Overcoming Your Fear of Speaking a 2nd Language

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Talking to people is hard, there’s no doubt about it. It takes me a deep breath and some pre-conversation pacing just to call about the water bill or order a pizza let alone Skype someone I’ve never met before, halfway around the world, in a language with which I have little experience or confidence. Fear of speaking a 2nd language out loud, to real people, can be mind-numbingly daunting.

Why is that? Is it a fear of making mistakes? A fear of judgement? Or just a fear of the awkward silences that hallmark a conversation in a language you’re not quite comfortable with.

Whatever it is, I know most learners suffer from the same paralyzing fear of incompetence and embarrassment.

So what can we do to lessen that?

Find yourself a native tutor immediately

The best way to learn is by studying with someone who knows how to teach. I encourage language exchanges as well, and speaking to anyone you can find – including other learners – but if you’re just starting out it may behoove you to go straight for a professional tutor who you know will be sympathetic to your struggles and can offer you the encouragement you need to succeed.

  

There are a number of ways that you can find for yourself a tutor but iTalki is one of the most popular methods. You can use it to find both native and non-native speaking tutors; some free and others paid.

Again, if you’re just starting out it might be a better bet to pay a little bit of money for a professional teacher. The rates are usually quite affordable – and you can usually find someone to fit even a meager budget. Free tutors are not necessarily less capable, but they are often less experienced. But hey, if it’s free, you might as well, right?

Consider waiting on the language exchange

An alternative to finding a regular tutor is to set up a language exchange with a native speaker of your target language. This is a spectacular way to learn a language with someone interested in studying your own language, all the while helping them learn. It’s a great feeling and anyone who doesn’t do it at some point is missing out on a great experience.

Language exchanges are a great way to learn “off the beaten path” and will almost guarantee you an unstructured learning experience filled with pitfalls, glorious moments, slang and profanity, embarrassment and frequent hilarity. I cannot overstate the value of a good language exchange but it should be very strongly noted that in most cases a language exchange will not be with an experienced tutor.

This is the reason I would caution (though not necessarily discourage the shy or introverted learner against early language exchanges. While it’s important to get out there and speak as soon as you can, it can often be more helpful to have your early person to person speaking experiences with a professional who can help assuage you of your fears, better diagnose the problems you may be having and instill a greater sense of confidence.

Make notes before your Skype call!

You know how people who gives speeches have note cards in front of them to keep themselves on track? Presidents, kings, executives, high school students – everyone in public speaking does it; and there’s a good reason for that.

Any time I’ve ever participated in a Skype call in a language exchange or with someone who was working with me I write down some things I want to talk about. Chances are that you have a much wider vocabulary in your new language than you give yourself credit for; most of us do. It’s easier to think of these words when we aren’t on the spot; being pressured to come up with something to say. How often do you recite your favorite sentences in the shower, translate words in your head when you see them in your native language and otherwise carry on conversations with yourself?

Write down what you know (or at least what you think you know, it really doesn’t matter right now). Your note cards will be off screen, and your language partner will have no reason to believe you aren’t just that good.

Write down anything you might be having a hard time remembering, be it questions you want to ask, conjugations you regularly struggle with, big words you want to show off. It doesn’t matter! Write them down on a sticky note and slap it on your monitor. Heck, write it down ON your computer – your friend will have no way of knowing that you’re cheating.

And you’re not cheating. This is language learning, not chess. Everything you do is a win and there should be no real element of competition, except with yourself.

Get over yourself

You’re going to embarrass yourself. It will happen, and when it does it won’t be as bad as you think it will be. When it happens it will probably be funnier than you expected. You’ll both have a laugh, and move on with life.

How many times have you embarrassed yourself in public using your own first language? How many times have you been sitting in a restaurant with your friends, had someone make a snarky comment about you, to which you replied to with four letter expletives a little bit louder than you had really intended, only to then realize there were two kids in the booth behind you.

How many times did you walk into someone in a grocery store? Or said something to someone you just met that may have been taken the wrong way?

We all do this stuff all the time in our native languages. Get over yourself and stop worrying so much about what other people might think of you. You’re learning a 2nd language – they can either understand that or they can piss off.

You don’t need to be disrespectful to speak with confidence. All you have to do is convince yourself that it doesn’t matter.

They’re more afraid of you than you are of them

I’ll never forget the first time I participated in a language exchange. I was learning Russian and I had worked out an exchange with a native speaker in Russia. I was nervous as hell, thinking this person must be more skilled with English than I am with Russian.

Not necessarily. It was immediately obvious that she was as nervous – if not more so – than I was and that her English, while enough for us to generally understand each other, was as much a source of anxiety as was my own command of Russian.

This realization immediately makes it possible to empathize with your partner. Knowing that they’re just as nervous about your exchange as you means that you are no longer at a perceived disadvantage. You might even come to realize that you’re more comfortable with their 1st language than they are with yours, as I did.

Most people aren’t out to get you

I like to think that most people are naturally good and generally somewhat helpful – or at least they try to be.

People claim all the time that part of the reason they’re afraid to speak their 2nd language out loud, either in public or via a language exchange is because they’re nervous that the other person(s) will make fun of them or judge them harshly for their inadequacies. Sometimes this is spread by those who have had bad experiences before – generally isolated.

There’s a reason you rarely hear good things and only seem to hear negative. When people have a good experience at a restaurant, with a particular company or service, they tend to be happy about it, and go about their day. On the other hand when people do not feel that their experience is positive they’re far more likely to write a negative review, or start telling all of their friends or family that such a company or service is bad.

Keep this in mind the next time your friend tells you about the grumpy, impolite waiter in that restaurant in Paris they stayed at once. Chances are, the bad service is what stands out in their mind, coloring their perception of the culture and by extension; the language.

I have never, ever seen this negativity to be true towards a learner who is both humble and genuinely interested in a new language or culture. No one that I’ve ever spoken to was critical of my mistakes in any hurtful or negative way, nor did they take much time to dwell on little errors – these things don’t matter! What matters is that you’re communicating with someone who you didn’t previously share a common language with! When you think about it that’s truly a beautiful thing.

And I think your partner will feel similarly.

If you’re using Skype, don’t be afraid to walk off camera, or not use one at all 

I think a lot of people assume that a Skype call means you have to be face to face with someone. This simply isn’t true. If you want – you can be – but when it comes to learning a language the most important part is to be able to hear your partner speak, and to be able to reciprocate in kind. If you don’t own a webcam, or aren’t comfortable using one, don’t stress about it. Chances are your exchange partner won’t care.

If you are using a webcam feel free to excuse yourself. There’s never any harm in that. If you’re really starting to feel the pressure mount, just get up, indicate that you’ll be back in a moment, then go off and do whatever it is you need to do to clear your head; be it to research something, just walk off the stress, or to actually use the restroom.

Sometimes it really is the best idea to just get up and walk away. Just be sure to return as soon as possible. You don’t want to keep someone waiting too long.

Use voice recordings

Nobody likes to hear themselves on a recording. Unfortunately if you want to improve your pronunciation you need to know where you’re at currently. There are dozens of tools that allow you to input your own sentences or vocabulary and either share them with a learning partner, compare them against automated native speakers in various apps or programs, or simply use them yourself as a reference point to test your ever improving pronunciation against.

In fact, if you own a smart phone or tablet you can already do this. Most mobile devices allow you to create and store a virtually limitless number of audio files for you to go back to and reference. In addition to this you can download applications such as Lingrid that works in a similar way. 

Once recorded, play back your past performances and speak out loud to yourself – in front of a mirror if possible. Each time trying to perfect the pronunciation. It may seem absurd but simply speaking to yourself in the mirror can sometimes give you the illusion that you’re speaking with another person. Sure, your roommates might think you’re crazy, but when it comes to speaking with real people you need every edge you can get.

Eventually you’ll just have to bite the proverbial bullet

I wish there was something more comforting, more helpful, to say than “just do it!”.

I know it’s not that easy; that all the preparation in the world isn’t always enough to get everyone fully prepared for their first real conversations in a new language. Unfortunately the truth is that you’ll never be ready. Nobody is ever ready, and there’s nothing really for it except to just jump in head first.

In keeping with the diving theme; starting to speak a new language to a new person is really very much like taking the plunge into icy cold water at the end of Spring, just after the pool covers have been removed, the Winter water has finally begun to warm, and you can once again justify flipflops.

It’s hard to do. You know it’s going to be cold as hell. You also know you’ll be used to it in about 15 seconds and wonder why you didn’t jump sooner, but that doesn’t really make taking the plunge any easier in the moment.

Language learning is identical to that. Starting to speak to another person is the hardest part. Once you’ve begun, you will begin to realize that you’re dealing with another human being who typically wants to see you succeed.

I’m serious when I say “about 15 seconds”. That’s usually all it takes to realize that you’re not going to be crucified for your poor Russian, your inadequate Italian or your broken Korean.

Conclusion

Once you’ve started speaking confidently with real people everything becomes down hill from there. Everything from complex grammar to huge words and difficult cultural concepts will come together with far more ease if you have the self-confidence to just reach out and communicate.

If you follow the advice on this page you will eventually overcome your fear of speaking your second language out loud. Until you do so your progress will be stunted, so seriously, go give it a shot!

What other tips and tricks do you use to get over language shyness?

 

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  • I often use Whatsapp/Viber voice messaging to talk to people learning Spanish and English and to practice Polish or Turkish because my biggest issues are working full time and time zones. So, with Whatsapp/Viber, we may not have live chats, but we can chat almost anywhere and at any time. It’s worked great for me as I can give and get feedback without a schedule that may interrupt me or my language partner’s sleeping/working habits. I call on Skype only when I have the time to do so.

    • I haven’t heard of Viber before. I’ll have to check it out! Thanks for reading Cristobal!

      • It is a good app for calling/messaging. Also Telegram has worked for me with voice messages (even Facebook mobile app offers it).

  • Chat apps like Viber and LINE are very popular in Asia too. I use them all the time 🙂 The quality of calls is best with Skype but Viber is a close second. Plus, Viber stickers are cute too! It has a Spanish greetings sticker set but I haven’t downloaded it.

    Brian, do you record your Skype calls/lessons to review after? Do you have recommendations on apps/software to do this? Thank you!

  • Great advice, Brian. The most important one for me is knowing that “most people aren’t out to get you”. And we just have to move on in the rare case when we have a bad experience.

  • I was one of those extremely shy people who were afraid to speak a foreign language: my biggest fear was speaking on the phone! Actually, when I was abroad the need of making calls helped me a lot, but to keep practicing russian now that I’m back at home I use whatsapp or viber too. I think these are extremely useful because you have your smartphone always with you and you can continuously improve speaking and listening.

  • David Ellis

    Very helpful points here, I am very nervous about speaking a second language to “real” people (even when I can read and understand it fairly well), but there are some great points here to help me get over that. The mention of iTalki is very useful, will check it out.