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How To Stop Anxiety When Speaking A Foreign Language


I had an interesting thing happen to me recently that prompted me to write this today.

I was out walking here in California and came across a Lebanese food truck on the side of the road. I thought to myself:

“This is a great opportunity to practice some Arabic and meet some new people.”

I stood in line waiting to be served by an older Lebanese woman and there were lots of people standing around within earshot.

As I got up to the front of the line to be served where I was planning to introduce myself in Arabic, the nerves hit me hard. I was suddenly very nervous to talk to this woman.

This was something I noticed straight away and even asked myself:

“Why the hell am I nervous?

I’ve done this a million times all over the world.”

Not to mention that Arabic is my best language after English.

I couldn’t tell at the time if it was nerves to speak to her in general, fear of screwing something up or concern about using Arabic in front of a bunch of English-speaking strangers and what they might think.

Long story short, we ended up having a wonderful chat (the nerves went away after I started speaking to her) – I met her husband and kids and we exchanged contact information. I got to practice lots of Arabic that day and considered it a successful encounter.

But I went home and reflected on what happened earlier.

What caused me to feel like that?

Has it happened before and I just didn’t pay attention to it at the time?

This may come as a surprise to some of my readers that I still get very nervous at times when practising foreign languages with other people.

Both in person and online.

If you met me, you’d probably think “this guy’s an extrovert”. I come across as incredibly confident and talkative but I’m very much introverted.

I’m what I call a ‘sociable introvert’.

This means that while I crave ‘me time’ like every introvert does to recharge, I have no problem with sociability itself (see this post where I explain the important difference).

If you’re afraid of talking to people in general, this has nothing to do with introversion.

It’s social anxiety (a more serious problem).

On the other hand, if you just don’t like being around other people, then that’s a lack of sociability. If you fall into this category then my question is: why bother learning to speak a foreign language at all?

As far as social anxiety is concerned, I don’t believe I have major issues with it. Meeting new people has never bothered me or been hard for me as it is for some people.

But…

I have always struggled with performance anxiety.

Most of us hate public speaking which is one form of performance anxiety.

But even when I was a kid, though I was excellent at sports for example, whenever I had to play a game in front of a crowd and all eyes were on me, it was crippling. If there was ever a skill that I was great at and could do perfectly in private, put me in front of people and I felt like an amateur again.

It was tough.

This even affected my employment in the past where I once opted out of a job interview because the process required a performance test (even though the task itself was a piece of cake).

I threw away a potentially high-paying career back then because I didn’t have the nerve to do a simple task in front of a group of strangers!

Performance anxiety is a huge hurdle for a lot of language learners that I can relate to.

 

Practical steps you can take to overcome nervousness when speaking a foreign language

So here’s where I give you profound insight into how to solve this problem once and for all.

Not exactly. 🙂

As I’ve intimated, I still have to deal with performance anxiety even after all these years of learning many languages and speaking to people all over the world.

Like my fear of flying, it never fully goes away.

But here are some steps I take that I’m sure will help make it easier for you:

 

1. Accept that you won’t ever improve unless you just do it

This is your most important realization to make.

You cannot become a better speaker of a language unless you speak. Full stop. End of story.

Listening won’t make you a better speaker.

Reading and writing won’t make you a better speaker either.

Only speaking will make you a better speaker.

I compare it to my fear of flying (I’ve flown around the world more than anyone I know and yet I still find it difficult to fly every single time I get on a plane!).

Even though flying makes me nervous, I tell myself:

You can’t get to your destination any other way unless you’re prepared to sit for months on a ship at sea.”

Like speaking, flying is absolutely non-negotiable for what I’m doing.

I have no choice but to suck it up each time and just get it over with.

You can’t beat (or at least challenge) the fear of anything unless you face that fear head on either.

 

2. Preparedness helps a lot

Just like public speaking, if you know your stuff well then you’ll be far less nervous overall.

Performance anxiety is basically an irrational fear of screwing something up in front of other people and its perceived repercussions.

How do you screw up speaking a language?

Forgetting what to say (primarily).

You’re going to forget things no matter what but you can take a lot of pressure off by being prepared beforehand.

Don’t just study words, phrases and grammar.

Memorize situations.

What do I mean by that?

Try to predict where a particular conversation might head and use that to inform your study. If you’re going to talk about your family for example, then you’ll want to familiarize yourself with vocations of your family members, ages, familial terminology (brother, sister, uncle, aunt, etc.).

Having some kind of an idea beforehand and prepping for predictable conversations makes a big difference to your confidence level and greatly reduces performance anxiety.

 

3. You’ll never see this person again

Some people find it easier to speak with people they know.

Others prefer strangers.

I actually perform worse with most things if people I know are with me. I’m not sure why this is but maybe it’s a fear of being judged for poor performance later on by people who know me and may change their attitude toward me for failing (of course this is nonsense!).

One piece of advice I can give regarding strangers is to tell yourself:

“I’m probably never going to see this person again so if I screw up, who the hell cares?”

That takes an element of social pressure off you as you don’t have to feel like your performance will affect the way you’re treated later on.

 

4. Don’t let reclusiveness be an option

As I said above, speaking is essential to becoming a better speaker.

There’s no way out of it (and no point really).

Chatting online, practicing by yourself, reading – all of these anti-social activities are in no way alternatives to speaking with people face-to-face.

If you convince yourself that speaking with people is vital to success then you will muster up the will to make it happen. Necessity changes everything.

But keep convincing yourself that speaking can wait or isn’t important and you’ll be waiting a long time.

 

5. Forget about getting it right

So your grammar stinks?

Who cares?

There’s a good kind of perfectionism (the kind that pushes us to strive) and a bad kind of perfectionism (the kind that holds us back till we’re ‘perfect’).

You’re not perfect and never will be.

A big part of performance anxiety (certainly in my own case) is the desire to get everything exactly right before proceeding. I want to make sure that this next sentence that comes out of my mouth is 100% accurate and pronounced like a native.

One of two things happens:

1) The nerves prevent me from proceeding at all.

Or 2) I do proceed, make mistakes and then beat myself up over the mistakes which makes me more nervous the next time round.

Forget about getting everything right. Embrace sloppiness. Nobody cares if you use the wrong tense or forget a word.

 

6. Stay in control of the conversation

This is a big one that doesn’t get mentioned enough in my opinion.

Control the direction of the conversation as much as possible when you’re practising.

The more you’re silent and let the other speaker steer the conversation, the more you’ll be tempted to just listen or take a passive role in the conversation (letting the other person ask you questions which inevitably end up on a topic that you’re not prepared for).

Part of this is natural and I don’t want to encourage you to avoid natural conversations by any means.

But since you’re struggling with the performance anxiety aspect which is made worse when you lose total control and confidence, try to make sure you keep control of where the conversation is heading as much as possible.

Ask questions. Make statements.

Interrupt when you don’t understand.

I see a lot of people ask questions in a foreign language (that’s the easy part) but then when the native speaker responds with a long answer they don’t understand, they just nod and pretend they get it (while getting more nervous as they’re losing control of the discussion).

Politely interrupt and ask for clarification.

Otherwise you’re not going to learn anything.

 

Finally: Nobody is laughing

And if they are, they’re a jerk and not worth your time.

Trying earns respect.

One thing I’ve learned over the years (and still learning through experiences like the one I mentioned above) is that while you’re sitting there sweating and worrying that everyone’s laughing at your effort, they’re thinking something totally different.

They’re looking at you and thinking about about how impressive you are.

Even if you’re a new learner and can only get a few sentences out, you’ll earn instant respect for trying.

We’re not in school anymore where kids laugh at other kids for just about every stupid thing.

Keep reminding yourself that your performance anxiety is internal and something only you in that moment is experiencing.

 

Can you relate to this? What’s your strategy?

Comment below.

Comments

  1. This article is right on target for me. I work on vocabulary, I read, I practice listening but the only way I improve my speaking is to speak.
    I’m beginning to think that the mental pathways for speaking seem to be different than reading, writing or listening. For example, this morning I said mantenar when the word in my mind was mantener. My speaking patterns mouthed mantenar, I wasn’t even aware of it. The listener pointed it out to me.
    Your advice and the tone of the article are perfect for me. I struggle with performance anxiety, wanting to be perfect etc. I’m pretty old (72) to be learning a language, it’s a slow process. I beat myself up for not remembering a word or making a grammatical error, and I constantly have to remind myself that even though it is slow I am improving.
    Speaking is particularly difficult and even now I’m reluctant to speak outside of a learning or practice situation. I know I’m capable of communicating and reasonable able to understand when people talk to me but I don’t like sounding incompetent.
    Thanks for a great article.

    Reply
    1. Thanks for your feedback, Bill.

      Don’t ever beat yourself up. At 72, you’re an inspiration!

    2. Bill Holt,

      According to research I’ve read, you’re not so off track with your idea of mental pathways and developing the speaking skill, which is often the last one to fully develop–after reading, writing, listening. It has to do with the development and expansion of the Broca complex (or more like a second BC) , the speech area of the brain, which can only occur with practice speaking the foreign language.

  2. Hi Donovan, a great article you have written here.
    Just what we needed in my opinion.
    Practice makes perfect I suppose. Speaking causally
    to someone at a food outlet would’nt cause me
    any problem I don’t think. In a more formal setting
    I could be overwhelmed and then draw a blank
    as they say in linguistic circles.
    Anyway Donovan,thanks a lot for this article
    much appreciated.
    Just one more thing, I was wondering why you
    have this great passion for Arabic over other
    languages. Just wondering.
    All the best regards,
    Patrick

    Reply
    1. Hi Patrick. Thanks a lot. 🙂

      A few deep, personal reasons why I love the Arab world so much.

      In some ways I can’t explain it. A lot of it has to do with my faith honestly.

      I’ll share more about it soon.

  3. Another good post!

    Shekhtman’s little book “How to Improve Your Foreign Language Immediately” would seem to fit nicely with some of the themes you’ve presented.

    “In general one must murder a language before mastering it, and part of the murdering process must begin at once” Eugene A. Nida

    Do you still lift?

    Reply
    1. I hadn’t heard of that book before. I’ll have a look.

      And yep, still training as often as I can.

    2. Beast!

  4. I really recommended this article for each person who want to increase speaking skill

    Reply
  5. Great article! I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently and you have articulated it perfectly! I tend to mess up quite a lot in English (my mother tongue) when talking to people I’m not very familiar with, and I think sometimes that’s because I’m constantly trying to navigate a fine balance between politeness and friendliness. I end up so disappointed in myself when I do the same in Italian – different standards which don’t make sense!

    Interesting point about people laughing at you – I did actually have some people laugh at me when I lived in Italy for a year, or I would have people patronisingly saying ‘it’s ok, I speak English’. I think this did get in the way of me improving quicker and I still think about it to this day! However, it tended to be schoolkids or uni students, so I probably shouldn’t dwell on it too much! For that reason, I am always careful to be really encouraging and complimentary, especially with beginners.

    Reply
  6. So people with social anxiety or who have anti-social issues shouldn’t bother to learn a language? Not everyone who learns languages wants to talk. Plenty of introverts or anti-social people want to read or enjoy film etc. Jerk

    Reply
    1. To quote the article, “If you fall into this category [of being anti-social] then my question is: why bother learning to speak a foreign language at all?”

      Note that he said specifically “learning to SPEAK a foreign language”. Also note that earlier in the article, he makes a distinction between listening, reading, writing, and SPEAKING.

      It’s a fair statement that lots of anti-social people learn languages in order to read or enjoy film, and that is fine and good. However, those activities do not require speaking. Donovan’s point seems to me to be about those who try to learn to speak the language, but lack the social inclination required to practice the skill of speech. Those people should indeed question what their motivation to learn to speak a foreign language is, considering that they would rather not converse with others.

  7. I can TOTALLY relate, including the part about a fear of flying. I also consider both “non-negotiable”. I am simply going to do it, and both flying and speaking foreign languages have gotten easier and easier over the years. I have also learned to fake a kind of confidence so the other person is not tempted to switch to English. This is an important thing to mention: if you appear nervous, the listener is going to want to spare you the anxiety and will switch to English and you will miss out on speaking opportunities. I’ve learned how to appear cool as a cucumber even if my knee caps are shaking.

    Reply
  8. Hi,
    This article is an eye opener. I am working in a office with a society which I think I don’t belong because I came a long way to get there. So even though no one is judging me for my past every time I speak English these feelings affects me. English is a language only used in these kind of society in my country. I was struggling and now I feel better after reading this knowing that I can overcome this issue.
    Thanks.

    Reply
  9. I know in Asia, while trying to learn Thai in Thailand, or Cebuano in the Philippines, the natives were thrilled to see an “Americano” trying to learn their language. Despite my obvious struggles, they constantly hounded me trying to get me to practice with them. If someone is worried about trying to speak a new language in front of natives, just put yourself in the position of the native as you watch someone struggle to speak your language. Are you going to think negatively of that person? Probably not.

    Reply
  10. I found this article very interesting. You make a fair point- if someone is lacking sociability, why bother to learn to speak? I arguably lack sociability, but I daresay it’s due more to the lasting consequences of how severe my social anxiety has become (which is a vicious cycle). At heart, I really do want to socialize, but it’s always such a very very miserable experience, I have grown increasingly averse to it.

    I only started learning Arabic about a month ago. Some years back I heard about Benny Lewis’ Fluent in 3 Months program, and decided to try it with my Arabic. At the core of what he teaches is, as you say, to get out and speak, and do it right away, and as much as possible. Action over perfection. This is something I never would have considered doing just a year ago, but I’ve begun an interesting new path in my life recently where I also have been hearing a lot about “action over perfection” (and coincidentally is what led me to my fascination with Arabic) so I decided I wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone.

    I suppose by the standards of Fluent in 3 Months, I failed. I have a tutor, yes. I even found a fantastic language exchange partner from italki, and we talk every day. But my first conversation, I could barely bring myself to say anything. I thought well, it will take time to build up my confidence, but despite a week of speaking everyday with an incredibly encouraging and inspiring exchange partner whom I am very comfortable talking to, we still speak mostly in English and every time I go to try to say something in Arabic my mouth goes bone dry, my heart drops to my stomach, I start shaking, and I’m lucky to utter a word. There’s nothing at stake. My partner is not going to think badly of me at all. It left me frequently thinking, why am I bothering to do this? If I can barely even speak in the safety of my own home, over an audio call on Skype with someone who ENCOURAGES me to speak and WANTS me to make mistakes, I have no hope of being able to converse freely with natives if I were able to visit Egypt.

    I think asking yourself, as you said, “Why am I bothering to try to learn to speak?” is an important question. It can lead to valuable insights into your motivation to learn, your views of life, and who you really are as a person. In my case, I have come to realize that I am willing to accept the fact that I likely will never be comfortable talking to people in Arabic (I’m barely comfortable talking to people in English), but even so just TRYING (and failing) is enriching my life and giving me amazing new experiences, opportunities, and insights about our world. My fear will likely always be there, but even so I greatly look forward to my conversations with my language exchange partner. Even if I never end up speaking fluent Arabic, simply trying is improving me as a person. This in turn helps me to be less hard on myself over a perceived “failure”, which in turn makes me slightly more comfortable. For instance, I don’t really feel as though I “failed” the Fluent in 3 Months training, I feel it’s just going to take me a lot longer. Does this mean I’ll ever be able to work up the courage to speak to someone in person? Honestly, I don’t know, and I’m starting to be ok with that.

    But that’s just me. Everyone is different. I guess what I’m trying to say with my ramblings, is that you’re spot on – I think asking yourself these questions and being honest with yourself will allow you to make better decisions about what paths to pursue, and make your journey more enjoyable.

    Reply
    1. Eden, two things I’ll add that might help you:

      1. Egypt is one of those places that forces you out of lack of sociability. Even if you aren’t sociable and it’s a struggle, Egypt will change that believe me. People are amazing there and you’ll find yourself making friends left, right and center who will love talking to you (it can get exhausting though!). The culture there really brings people out of their shell.

      2. During your lessons, try not to think about the language and instead focus on the person you’re talking to and getting to know them. I find that when language becomes secondary to me wanting to befriend the other person and learn more about them, it changes everything.

  11. This article is very helpful, because sometimes I think it’s just me that suffers with this kind of anxiety.
    My Children attend a Gaelscoil, so the opportunity for me to practice my Irish is a daily occurrence. However, I found myself dropping the kids off and running before anyone had a chance to speak an Irish word of greeting to me. I was terrified of looking stupid and ridiculous.
    The good news to this story is that I am self helping myself. I signed up to the conversational Irish Language in the mornings, and only last week I was opening conversing in Irish to a teacher. I’m trying to not worry if my sentence is wrong. If I don’t know how to say something, I’ll speak the parts I don’t know in English. It’s still tough though and something that I don’t want to overthink too much.

    Reply
  12. Thank you for your article. I wish it was so easy to follow your advice. I am from Cuba, and I live in the US. I hate doing presentations at school, I get so nervous that my whole body shakes. I am currently applying for dental school and I can’t stop worrying about the interview. Every time I get a call from the schools I applied to, I even forget my address because of the anxiety I get. As you said, every time I fail, then for the next time I get even more nervous. I wish I could do something to alleviate this feeling. I literally cry every day.

    Reply
  13. We live true immersion: moved to Israel 10 months ago. It’s extra hard to also learn a new alphabet, and one that generally leaves out vowels! I do try to talk to people and one of two things usually happens. 1. They answer in English (because they like to speak English or they are fluent, so it’s easier than watching me struggle!), or 2. They answer me in Hebrew so quickly and using so many words I don’t know, that I feel like an idiot for starting this! Depending on the type of interaction, I either keep speaking Hebrew or give up and go with the English. I feel guilty either way (eye roll at self).

    Reply
  14. Great post, I’m finding that I have similar challenges with German. I’ve been working very hard on my listening skills the past 6 months, and they have improved considerably. However when I was in Germany last month, I still had a hard time creating sentences in a timely manner when speaking to locals. I think I just have to force myself to speak more (and I’m not a big talker even in English). I’m going to commit to skype lessons and conversations this year and see if I can get some benefit from that. By the way, regarding your fear of flying I’d be happy to answer any concerns you might have. I’m an international airline pilot and I cross the Atlantic pretty much every week, and occasionally fly to Asia as well. Feel free to email me any time. Best of luck!

    Reply
  15. What an advice ! It is to the point . It is the best article I have ever read since I started browsing for some advice which can help me avoid my anxiety problem. Thank you very much

    Reply
  16. But here is I have not understood yet :

    I have a friend who speaks the same native language as I do . We both learned English at school . My English is better than his by far even during our conversation of each other . But during class presentation , even in front of some students , the case is different. He can perform much better than I do by delivering all he knows. Unlike him, I couldn’t deliver what I knew . I get blank and lost of words whenever I try to speak in front of some group . Is there anyone with similar experience who could overcome it, finally ?

    Thank you all.

    Reply
  17. In our experience, I’m not able to agree with some of your pointers, no. 5 in particular. You are American… it shows and ‘just go for it’ is about a million times harder to do than to say for those if us with different cultural norms to you. I’m not saying you’re wrong but some of this advice doesn’t translate… it isn’t this black and white.

    For example, try speaking less than good French (not even perfect) to a French person living in Paris and see how you get on. We live in a place where locals do not tolerate a poor attempt at their language and revert to speaking English instead as they can’t bear to hear foreigners ‘mangle’ their beautiful tongue.

    This doesn’t help us ‘not care about making mistakes’ and is a cause of the anxiety you describe very well.

    Reply
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