The biggest fear of all language learners is appearing stupid
Over the last dozen years helping language learners achieve their goals, I have come across a lot of reasons people have for fearing a foreign language.
Without a doubt, the #1 fear is of appearing stupid. Some say, "I'm afraid of looking stupid" and others prefer "I'm afraid of sounding stupid" but it all amounts to the same fear.
Would-be language learners worry that they will make fools of themselves when they open their mouths and try to say something that they have never said before, or that they are not quite sure about.
They worry that people will laugh at them for mispronunciation, for not getting the 'correct' inflection in a vowel sound or an elision, or forgetting to put the stress on the correct part of the word.
They worry that without having an accurate approximation of the native accent, they will mangle the language and look stupid.
Sometimes, simply, people can feel that the 'foreign' word sounds just, well, kind of wrong when they hear themselves speak it. And so they avoid speaking it.
People often want to know exactly how something should be said and be 100% sure that they won't make any mistakes before actually speaking.
Now, these are legitimate fears; ones that many people have. Fortunately, there are steps that you can take to help you overcome your fear of speaking a foreign language. That's what this article is all about.
But first, a word of, well, consolation. Or, rather, a bit of advice before we start.
Mistakes are a learning tool and not a problem
Mistakes are part of learning a language, and nobody is every going to be perfect.
Making mistakes is a part of life – in speaking a foreign language as much as in anything else. The first step to getting your confidence in speaking out loud in a language other than your mother tongue is to let go of the notion of perfection.
Everyone – and I mean everyone – makes mistakes. You wouldn't be human if you didn't make mistakes.
Think about it; you're in a shop or a restaurant, or even just on the street and you overhear someone trying to converse in your language when it is obviously not their native one. They are making a few errors in pronunciation, in grammar, or word order, or their accent makes some of the words sound a bit different from how you pronounce them. What do you think?
Chances are, if you're any kind of decent human being you'll be thinking something along the lines of: 'Good on them for giving it a go.' Or 'Fair play; I get the gist of what they are trying to say.'
So a part of you instinctively knows that you can't expect perfection of someone speaking in a language that is not their mother tongue (and not always then, either!).
That's what people will be thinking when you are trying to converse with them in their mother tongue. It's easy to forget in a climate where politicians hurl insults and celebrities badmouth each other that the vast majority of people are really nice!
But somehow we get it into our minds that we must have perfect diction and grammar before opening our mouths to speak our target language.
Others have gone through it, too
It's also the case that a lot of the people you would talk to in the language you are learning will have or have had the exact same experience that you are having. Whether they learned a second language in school or have taken it upon themselves to try and master one later in life, people often know what you are going through because they've been there themselves. So they will have empathy for you rather than a negative judgement – just as you would for them if the roles were reversed.
Of course, learning a second language involves striving to pronounce words in the target language as they should be, to put them in the correct grammatical order to convey the thoughts, ideas and impressions that you want to.
But don't worry about making it perfect. Don't worry about your accent. And don't worry about making mistakes.
It's all part of your language adventure
Okay, all that said, let's start working on gaining confidence in speaking a foreign language. We're going to go through 9 steps that will build up your skill – and with it your confidence – at speaking a foreign language.
Step 1: Tuning in
The first step to getting over your fear about speaking a foreign language is to listen to it.
It might seem counter-intuitive, especially if you don't know what any of the words you hear mean, but think of it as kind of tuning in to the language.
Think about how a baby first starts to pick up language. A baby doesn't start trying to 'speak' straight away. It takes several months for babies to start making sounds that are approximations of words that they've heard – despite being surrounded by the language all the time. The baby hears the parents talking, the radio playing, even books these days can give a baby access to the sounds of a language. But the baby doesn't start speaking for around 5 months, and probably doesn't start forming recognisable words until about a year old.
This is partly due to anatomy. It takes a lot less physiological processes to hear than to speak; and the former is passive while the latter is active. The baby needs to learn how to use its mouth to speak.
But before than it is passively taking in hundreds of different words; listening if not comprehending, as such. So when that baby does start speaking, she already has a repository of many different word sounds – a background knowledge that she has unconsciously absorbed.
And you can actively use this technique to help you.
'Tuning in' Exercise
Listen to audio in your target language. These could include:
- Audio learning resources like podcasts
- Radio stations (online and on air)
- TV shows
Choose something that grabs your interest. By selecting a resource on a subject that you find enjoyable already, you are more likely to ascertain at least the general gist of what is being said.
You could also ask a native speaker to record some audio for you. Whatever gets you immersed in the sound of your target language and works for you is good.
It's also important that you relax. Don't stress about comprehension or get wound up about knowing everything that is being said. By putting yourself in a relaxed situation you are likely to absorb more information. And more likely to enjoy the experience.
If you recognize and understand some or all of the words – that's great (and you can even combine listening with comprehension by revising some key vocabulary beforehand, if you like). But if you are just starting out on your language adventure and can't translate what is being said, that's alright as well.
You don't have to understand what is being said – you are just absorbing the sounds of the language, building up an almost subconscious awareness of the way the words in a language are spoken, just as a baby does with its mother tongue.
This background intuitive knowledge will help you overcome your fear when it comes to speaking the target language, as you will have some form of memory of how a word should sound.
'Tuning in' Resources
There are a lot of ways to get listening materials online, here are a few of my top choices:
Tune In - A free service for listening to radio stations and podcasts from around the world
Forvo - Find out how just about any word is pronounced using recordings from native speakers (also listen to my podcast interview with Ian Cowley of Forvo)
Step 2: Adding an extra dimension
So once you've taken some time to listen to resources in the language you want to learn – not worrying too much about understanding everything, but just familiarising yourself with the sounds and intonations, it's time to start taking your learning to a different level.
Listening to resources in your target language is a great start to overcoming your fear of speaking it, but listening is somewhat of a passive activity. That's good for absorbing the sounds, inflections and rhythm of a language, but to start moving towards confidence in expressing yourself, you need to get active.
The next step is to combine your listening with reading.
By combining listening to an audio recording and reading the corresponding words on a page, you are actively engaging both your aural and visual senses. More brain synapses will start firing and your familiarity – and thus confidence – with the language will grow as well.
This combination of actions also serves to start fixing in your mind how the shape of certain words, syllables and letters are transformed by the voice into sound. You will begin to recognise, even if unconsciously at first, what particular groups of letters sound like when spoken. You will also begin to comprehend how parts of words may be emphasised, and where the stress falls on certain words when they are spoken.
'Adding an extra dimension' Exercise
For this exercise, use an audio CD, an online recording, or get your language teacher or a native speaker to read out some vocabulary and record it on your device of choice.
Make sure you have a written transcript of whatever you are working with. The idea now is to listen as you did in the first exercise, but add in the visual signs of the words on the page as you do.
Rather than a single sense, you are now using two senses to get acquainted with how words sound and how they look.
You will be able to start discerning how certain combinations of letters – that may not be particularly familiar to you in your mother tongue – are pronounced.
Again, you don't have to worry about what the words mean – you will learn that in other parts of your language journey, such as doing written exercises, using flash cards, working with mnemonics, and so on. Rather you are just trying to engage your senses so that you are more familiar with how words and phrases sound so that you can be more confident when you start speaking.
Listen to your audio recording and read the corresponding written text at least once a day.
'Adding an extra dimension' Resources
WikiHow article - How to Record Audio on a Mobile Phone
Innovative Language Podcasts - High-quality podcasts with accompanying texts (also listen to my podcast interview with the co-founder, Peter Galante)
FluentU - A video-based learning site with transcriptions and many cool features (try for free)
Step 3: Get talking
Engaging your aural and visual senses when tuning in to the language you are learning is a great base from which to work on overcoming your fears about speaking in a foreign language. They give you a familiarity with how words and phrases in that language sound – even if you don't yet know what all the words mean.
But if you are going to overcome your fear of speaking your target language at some point you are going to have to, yes, you guessed it, speak.
Don't worry, though; you're not going to have to immerse yourself in a conversational maelstrom or give a speech quite yet. The first way to start speaking is to do it on your own, building on the skills you have developed in the previous exercises.
Talking adds a second active part to your learning, alongside reading, and they both ally with the listening skills you've been working on.
Now you will be engaging your aural, sight and oral senses. That's a pretty powerful trio of learning senses.
Having developed some sense of how words sound, then how they look, now you will start to learn how they feel.
'Get talking' Exercise
Listen to the recording you are working with and, as with the listening stage, focus on the sounds. Use the transcription of the audio to help you focus on the pronunciation of each word, and to give yourself a visual reference to help you make your way through the recording.
But as you do so, repeat each word or phrase (pausing the audio if you need to).
Don't think about what the words mean for now and don't try to translate them into your mother tongue as you go (use other learning methods for that, such as writing and reading); just listen to how they are pronounced, and attempt to say them as close to the way the audio does as possible. Don't think; just speak!
Remember, nothing's going to be perfect, and will be far from it when you are just starting out, but that is all part of the journey.
However, having gone through exercises 1 and 2, you should be up for the challenge of exercise 3, with a good basis of absorbing and listening to the words before you make your first attempt.
Do this exercise regularly, stopping the recording and replaying words that you are having particular difficulty with.
'Get talking' Resources
Glossika - A listen-and-repeat based language learning system with 50+ languages (try for free)
Step 4: Know thyself
Now, there are a lot of things in life that can take us by surprise. Falling in love, opening a bank statement (gulp!) and tasting a new food being just a few examples.
But it seems that it is an almost universal thing that when we hear our voices played back to us on a recording we are surprised by how we sound.
- That can't be me!
- Do I really sound like that?
- Has the recording got warped?
These are things we might say when we hear ourselves on an audio recording. But, yes, it is you – and listening to yourself can be a great help in overcoming your fear of speaking a foreign language.
It lets you become more familiar with how you will sound to other people. And because you have this familiarity, when you do come to converse with someone else you no longer have that fear in the back of your mind – what do I sound like to this person?
'Know thyself' Exercise
So, using the transcript of the audio you have been using for the previous exercises, as you read your transcript, record it on your chosen electronic – or analogue if you're old school – device.
Listen back to your recording to hear your voice speaking in your target language. The more you listen to it, the more comfortable you will become with the sound of your voice.
It also gives you a great opportunity to chart your progress as you become more confident in your pronunciation abilities.
Compare your recording to the audio material that you have been working with so far, and analyse how your pronunciation might differ from that of the native speaker. You can then start to work on those pronunciation elements that you might be having difficulty with.
Step 5: Slow it down
Talking of pronunciation, having developed a great base for speaking in your target language, you will need to focus on the correct pronunciation of words and phrases.
The end goal of conversing in a foreign language is to be able to speak to someone while spontaneously forming the required sounds to make yourself understood.
Don't worry if you are not there yet – it takes a lot of work, and a lot of fun along the way, to get there – but that's what you are ultimately working towards. To do so, you need to not only be confident in speaking the target language; you also be able to articulate words correctly so that the ideas you want to convey are understood.
This aspect of speaking a foreign language is quite tough to master, because most of the time when you are attempting to speak in a foreign language you are concentrating on what you want to say, the correct form of grammatical unit and sentence structure – not to mention the accurate words – rather than the pronunciation of individual words.
Pronunciation can be quite low down on the list of things to master to have a conversation in a foreign language, but it is important, and the sooner it becomes a natural part of your learning the easier it will be to pronounce correctly when conversing, which will, of course, give you more confidence when speaking your target language.
So doing some pronunciation training regularly helps it become more like second nature, so that you don't have to focus on it when talking – which will invariably make other parts of your speaking suffer.
'Slow it down' Exercise
This is where you will start to get a bit more involved in sounds of the language, and start to hone it.
Up until now you have essentially absorbed, seen and parroted how words and phrases in your target language are formulated. Now you will dig down a bit deeper in pursuit of good pronunciation.
Use the text and audio recording combination you have been using for the exercises so far, or any other combination of text and audio you choose that is at your level of comprehension, such as an audio book with corresponding printed book (you don't want to choose something for which you have to look up every other word to check its meaning).
Listen to the recording, following along by reading the text, concentrating on how each word is pronounced by the native speaker on the recording.
Now read the text on your own – out loud – but do so at half speed; like you are speaking in slow motion.
Try to speak each part of the text as close to the way the speaker on the audio does for each syllable of each word.
This enables you to concentrate not only on how the constituent parts of a word are pronounced, but also to understand how the parts of the mouth, lips and tongue move in order to make the correct sounds. It also makes you more present in the moment of speaking.
And if you do it regularly – every day is best – you will notice that when you do speak in your target language at the normal speed, as in exercise 3, your pronunciation will become better over time, helping it become more like second nature, and removing another potential obstacle to speaking your target language with confidence.
'Slowing it down' Resources
Mimic Method - The ultimate courses for learning to pronounce like a native (this one's not free but well worth the investment - listen to my podcast interview with the method's creator, Idahosa Ness)
Glossika - Mentioned above as well, this awesome system allows you to change the speed of audio as you learn, and to record your voice and compare to native speakers (try for free)
Step 6: The way you look
Watching yourself as you learn to say words in your target language is a good way to not only become more aware of – and eventually more comfortable with – how you look when speaking, but also to work out how mouth shapes affect the sounds you make.
As with combining reading and speaking, or reading and listening, looking at yourself as you speak your target language out loud involves the engagement of several senses. You are looking as well as hearing and speaking.
And you are feeling. You'll feel how the muscles in your mouth work to create sounds. You'll feel how your lips shape themselves as you pronounce words or arts of words.
This serves another purpose as well. Just as hearing yourself speak is a method of gaining confidence because you are armed with that knowledge before you, say, engage a native speaker in a conversation, so too does knowing what you look like as you speak your target language. That way, you won't be worrying about what you might be looking like as you speak – leaving you more mental space to concentrate on making yourself understood, listening to your interlocutor, and having fun in your conversation.
'The way you look' Exercise
Look in the mirror. You can choose the bathroom mirror if you want (the acoustics in bathrooms tend to be pretty good, after all), or any mirror in your house.
You're about to get up close and personal with your mouth.
Repeat your exercise text. You should be pretty familiar with it now, so you will now how it should sound, but you can always refer to the audio recording as well to help you.
As you are forming the words, saying them out loud, watch how your mouth moves to create each one. Get to know what it feels and looks like to say certain letters, syllables and words.
'The way you look' Resources
Wikipedia article - Human sound articulation (phonetics)
Mimic Method - Mentioned above as well, this is the ultimate courses for learning to pronounce like a native (this one's not free but well worth the investment)
Step 7: Break it down
Words sound different from one another. In any language the phonetic elements of a word are what makes it what it is; what distinguishes it from all the other words in the language.
Each word is composed of one or more units of sound that serve to make it unique. There is a name for these units of sound: phonemes.
It's a Greek word, from which we derive 'phonetic' to refer to things that are related to pronunciation.
And pronunciation is where phonemes come in.
In your mother tongue, you gain an understanding of the connection between letters or groups of letters and their phonetic sound as you are taught to read as a child. You will learn to imitate the phoneme of, say, the letter 'f' that a parent or teacher makes and relate it to the graphical shape of the letter in a text.
When learning a foreign language, we can often come unstuck as the phonemes are different to those of our mother tongue. The sound of a letter in your target language may be different to the sound of the same letter in your own language. And that's just for languages that share the same alphabet! Add in the dimension of completely different textual symbols and your learning to speak confidently can become even trickier.
'Break it down' Exercise
Break down problematic words!
There are always going to be some words that you have more trouble pronouncing than others, and they can make you less inclined to speak and certainly less inclined to use those words to convey what you would like to say.
One way of getting past this stumbling block is to break the words down into their constituent phonemes, and concentrate on pronouncing them one at a time. Rather than try to get the whole word right all at one, get each part right then put them together.
If you are reading a text and come across a word that you are having difficulty saying out loud, stop, break it down, practice each unit of sound (referring to your audio resources if necessary) then restart your reading at the beginning of the sentence containing that word. That way you reintegrate the word into your speaking patterns, rather than leaving it isolated.
You can combine this exercise with the previous one as well. Looking at the shape your mouth makes in the mirror as you say each phoneme can help you understand how the correct sound is formed.
'Break it down' Resources
Forvo - Mentioned above, listen to native speakers pronounce individual words in local accents (listen to my podcast interview with Ian Cowley of Forvo)
Glossika - Mentioned twice above as well, this unique learning program, which I absolutely love, allows you to change the speed of audio as you learn as well as record your voice and compare it to native speakers (try for free)
Step 8: Practice gets you closer to perfect
If we don't use our speaking and pronunciation skills in our target language, we tend to lose them. This gets more pronounced as we get older. And research seems to suggest that our ability to speak a foreign language is the aspect of our knowledge that deteriorates the most if it is not used – much more than, say, writing or reading in a target language.
So what's the answer? Practice.
It's pretty simple – the more you practice something, the better you will get at it. This holds true as much for every other part of your language learning adventure as it does for gaining the confidence to speak out loud.
Whether learning how to structure sentences in your target language, understand a native speaking it or working out how to conjugate verbs, practice will make you better.
Keep working with your text and audio recording from the previous exercises. There is no shame in going over the same material again and again until you are comfortable with it.
But also extend your practice to take in other resources. There is a whole load of language resources available on the web that you can use to listen to, read from, compare yourself with and give you more confidence, several of which are linked to above and below.
You can also try different things to enhance your abilities and your confidence, such as learning the lyrics to a favourite song in your target language.
FluentU - Mentioned above, this video learning system has numerous texts as well as popular songs with transcriptions (try for free)
'Practice gets you closer to perfect' Exercise
Try to find ways to put speaking your target language into your daily life. While it is beneficial to have a consistent schedule for language study (this can help with concentration and provide a structure so you are more likely to actually do it rather than seeing if you can fit it in), mixing up your speaking practice can also help reinvigorate your learning.
One good way of doing this is to speak out loud the names of objects in a room as you enter that room. (This also helps with comprehension and recall, obviously.)
So, for instance, when you walk into the kitchen first thing in the morning to have your breakfast, say the names of the things that you see out loud. Sink, fridge, oven, floor, glass, bowl, spoon, cereal, juice – whatever you see, speak.
Another great way is to change the language of your phone to your target language. But watch out, make sure you know how to change it back first just in case you get lost in there - you change it back the same way you changed it initially, just be sure you know how to navigate to that setting easily even if you don't recognize the text!
'Practice gets you closer to perfect' Resources
Memrise app - This language learning app has a really neat feature that allows you to point your phone or tablet at objects and see and listen to them in your target language (way cool!)
Babbel blog - How to Integrate Language Learning into Daily Life
Step 9: Challenge yourself
Hopefully, by now you are getting much more confident in your ability to speak in your target language – and are less worried about coming across as silly.
By building up your approach to speaking your target language, engaging different senses to create a more rounded learning process, and by first working on your own then moving to working in a group of people who no doubt have similar fears, concerns and apprehensions, you should hopefully be able to speak with at least a degree of confidence and trust in your abilities to make yourself understood.
Now, it is time to challenge yourself.
All the exercises so far are good preparation, and are effective tools to go back to as you approach different parts of the language – such as some advanced grammar or lists of technical words associated with your profession that you want to learn how to say, or indeed if you want to start on a third language adventure; or a fourth! – but language learning, like so many things in life, has to keep progressing in order to develop.
So you need to speak to people; to put into action your learning and to start to develop your speaking abilities.
Of course, you might still feel nervous about it, but having done all the exercises up to this point, you will be in the best frame of mind to take on the challenge. And having done lots of listening, reading and speaking on your own – alongside your other learning methods to gain understanding of words and their meanings – you will have much more mental space within a conversation to formulate how you say things, rather using that brain space for translating.
There are ways to keep your fear in check.
Approach each interaction as a conversation with a person. It sounds silly to say, even, but the best way to get the most out of an interaction is to see it as an opportunity to exchange ideas with someone, to ask questions, to make a connection. Speaking to someone else is not a conversation with your vocabulary book; it is a dynamic situation that can have many benefits beyond just the practice of your speaking skills. You might even make a new friend!
While having a conversation, focus on the other person and what they're saying, not on what shape your mouth is taking or the 'correct' position for your tongue. Much of that will be instinctive (especially if you invest in the Mimic Method), developed over the previous exercises, but even if you do make a few mistakes, that's okay. This exercise is about speaking to someone else, not about perfect pronunciation and unimpeachable grammar. It's about making what you say understood.
Explain your nervousness (in your target language, of course!). Your interlocutor will understand, especially if they themselves have undertaken a language adventure to learn a second language.
Ask for help. Again, in your target language, ask your interlocutor to help you with certain pronunciations that you are having particular trouble with.
'Challenge yourself' Exercise
Put yourself in a situation that might not be the most comfortable, but that challenges you and draws on your learning so far.
A situation in which you have to speak!
Some ideas for this might be:
Organise a language exchange with someone who wishes to practise speaking your mother tongue (see links below).
Not only will you get to practice speaking with someone who innately understands the language, you get to help someone with their language adventure too; someone who, no doubt like you, feels a bit self-conscious and anxious about looking silly speaking. You may be able to meet up with someone in your town or city, or organise an online chat.
Join a language class run by a native speaker. You will have to speak in order to participate in the class, but your tutor will be able to help you on your pronunciation (in a nice way!), and you will also be surrounded by fellow learners, each going through the same thing.
Arrange a dinner party with friends who all speak or are learning your target language – and ask everyone to only use the target language. In order not to frighten your guests, you don't have to do this for the whole dinner party! Just aim for a decent length of time – maybe for aperitifs and the starter course or during digestifs and dessert (guests may be more relaxed by the end of a meal).
By working step-by-step through these exercises, and finding ways to put speaking practice into your day-to-day life, you will gradually build up confidence speaking your target language.
Before you know it, you'll be pronouncing words well without worrying what you sound like!
And the more you do it, the better – and more confident – you will get.
Get out there and go for it!
'Challenge yourself' Resources
HelloTalk - A great language exchange app
iTalki - A large language exchange community with professional tutoring available
Meetup - A site for finding groups around you who enjoy similar activities, including language learning get-togethers
Other language learning fears
Speaking is not the only fear language learners have, it's just the biggest one I've consistently come across.
I will be adding another article soon about overcoming the second biggest fear in this process: Not remembering what to say when it's time to say it.
Stay tuned and please leave comments and feedback below!