10 steps to overcome your fear of speaking in a foreign language

Learn languages March 3, 2020

Some people can learn a language abroad and dive straight into foreign language conversations with locals, using a small vocabulary, lots of confidence and enthusiastic hand gesturing. For many of us, however, those first conversations can be scary. The good news is – there is hope!

Read on to discover our top tips on how to overcome your fear of speaking in a foreign language:

Step 1: Understand your fear

What exactly are you afraid of? Fear of speaking in a foreign language usually boils down to being afraid to fail or fear of looking silly.

If you’ve ever noticed strange words coming out of your mouth during a job interview, those fears of judgement and failure are probably to blame. Anxiety reduces your brain’s ability to get on with its normal tasks properly, such as processing language in real time. With the added complexity of using a new vocabulary and grammar, you may feel your brain shutting down.

To relax, take a deep breath, gather your thoughts and remember that no one expects you to speak perfectly when it’s not your native language!

Step 2: Identify your problem areas

When you’re not used to speaking in a foreign language, your brain needs time to process incoming words, translate them, think of a response and translate that. Of course this is more difficult than speaking your own language!

Are you struggling more with putting your sentences together or understanding what’s being said to you in response? Try this trick: rather than trying to formulate an answer in your head while the other person is still talking, clear your mind and truly listen to what they’re saying.

Then take a moment to gather your thoughts and answer – when in doubt, put all your effort into listening!

Step 3: Practice your listening

If you’re relatively inexperienced with your new language, you won’t understand every word. You may not even understand very many words at all.

Working on your listening ability by listening to the radio or watching TV in your target language will alwayshelp your speaking skills. You can improve vocabulary and pronunciation through listening alone, but it’s no substitute for real conversation.

It’s important to understand that, even if you’re used to consuming spoken media in the language you’re learning, your brain will be working much harder during a conversation as not only do you have to understand what’s being said, but you also have to process it and formulate a response.

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Step 4: Let go of the need for perfection

You’ll never speak a language fluently without speaking a broken version of it first! The sooner you start talking, the sooner you’ll reach a conversational level.

It may be frustrating to feel like you’re making mistakes, but this will ultimately be outweighed by the reward of using the language long-term. So embrace your mistakes!

Step 5: Smile

You’ll get a much better response if you approach the conversation with a smile. After all, most native speakers are delighted when a foreigner makes the effort to speak their language, especially if they can see that it’s difficult for you! So start every conversation with a friendly hello and a smile.

Step 6: Seek out one-on-one conversations

When a group of native speakers get together, the conversation will usually speed up and become more complex. One-on-one conversations are easier. Private lessons are a way to ensure you get this experience, while also benefiting from input from an expert.

If you want to speak with a stranger, the key is not to think about it too much. Act on impulse – the longer you think about it, the harder it’ll be. If you’re travelling or learning a language in immersion, these conversations with strangers are often where the best memories start!

Step 7: Control the speed of the conversation

If you speak slowly and clearly, this should encourage your conversation partner to match your speaking rhythm. If the person you’re speaking to doesn’t get the hint, it never hurts to ask them politely to speak a bit slower – you’re still learning after all!

Step 8: Don’t be discouraged when a conversation doesn’t go well

Some people you speak to will be more patient than others, some are more understanding, and some are simply better at understanding foreign accents. When you encounter someone who’s impatient or rude to you while you’re trying to speak their language, don’t be deterred – in this case, it’s their problem!

Step 9: Practice basic, everyday conversations

Many of the same conversations will come up again and again in everyday life. If you’re dining out at a restaurant, getting drinks in a bar or going shopping, most interactions follow a similar pattern.

If you’re lacking confidence in the language you’re learning, these conversations should be your first step. People are also likely to be patient with you if they’re selling you something!

Even outside of these highly scripted encounters, when native speakers find out you’re learning their language, they’ll probably ask you where you’re from and why you’re learning their language. These conversations will help boost your confidence so you can move onto broader topics.

Step 10: Visit places where the language is spoken as often as you can

It goes without saying, but living and studying abroad in full immersion is hands-down the best way to increase your fluency and reduce your fear of speaking in a foreign language. Whether it’s a language study trip, a volunteer experience or just a quick holiday, as often as you can, find an excuse to travel to where the language is spoken!

So, fight that fear of speaking in a foreign language and pack your bags – your language skills are guaranteed to improve!

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By Leah Ganse

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