How to overcome the fear of speaking a foreign language, Part 1

How to overcome the fear of speaking a foreign language, Part 1

Do you know that feeling of discomfort and anxiousness when you need to say something in a foreign language?

Speaking in a foreign language is one of the most intimidating things that many language students can think of and it is often that exact fear of speaking that stops so many people from progressing in their language learning and taking their learning to the next level. So, how are we going to overcome that fear?

As you might know, just opening up your mouth and speaking is probably the advice that people would give you: “If you want to train your speaking, speak more”. Of course, you will need to get out and speak to other people if you want to improve your interactions and communications. At the end of the day, we learn languages so that we can communicate with others – whether it be by writing or in oral speech. But the biggest problem is the one that is inside our head and we need to learn how to destroy those limiting beliefs in our head that are stopping us from speaking with native speakers, improving our language and how to stop them most of all for good.

First of all, it is important to understand what that fear of speaking is and why we have it.

The main reason why we are scared of speaking a foreign language is because we are stepping into something that is unknown and we are exiting our comfort zones. What our mind tries to do naturally is to protect us from looking like a fool or being a failure than actually progressing towards our goals and achieving something good. So, our brain wants to avoid pain rather than seek joy and find comfort.

This is known as "foreign language anxiety", or "xenoglossophobia", which is the feeling of unease, worry, nervousness and apprehension experienced when learning or using a second or foreign language.

The causes of foreign language anxiety have been broadly separated into three main components: apprehension about communication, anxiety about testing, and fear of a negative assessment. Communication apprehension is the anxiety felt when speaking or listening to other people. Test anxiety is a form of performance anxiety associated with the fear of doing poorly or failing completely. Fear of a negative evaluation is anxiety associated with the learner's perception of how other spectators may have a negative opinion of his or her language abilities.

It all starts within us. We have the power to think differently and not let fear block us.

Here are some steps on how to become more confident in speaking and overcome your fears.

Visualize your fear and make it smaller

Ask yourself what you are afraid of and visualise your fear. In my case, my biggest fear is to be mocked by other people while talking in a foreign language, so whenever I am going into an uncomfortable situation, I imagine myself speaking, making a mistake and what would happen if everybody started laughing around me. Then, I would visualise the picture of this embarrassing situation and make it smaller, make the colours dim in my mind. Afterwards, I would envision myself already speaking in that language.

If you are preparing for a job interview, an oral presentation or whatever it is, I would recommend you visualising yourself in that situation and practicing in advance by talking to yourself. This is a good way to prepare yourself for conversations that are going to happen in real life. For example, we all know we are going to need to introduce ourselves at some point whenever we meet a native speaker in the language, we are learning so practice introducing yourself.

Adopt an abundance mindset

Confidence is key when it comes to speaking a foreign language. The abundance mindset can help you become more confident and make the most of your abilities and competencies. It is about recognising what you know already rather than focusing on what you don’t know. A lot of people have the tendency to focus too much on the things that they still want to learn and develop without recognising or celebrating the vocabulary and the grammar that they already know.

For example, if you are talking about something and you need a word that you don’t know, then use the more simple vocabulary that you have to explain the idea or the word without using the literal translation of it. It is the same when it comes to grammar. If all you know in the language you are learning is the present tense but you want to talk about something that will happen in the future, you can use the present tense and find a way around it. You can use different words to indicate that you are talking about the future, such as “tomorrow” or “next week” and the person that you are talking to will definitely understand.

Expressing yourself saying anything is better than saying anything and this will give you the extra confidence to really overcome the fear of speaking.

Expect mistakes when learning a new language

Whenever you start something new – be it learning a language or any other skills- and you have never done anything like it, you have to expect that you’re going to make mistakes and fail a lot of times but with every single one of those mistakes you are one step to getting better. Also, it may be frustrating to feel like you are making mistakes, but this will ultimately be outweighed by the pleasure of using the language long-term.

Let perfectionism go

Being a polyglot and speaking six languages, you might think that I have never had the fear of speaking foreign languages. The truth is that I used to be such a perfectionist and I would not want to speak at all in the beginning until I had reached a level where I felt like I had enough vocabulary or I could put phrases together perfectly. But this was one of the things that hindered me from getting better and improving overall.

It can be tempting to be overly critical, working through smaller things that you don’t quite understand. Indeed, it can be hard to move on when you’re stuck on something you find tricky, but overall, it’s not a problem. It’s more productive to let perfectionism go and be content with what you have and what your learning currently extends to. If you get caught up trying to make something perfect, then it may cost you time and frustration! The other thing to remember is that no speakers speak perfectly! You don’t need to be absolutely spot on to convey a sentence and communicate, and your imperfections will brush themselves up over time anyway. Be content as, after all, nothing and no one is perfect!

Don't feel judged!

Another reason why we are afraid to talk is to feel like we are being judged or worry too much about being ridiculous. This is a very common problem that affects not only language learners, but also many people who do not have the courage to speak in public in their mother tongue.

Always remember that the people who are talking to you are not there to test your skills or to count the number of mistakes you are making. If someone wants to have a conversation with you it is because they want to know your opinion on a subject and because they are interested in what you say, not how you say it!

The steps to overcome the fear of speaking a foreign language do not end here. While waiting for more advice, why don't you talk to your language exchange friends about this topic to find out if they ever freeze or panic when it comes to speaking the language they are studying?

Written by: Martina Sassi, Staff Writer
Language Exchange