Overcoming fear in language practice

You might be the most extroverted person on the planet, but as soon as you start learning and speaking a new language, something in you changes and you feel a bit more shy. You’re nervous you’ll make a mistake in front of a native speaker. What if they laugh at me? you think.

Fear when speaking a new language is very normal when starting out. It’s healthy and OK as it drives us to be conscious of correct grammar and vocabulary usage. I think it’s because we don’t want to be seen as inferior or stupid, and learning a language brings us down to a baby’s level again. It’s important to remember that babies and kids aren’t afraid of making mistakes – the more they mess up the faster they learn!

You’re probably reading this because you’re looking for a practical way to get over the fear of making mistakes. Me telling you it’s OK to make mistakes is not going to help.
Here are 3 ways you can feel less shy when speaking a new language:

1. ANALYZE THE SITUATION & GO EASY ON YOURSELF

What helps is to identify WHY you’re afraid of speaking a language. It could be because you’re too shy (same tbh) or because you don’t know enough vocabulary. It’s great advice to tell someone to start speaking a language from day one, but for some people, a combination of shyness and lack of vocabulary makes this nearly impossible. Remember to be kind to yourself – if you don’t feel ready, take some more time.

If you use the wrong particle, grammar structure or word, what’s the worst that can happen? People will either correct you, ignore the mistake because they understood you anyway, or, in the least likely scenario, be a bit confused and ask you to repeat – which is a good opportunity to learn from the error. If people laugh at you, that’s a reflection of them as a person, not you.

2. PREPARE IN ADVANCE: VOCAB & PHRASES FOR SPECIFIC CONTEXTS

When I was working as a design intern at a Japanese company, I was VERY scared that I wouldn’t understand anything during meetings and presentations. It’s impossible to know what words to expect, but luckily I had an idea of what we would be talking about. It helped me a lot to look up words I suspected I might hear during the internship. I built vocabulary lists and example sentences of design-related vocabulary. In this way, I taught myself. You can’t find a textbook for every topic under the sun, so taking matters into your own hands and creating your own language learning materials boosts your confidence and helps you improve faster since you’re learning something that has direct value to your life.

You may even want to write out a full conversation the way you imagine it going. I do this for job interviews in foreign languages a lot. I have taken many job interviews in Japanese and Korean, and to ease my nerves, I like to write out what I expect my interviewer to ask me, and how I’ll answer accordingly. It’s an effective way to learn new vocabulary too.

You might be interested in: Tips & Tricks for Vocabulary Acquisition

In the case of online interviews, I pasted some vocabulary cards on my wall and laptop screen for quick reference. Obviously you can’t do that when you’re talking to someone in the flesh – but people will certainly understand if you pause for a while to try and look for the right word. If you cannot remember or don’t know a word, you can always talk around the word and describe it in another way. If you don’t know the word for “cake” for example, but you know the words “sweet” and “food”, you can say “sweet food” and they might say “cake?” in return.

3. PRACTICE IN A SAFE ENVIRONMENT

Just like practicing a speech for a presentation, you can practice using new words and phrases in a safe environment until you’re ready to use it with a native speaker. This could be talking to yourself, a pet, a chatting partner online, or a tutor. My favorite method is talking to people on voice apps. When I can’t see someone’s face and they can’t see mine, I feel less ashamed of making mistakes.

For practicing Mandarin, Japanese and Korean, I use an app called Goodnight. It’s not really for language exchange per se, but it’s a great way to be connected to people around the world via a phone call. Since it’s just a voice chat, you don’t even need to know what the person looks like, and you can practice talking to them in your target language. The worst that can happen is one of two things: 1. They’re a creep 2. They hang up. No biggie, right? In the former case, just cancel the call and move on. If they hang up on you – no worries – you can just dial to connect to the next person. It’s a very effective way to improve your pronunciation too since you’ll be hearing your target language so much! Other apps you can look into are Saito San, Kakao Talk and Wakie (click those links to see me practice Japanese and Korean on apps!) You can try Omegle too but it’s full of creepy people.

Lastly, remember not to take language learning too seriously. Your goal is to communicate with others, right? It’s counter-effective to worry about using the right words and grammar each time you try to say something. Rather be natural and throw in a bunch of words hoping it makes sense, instead of staying quiet and missing the point of communication. Your listener will more often than not help you in the right direction.


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