more relaxed when speaking a foreign language, and it's this: Do it until it feels normal There’s a quiet confidence that comes with having done something many times, that you can’t get any other way. When I gave my talk at the polyglot conference, I was petrified because it was my first time - no amount of preparation or “positive self-talk” could have changed this. But somewhere between my shaky hands and fluttery stomach, there was a glimmer of hope: I survived. Next time, it will be marginally less terrifying. If I keep doing it, one day it won’t be terrifying at all. I know this because there are many things that used to scare me - like living in a foreign country or teaching - that are now a normal part of my life. Studies on foreign language anxiety show that people who have spent time in the country where the language is spoken tend to feel less nervous when they speak it. This makes sense. When you live in the country, you get more opportunities to practice. The more you practice, the more confident you feel. But you don’t need to go abroad to benefit from this experience - you can create opportunities to practice at home with online tutors or via language exchanges (more on this later). I know this “just do it” advice is easier said than done, and it’s not something that happens overnight. That’s why in the last part of this article, I’ll give you a step by step guide on how to gradually build your confidence in speaking a foreign language. But first, let's talk about why action (and not thought) is the simplest and most effective way to deal with your fear of speaking a foreign language. We'll start by looking at why we get nervous in the first place.

Why do I feel nervous about speaking a foreign language?

Your brain has evolved over millions of years to protect you from danger. That’s why most people are afraid of heights to some degree - as you walk towards the edge of a cliff, your mind starts shouting “danger!” “danger!” to make sure you don’t get too close to the edge and fall off. But why do we feel afraid in situations which aren’t dangerous, like speaking a foreign language? Although fear is nature’s handy way of keeping you safe, it’s not very sophisticated. It can’t differentiate between physical threats, like falling off a cliff, and social threats, where the only thing at stake is your ego. Which could explain why more people are afraid of public speaking than death! Trying to talk yourself out of feeling nervous can be counterproductive because it makes you feel like nerves are something to be avoided, when actually they’re just a normal biological response to the fact that you’re taking on a new challenge. Doing things that scare you regularly (and surviving), shows your mind that they are no longer a threat, so the nerves eventually start to die down.  

Confidence doesn’t come from changing your thoughts, it comes with experience

This is why you’ll never find lasting confidence in a flashy Instagram quote or self-help book. The path to self-assuredness is a lot less sexy: it comes from doing the same thing over and over until it’s not new anymore. It’s an intense awkwardness that gradually declines with experience until it almost disappears (a few jitters may remain, but that’s nothing to worry about). Instead of trying to make your fear of speaking a foreign language go away - which is basically impossible - you could spend that energy in a more productive way: learning to tolerate the fact that you feel uncomfortable. Nerves are necessary if you want to do new and cool things that will help you grow, like speaking a foreign language. The more time you spend doing these things - even if they feel awkward - the faster you’ll feel at ease doing them. This doesn’t mean you have to run around like an adrenaline junkie doing things that terrify you all day (although if you did, you’d probably get confident in those things pretty quickly). There’s a gentler way.

Two ways to get out of your comfort zone

Have you ever watched people go swimming in the sea? Some run up and dive in head first. Others wade in inch by inch as they get used to the temperature. The end result is the same: they’re both swimming in the sea. If the ”just start speaking” approach feels a little too uncomfortable, you’re not alone. For many people (myself included) striking up a conversation with a stranger is intimidating in their native language - the idea of doing it in a language you’ve just started learning could be enough to put you off for life! You don’t have to dive head first out of your comfort zone. Dipping your toe out works just as well. Aim for the right level of nerves - a little speaking challenge that makes you feel slightly uncomfortable, but not so much that you traumatise yourself (more ideas on how to do this in the next section). Once you get used to that, try something else that makes you slightly uncomfortable and so on. The confidence-boosting effect of these little steps will add up over time and help you feel more relaxed when speaking a foreign language.

Fear of Speaking a foreign language To get over your fear of speaking a foreign language, try a speaking task that makes you feel slightly uncomfortable. Keep doing it until it feels normal, then repeat. One day you'll look back and realise that speaking a foreign language isn't as scary you thought!

How to get over your fear of speaking a foreign language: A step by step guide

Prepare for your conversations

If the idea of speaking a foreign language is scary, not knowing what to say can make it even scarier! Learning words and phrases that are likely to come up in conversation will help you to communicate more confidently. Here are a few ways to prepare for your first conversation in a foreign language:
  • Learn basic greetings and pleasantries
  • Learn how to ask and answer simple conversation questions: Where are you from? What do you do?
  • Think about the kinds of questions people might ask you and learn the answers (you can ask a native speaker to help you with this - see the next section!)
  • Learn some small talk phrases: If you can talk about the weather, food and sport, you’ll have a great foundation for conversations.
  • Learn phrases to keep the conversation going, such as “How do you say that?”, “What does that mean?”, “Could you repeat please?”, “Could you speak slower please?” If you can ask these questions in the language you’re learning, you’ll be able to avoid awkward pauses when you don’t understand someone or when you don’t know a word.
  • Listen as much as you can: When you listen a lot, you’ll hear common phrases being used over and over. The more you listen, the more these phrases will pop into your head naturally when you are speaking. As a beginner, you can practice listening with textbook dialogues, audiobooks or podcasts designed for language learners.
That said, remember that no amount of preparation will make your nerves go away. Don’t fall into the trap of preparing forever because you want to put off speaking. Remember - the best way to remember things is to practise using them in conversation. And the more you practise, the less nervous you’ll feel! Related posts: The complete guide to having a conversation in Italian The 11 best tools for learning Spanish: from beginner to advanced The 17 best tools for learning French: from beginner to advanced The 38 best Italian learning tools: from beginner to advanced The 15 best tools for learning Russian: From Beginner to Advanced

Take small steps

You don’t have to start with a full-blown conversation. There are lots of ways to ease yourself slowly into speaking a foreign language. Here are some suggestions.

Start by chatting to people online

Chatting online (via text message) is handy because there's no time pressure. You can look up words you don’t know and think about the sentences carefully before you type them. Also, the other person can’t see your face which makes things a lot less nerve-wracking at first! There are lots of different resources you can use to type little messages in the language you’re learning. HelloTalk is a great app where you can connect with native speakers via text message (a bit like WhatsApp for language learners). You can also try looking for Facebook groups where people practise chatting together in the language you’re learning. Don’t overthink it, just type your first message then see what happens!

Practise speaking before you meet native speakers

It's a great idea to get used to speaking in the language you’re learning before you try having a conversation with native speakers. How? You'll find some ideas in this post. 4 unconventional ways to practise speaking without a native speaker Practising speaking before you meet native speakers will give you the opportunity to practice grabbing all that grammar and vocabulary that's floating around in your head and organising it into sentences so your conversations will run more smoothly when you try the real thing.

Practise speaking in situations where you have permission to be a beginner

Speaking a foreign language in real life situations - like with a person sitting next to you on the train - can feel scary because there’s pressure to have a normal conversation. You might worry about mistakes, forgetting words, or making the poor person wait for ages while you string a sentence together. These things are a normal and necessary part of learning to speak a foreign language, but they might make you feel embarrassed about your level because you're placing a burden on the listener. At first, it's useful to find people where there is a “learning agreement” - that is, people who know you are a beginner and have agreed to help you learn. Usually, this will be a language exchange partner or a tutor. This takes the pressure off for two reasons:
  1. You're giving them something in return for their time (teaching them your language in the case of exchange partners, or a little bit of money in the case of tutors)
  2. They know that you're a beginner, so they expect you to speak slowly, forget words and make mistakes! It’s a safe place to practise speaking a foreign language without the pressure of having to perform well.
Where can you find speaking partners like this?

Find a community tutor on italki

The best place to find people to help you speak a foreign language is italki. Here, you can book 1-to-1 conversation lessons with lovely native speaker tutors – called community tutors – for less than $10 an hour. If you fancy giving it a go, you can get a $10 voucher after you book your first lesson here: Click here to find a tutor on italki and get $10 off. It's great for busy people because you get private conversation lessons and you can squeeze one in whenever you have a spare 30 minutes and an internet connection.

Find a language exchange partner

Alternatively, you can find native speakers who want to learn your native language and set up a language exchange. There are lots of websites and apps that help you can find native speakers in your area, so you can meet up and practice speaking over a coffee or beer. Conversation Exchange and Tandem are two examples. A little word of caution - when doing language exchanges, be sure to divide the time equally (e.g. 30 minutes in each language) and be strict about sticking to it so that you both get a fair chance to practice.

Don’t take yourself so seriously

Earlier, we talked about how confidence in speaking a foreign language starts with "an intense awkwardness" that declines with experience. In the beginning, you’ll almost certainly make mistakes and look silly at times. That's nothing to fear! The sooner you can make friends with that awkward feeling, the more confident you'll feel speaking a foreign language. You don’t have to be perfect, and native speakers don’t expect you to be either. If you can learn to laugh at yourself, you'll give native speakers the chance to laugh with you. This will help you get closer to your speaking partners and make the experience more fun.

Time for some action

If you only take one thing away from this article, let it be this: it’s normal to feel nervous when speaking a foreign language. Take the first small step and just keep going. It’ll get easier, I promise.

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Fear of speaking a foreign language

What do you think?

Do you ever feel nervous speaking a foreign language? Do you think it gets easier with practice? Let us know in the comments below!

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