FLP13: Kick the Fear of Speaking a Foreign Language - Solocast with Polyglot Chapman Woodriff

Photo by: Chapman Woodriff

That's me with my pup, Ayo, in front of "The Language Van" - We travel around Europe in search of language fun and kitesurfing

There is one main impediment to language learning

This here episode is the very first solocast I have ever done. And boy, do I have more than a few fears about it! But like I'm about to get into, kicking those fears is the only thing that will get me to my goal of inspiring as many people as possible to learn as many languages as possible. Just like the only thing that's going to get you to learn that language is kicking those fears of speaking it.

I thought it appropriate that this 13th episode cover what is - without a doubt - the single biggest impediment to learning a language (other than a legitimate physical challenge, of course).

That impediment is fear

When you are afraid, your entire neurochemistry changes and you go into a state which is not at all conducive to learning and most definitely not helpful in squawking out strange noises in an unfamiliar tongue.

Without going into the depths of the neuroscience of it all (maybe that's for another podcast) let's just suffice it to say that - for the purpose of language learning - fear creates a very disagreeable environment in your noggin which inhibits your performance and can eventually, if experienced repeatedly in similar situations, lead to a hugely detrimental conditioned response that springs from what's called 'Long Term Potentiation' or LTP.

Now, you don't need to know what LTP is in depth for the purpose of overcoming fears, you just need to understand that if you repeatedly experience fear or anything close to fear over and over in a given situation, you are likely to develop a conditioned response to those stimuli which will, unfortunately, rear its ugly head when you least want it to; for example right at the moment you actually need to speak the language in question!

My opinion is that this is exactly what happened to many people, maybe even you, in high school, or perhaps even earlier than that

You were made to squawk against your will and - not only that - you were forced to do it in front of all your peers, likely none of whom had any interest in learning Spanish or French or German or Chinese or whatever the foreign language of choice was at your school. And who likely laughed heartily when you bumbled everything and went beet red and quickly exited the classroom without even a hall pass in hand.

Of course, you also laughed at all of them when they squeaked instead of squawking, so fair is fair, I suppose.

But knowing this intellectually doesn't remove the conditioned response that you may have acquired to speaking languages while in school. What it does, however, is allow you to put your fears into perspective, and to do something about them.

My goal with this first 'solocast'

My goal here is to tease out hidden away fears, expose them for the nefarious devils they are and, ultimately, move past them into an entirely different kind of long-term potentiation; that of successfully speaking a foreign language.

See, perhaps ironically, the LTP that created the conditioned response you learned so embarrassingly in school or wherever it was, the LTP that caused your brain to convince itself that it was no good at language, the LTP that 'taught' you that you couldn't speak a foreign language properly and that if you tried everyone would laugh at you and you'd just end up looking the fool again, is also the very same LTP that will serve you from now on.

It could be argued that developing to a level of fluency in a foreign language is akin to one big, LTP process that builds up positive conditioned responses that are useful.

What is spoken language, really?

Well, it's just a sequence of sounds that you associate with meaning. Someone dishes them out to you and you serve them right back. It's all just the mouth, vocal chords and little breeze. There's actually no reason that a given combination of sounds should be applied to a certain thing or concept. In fact, the many thousands of languages living today are the perfect case in point - that one group of humans calls a horse a 'horse', another calls it 'caballo', another 'Pferd', another 'kůň', another '马' (Mǎ) and still another 'ihhashi', proves that - except in extremely rare cases of onomatopoeia where this is exactly the case - there is no direct connection between the sequence of sounds that creates the image of a horse in your head and the horse itself.

In case you were wondering, those languages are Spanish, German, Mandarin Chinese, Czech and Zulu. I am not sure if I'm pronouncing the Zulu word, 'ihhashi', correctly but I wanted to add something exotic that most people wouldn't recognize and there only about 10 million people out of billions who can actually call me out for mispronunciation in Zulu!

So if, broken down to the bare bones, what we do when we acquire a language is learn to associate sounds with meaning and string them together in an order that makes sense structurally to create further depth of meaning and express such things as needs, actions, ideas, concepts, feelings, states of being, etc, then we really have nothing to fear other than our ego.

Our ego does not like to be embarrassed

Oh no, it likes exactly the opposite: to be lauded. Admired. Appreciated. So it's really our feelings that are in play here when it comes to fearing a foreign language; it's our perception of how others perceive us. We aren't actually embarrassed that we don't know a given word. Heck, there are more words in the English language that I don't know than words that I do. What we're really concerned about is the fact that not knowing a word gives our ego a kick in ribs and that kick is embarrassing.

And when you think about it, it's just plain silly to get wrapped up in such notions when you're just on a journey of learning and experiencing something unfamiliar and inaccessible and working hard to make it familiar and accessible.

Let me ask you something: When you hear someone that's not a native speaker of your mother language trying hard to speak it, making heaps of mistakes, stressing the wrong syllables, using words you don't even recognize because they've been mispronounced so horribly, etc and so on, what is the first thing that comes to your mind? Is it "That person is such an idiot!" or rather "Hey, they're really working to learn my language and get their point across. Good on 'em!"?

See, most people - perhaps with the exception of your mother and, if you're lucky, your partner - don't give a darn about your ego. They don't even think about it. It's not a thing for them like it is for you.

When you speak a foreign language - especially when traveling - you are often speaking with people you just met and don't know that well

Perhaps you can't even get to know them all that well just yet because they don't speak your language either. So there you are and you're speaking with strangers - who you'll likely never see again - and the only things keeping you back from unleashing a relentless barrage of less-than-familar sequenced sounds to get your meaning across is, well, your ego.

So when you understand that your ego is a big player in this language game, and that that same ego is scared to death of being underestimated because you can't express yourself or don't understand what someone is saying to you, you have the power to break the conditioned responses engrained in your psyche back in the school days.

Language learning is a mental game, folks, in every sense

To overcome mental hurdles, you need to develop proficiency and you develop proficiency through consistent repetition. That's why I love language learning systems like Glossika so much, because they are designed to create the right kind of long-term potentiation in your brain, the kind that leads to successful speaking and understanding rather than fear and embarrassment.

Quick aside: Have a listen to the 8th episode of this podcast for more on the Glossika learning system which was developed by the exceptional hyperglot linguist, Michael Campbell, or just go straight here to reroute to their website via a link that will allow you to try the system for free and will also support this podcast if you end up vibing with it so much that you decide invest in your language quest. Glossika is particularly cool from an investment perspective because you get an all-access pass to the 50+ available languages for about $1 per day.

Okay, so back to the mental game...

Through working closely with aspiring language learners for over a dozen years and learning around a half dozen languages myself, I have been able to home in on the most deep-seated fears people have about speaking a foreign language

By and large, these can be boiled down to three general fears:

1) The fear of appearing stupid (looking or sounding like an idiot)
2) The fear of forgetting everything when you're on the spot (having a massive memory brain fart)
3) The fear of not understanding other people when they speak (usually because they speak 'too fast')

You could say that the second and third are also closely related to the first, if not inextricable. And I'd agree that the fear of forgetting and the fear of not being understood are kind of sub-fears of the fear of appearing stupid.

So that means there's really only one core fear people have, and that is what I've been talking about this entire podcast: the ego's fear of being undervalued.

The next time your ego complains about speaking a foreign language, I want you to remember the example of the foreigner who you respected just for trying so hard to speak your language

I want you to remember this because that's who you are to them when you're trying to speak their language and struggling through it.

Now I want you to get out and squawk away blissfully, but before you do, I will repeat myself one more time with slight variation: The biggest fear of all language learners is appearing stupid. Appearing stupid is a reaction of your ego to perceived hurt and under appreciation. Perceived hurt and under appreciation, whether founded or unfounded, are things your ego absolutely detests.

But you can learn to control you ego's reactions, repeating to yourself almost as a mantra that you are going through a process that takes time and consistency to be successful in, that others don't give a crap about your little ego issue and that what's really at play is a game of sound sequence repetition - riddled with mistakes - that, eventually, if you're motivated, consistent and persistent enough - some might say ambitious - will lead to you to effective communication in a new language.

Once you've done it once, my lovely listener, you can do it again and again and again

I'm wrap up here with a barrage of alliteration to get my point across. My process of learning to get by or better in over half a dozen languages resulted in me learning to bask in the glory of my mistakes, not give a damn about mucking up case forms, destroying declinations or conjuring up my own conjugations; and certainly not wailing on about word order worries, pronunciation problems, syntactic and semantic silliness and so on.

All I care about now - when I'm just getting started with a new language - is attaching meaning as quickly as possible to new sounds and sequences, exposing myself enough to start building those into phrases - at first wrote and then freestyle - and making myself understood in any way possible, regardless of whether it's done in such a way that a grammatician would praise me and stroke my ego.

Speaking of my ego, I want to thank you for listening and my ego would really love to know what you think about this first solocast. Even though I repeat the mantra to myself that 'I am doing this because I love inspiring people to learn languages and overcome the hurdles along the path', your feedback really helps me improve my podcasting game in the same way that someone taking the time to correct my grammar leads me to be a better speaker.

Let me know what you want more of, what you don't want more of and anything else in-between or outside

Basically, I'd just be happy to hear from you.

I am obviously big on getting your ego out of your way. But that's not always the easiest thing to do in life. If you'd like to get more process-oriented about kicking the fear of speaking a language, I recently published a 9-step guide to overcoming the fear of speaking a foreign language which is linked to in the show notes. That guide is for those of you who want specific steps you can take and a process you can use to gain the confidence you need to squash their own ego.

Join 10k+ learners and get the Free Language Letter

I also highly-recommend joining over 10,000 other aspiring language learners and signing up for the Free Language Letter which will open your eyes to heaps of resources for learning your target language the way that best fits your specific needs (currently nearly 100 languages served!) and also dives into many aspects of language learning you may not have realized were lurking in the depths just out of reach. Such topics as sustaining your motivation, using the Pareto Principle also known as the 80/20 Rule to significantly reduce the time needed to get up and speaking, memory-enhancing methods and techniques as well as general language learning hacks that get you where you want to be ASAP are just a few of the goodies in store. To get in on this totally free action, just sign up using the form on this page!

And really, thank you for your attention and I hope this episode has helped you and will help as many people as possible get over their own ego and dive right into language squawking with something akin to reckless abandon.

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