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

Some people can dive straight into foreign language conversations with a small vocabulary, lots of confidence and enthusiastic hand gesturing. For many of us, however, those first conversations can be scary.

There are some things you can do to grasp and overcome your nerves when speaking another language.

Understand your fear

What exactly are you afraid of? Anxiety about speaking in a foreign language usually boils down to fear of failure or fear of being negatively evaluated.

If you have ever noticed strange and unusual 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, ask yourself how you feel when a foreign person makes an effort to speak your language. Hopefully you would not judge them negatively.

Work out where you get stuck in conversations

When you are not used to conversing in a foreign language, your brain needs time to process incoming words, translate them, think of a response and translate that. This requires significantly more thought than conversing in your native language.

Are you struggling more with formulating your sentences or understanding what is being said to you in response?

Very often it is the latter, which then has an impact on the former. There are plenty of things that you can do to improve your listening skills, and this will drastically improve your speaking.

Practice your listening

If you are relatively new with a language, you will not understand every word. You may not even understand many words.

Working on your listening ability with foreign language media will always help your speaking. You can improve vocab and pronunciation through listening alone, but it is no substitute for real conversation.

It is important to understand that, even if you are used to consuming spoken media in the language you are learning, your brain will be working much harder during a conversation as you must not only understand what is being said, but process it and formulate a response, or a way of getting the information you need.

The desire for perfection may be holding you back

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

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.


You will get a much better response if you approach the conversation with a smile. What’s the worst that can happen?

One-on-one conversations are easier

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

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

Control the speed of the conversation

If you speak slowly and clearly, this should encourage your conversation partner to also speak slowly and clearly.

You can’t win ‘em all

Some people you speak to will be more patient than others, some are more understanding, some are simply better at understanding foreign accents. Don’t be deterred – in this case, the problem is theirs not yours.

Repeating topics

Many of the same conversations will come up again and again in everyday life. If you are ordering food in a restaurant or drinks in a bar, or if you are shopping, most interactions stick to an established routine.

If you are lacking confidence in the language you are learning, these conversations are your way to experience interaction in the language. People are also likely to be patient with you if they are selling you something.

Even outside of these highly scripted encounters, when native speakers find out you are learning their language, you will probably be asked where you are from and why you are learning. These conversations will help develop your confidence so you can move onto broader topics.

It gets easier when you speak more languages

Once you have learned a foreign language to a conversational level, you will not feel the same fear when learning another. Sure it will be frustrating grasping for new words again, but you will know that it is possible.

How was your first conversation in a foreign language?

Image credits: torbakhopper HE DEAD (CC BY-ND 2.0), Tambako The Jaguar (CC BY-ND 2.0)