What's stopping you from speaking a foreign language - and how to fix it

9th July 2017

Does speaking a foreign language make you nervous? Read on for some unconventional advice on how to deal with your fears and start speaking.

Speaking a foreign language is one of the best feelings in the world. It gives you:
  • A deeply satisfying connection with a new culture and its people
  • The chance to travel with ease
  • A huge sense of personal achievement
  • New career opportunities
That’s why if you ask a room of people if they’d like to speak a foreign language, almost everyone says yes. So what stops people from learning to speak one? Some say time. But there are plenty of ways to squeeze language learning into a busy day. Others say motivation. But that’s not a problem if you find ways to learn that you enjoy. These are excuses that can be easily solved, if you want to speak that language badly enough.

What if people think I’m stupid?

The thing that stops most people from speaking a foreign language is the fear of feeling like an idiot. Because learning to speak a language requires everyone to go through that phase of sounding like tarzan and Barney Gumble’s two year old love child. So when a reader Krisztina got in touch and asked: “How can I beat my fear of speaking in a foreign language?”, I jumped at the chance to answer, because it's a problem that affects almost all of us to some degree or another. And the answer is simple. Don’t.

It’s normal to feel nervous speaking a second language

I’ve been speaking Italian for longer than I care to remember. It all started back in 2008, when I had more piercings and fewer wrinkles. Now, I’ve been living in Italy for nearly 6 years - my love life and friendships have been conducted in Italian for most of my 20s. But can I tell you a secret? I still get nervous speaking Italian. Don’t get me wrong, the better I get, the more comfortable I feel. Most of the time when I speak Italian, I’m straight chillin. But I still get nervous when I have to sort out my mortgage or call my accountant in Italian. Even chatting to friends can give me the jitters - especially those kind of friends who have perfectly organised kitchen cupboards and wear matching socks.  

I started speaking Italian in 2008, when I had more piercings and fewer wrinkles. Even though my social life has been in Italian for most of my 20s, I still get nervous speaking it sometimes.

Be nervous and do it anyway

The idea that speaking nerves never go away might seem like bad news. But nerves in themselves are nothing to worry about. As Michael Jordan points out:

Being nervous isn’t bad. It just means something important is happening.

It’s trying not to feel nervous that causes problems. Resisting your feelings makes them worse. It’s like trying not to feel hungry, or trying to fall asleep: the more you focus on it, the harder it gets. Successful language learners aren't the ones who’ve gotten rid of their nerves (if you’ve ever tried, you'll know it’s pretty much impossible). They’re the ones who’ve learned to live with their jitters and speak anyway. Once you realise it's OK to feel uncomfortable, it's liberating. Nerves will come and go, but they won't stop you from learning to speak the language. If you can embrace nerves as a normal part of language learning, the whole process becomes more enjoyable. You spend less time worrying about how you feel and more time focusing on important things, like doing your best to communicate with the awesome human being in front of you.

Stop waiting until you feel ready

Lots of people make the mistake of waiting for nerves to go away before they try to speak. They think:

I’ll keep learning until I feel more confident, then I’ll practise speaking.

It sounds logical, but this mindset is one of the biggest obstacles to learning a language, because that magical day never comes. If you wait until you stop feeling nervous, you’ll never start speaking a foreign language.

Do it until it feels normal

That said, learning to speak a language doesn’t have to be a constant white-knuckle ride. Think about learning to drive, or your first day at work or school. Most people find these experiences intimidating at first, but they quickly become a normal part of life (sometimes to the point of creating the opposite problem - boredom). The more often you do something that scares you, the less scary it becomes. If I spent more time with my accountant or friends who think my mismatching socks are weird, I’d probably feel more comfortable speaking Italian in these situations. In fact, I already feel less nervous doing these things compared to when I started. The key to feeling less nervous when speaking a foreign language is to do it more. But it’s not always easy to practise speaking when it feels new and scary. Luckily, you can ease yourself in gently by creating opportunities to speak which feel less intimidating. The following tips will show you how.

How to speak a foreign language (even though you feel nervous)

Here, you won’t find advice on how to “beat the fear” of speaking, because I don’t believe it’s possible (or necessary). Instead, you'll learn 12 simple strategies to start speaking in spite of your nerves. The first 6 tips will help you create opportunities to practise speaking that don’t feel so intimidating. The last 6 tips show you how to develop a more positive approach to your fear of speaking a foreign language. These points will help you make friends with your nerves so you can get on with what’s important: learning to speak the language.

6 non-intimidating ways to practise speaking a foreign language

1. Find your training wheels

When you learn to ride a bike, you don’t just get on and whizz down a busy road. You need to build up your skills in a safe place, like in the park with training wheels. The same goes for speaking a language. You don’t need to waltz up to people you don’t know and start talking - that puts a lot of pressure on you and you might feel silly if you make mistakes or have really long pauses. Instead, look for people who can be your “training wheels” as you learn to speak. These are people you feel comfortable with as you make the jump from study books to speaking the language. They should be people who don’t mind waiting while you grab the grammar and vocabulary that's floating around in your head and combine it to make real sentences (which can take a long time at the beginning!) They could be friends, conversation tutors or language exchange partners. If you don’t have anyone in mind yet, the next section has some suggestions about where to find these people.

2. Set up a win-win situation with your speaking partner

Sometimes it feels like you’re putting people out by asking them to talk to you while you struggle to spit out a sentence. One solution is to set up a situation where you give your speaking partner something in return for their help. For example, you can practise speaking with a tutor or language exchange partner. In return, you pay them (in the case of tutors) or help them learn your native language (in the case of exchange partners). This reciprocal deal takes the pressure off because:
  • Your speaking partner gets something in return for their time, so you don’t feel like a burden if you’re struggling to speak.
  • You both know you're there to learn, so you feel more comfortable about speaking slowly or making mistakes.
  • You partner knows you’re new to speaking, so they don’t have unrealistic expectations.
Don’t know where to find these people? Start here: Conversation exchange: On conversation exchange, you’ll find native speakers who live in your area, so you can set up a face-to-face language exchange. Or if you’re in the country where your target language is spoken, you can use it to meet locals who will help you practise speaking and show you around at the same time! Italki: Italki is your one stop shop for finding people to help you practise speaking. Here, you’ll find native speaker tutors - called community tutors - for online conversation lessons from as little as $5 an hour. If you fancy giving it a go, I’ve teamed up with the lovely people at italki to give you $10 of free lessons after you book your first lesson. Click here to find a tutor on italki and get $10 off. Or you prefer a free option, you can use italki to find partners for online language exchanges.

This is my online Chinese tutor, Jane. She's one of the community tutors on italki. These lessons are a great way to practise speaking Mandarin. It doesn't matter if I have really long pauses and make mistakes - that's why I'm doing the lessons!

3. Choose the right speaking partners

When you start speaking, you'll probably have to think very carefully about each word. You'll stutter, have epically long pauses and make lots of mistakes. That's OK, we all go through that stage. It's a normal part of language learning. As a beginner, you have the right to speak slowly and make mistakes. It’s called being a beginner. Make sure you choose speaking partners who understand this. They should be friendly, patient and encourage you to speak. If anyone makes you feel silly for being a beginner, they’re not the right match for you. Move on and choose a speaking partner who supports your learning efforts.

4. Speak often

When you chat regularly to your speaking partners, you'll repeat things over and over. After a while, you won't need to think about every word and your sentences will start to flow naturally. Practise speaking as often as you can and you'll be amazed how quickly everything starts to come together.

5. Give yourself mini challenges

Don’t feel like you have to throw yourself in at the deep end all the time. Get braver by setting yourself a series of mini challenges that gradually nudge you out of your comfort zone. Let’s imagine you go to the country where the language you’re learning is spoken. You could start by ordering your food in the language. Then, once you’re used to that, you could try asking the waiter where he’s from, or if he can recommend a dish. Choose something you’d like to learn that feels slightly outside of your comfort zone (but not too much) then go from there. Over time, these mini challenges will add up, helping you feel braver without the overwhelm of doing lots of scary things at once.

6. Always be prepared

When you first start speaking, you’ll have communication breakdowns. A lot of them. It helps to learn key phrases so you can manage these breakdowns and keep the conversation going in the language you’re learning. Here are some examples.

How do you say that in French/Spanish/Italian? What’s this? Could you repeat that please? Could you speak more slowly please? Can we speak in French/Spanish/Italian please? I’m learning.

If you’re learning with an online tutor, these phrases will come in handy:

Sorry, I can’t hear/see you. The line’s bad. I’ll call you back.

A good way of learning these phrases is to have your language partner/tutor write them down or record them for you.

6 ways to make friends with your nerves

1. Know that nerves make you a normal human being

I’ve worked with hundreds of language learners and I am yet to meet one who doesn’t get nervous about speaking sometimes. The funny thing is, everyone feels like they’re the only one. Reminding yourself that nerves are a normal human emotion makes them easier to deal with.

2. Don’t fight it

Does this sound familiar? 1. Feel nervous 2. Try to stop feeling nervous 3. Think about feeling nervous 4. Feel more nervous than before… When we feel nervous, most of us jump to the conclusion that it’s bad, so we try to fight it. By fighting it, we give our nerves too much importance, which makes the situation worse. If we accept that it’s OK to feel nervous, we break the cycle at number 1, which stops the situation from getting out of hand.

3. Enjoy your nerves

You can even start to enjoy feeling nervous: after all, it’s a sign that you’re challenging yourself and learning new things. And if you think about it, the feeling isn’t all that different from the positive emotion, excitement.

4. Focus on the person you’re talking to

When we’re feeling nervous, we’re usually quite self absorbed. Instead of thinking about your feelings, try directing your attention outwards to the person you’re talking to. This changes your attitude from “I’m trying my best not to sound stupid” to “I’m trying my best to communicate with this person”. This approach helps you relax and have more rewarding conversations.

5. Adopt a growth mindset

A fixed mindset is when you think “I’m bad at speaking languages”. A growth mindset is when you say “I’m not good at speaking... yet”. I’ve talked about this a lot in previous posts (like how to make any language easy and 3 research-backed ways to stop procrastination from ruining your language learning) because it’s an essential attitude for language learners. With a growth mindset, you know you’ll get better with practice, so you give yourself permission to be a beginner. This makes speaking easier because you don’t put so much pressure on yourself.

6. Learn to laugh at yourself

It’s normal to feel nervous about speaking another language because of the risk of making mistakes and sounding silly. But if you didn’t mind so much about making mistakes, you could relax more when speaking a foreign language. The best way to stop worrying about mistakes is to laugh at yourself. We all know language learners sometimes make funny mistakes, and the person listening to you will understand. Who cares if you accidentally say a swear word, or pronounce something wrong? It’s all part of the fun. And if you can laugh together, if helps strengthen your bond with native speakers - the reason we’re learning a language in the first place, right?

 

Over to you

Do you get nervous when speaking a foreign language? Which of the tips are the most helpful in taking the plunge to start speaking? Let us know in the comments below!

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