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.


Saveables:

Tips & tricks for vocabulary acquisition

New language learners often look at others and think learning vocabulary is something that happens quickly. They seek for ways to speed up their vocabulary retention. It’s not wrong to look for ways to learn faster, but one needs to keep in mind that having vocabulary words stick in your long-term memory takes a while!

Methods to try

GOLDLIST
Lots of people use the Goldlist Method for remembering vocab. However, it is not my favorite because of the long time between learning a word and reviewing it again, but it’s nice and structured.

FLASHCARDS
Write the word on one side of a card/paper and on the back write its meaning/pronunciation/usage. If you don’t like paper you can use apps like Anki. You can go further and categorize the cards into piles of “know” “review” and “new”.

REMEMBERING WORDS 
Make sure to use your words as soon as you learn them. You can write them in sentences and have them checked on websites like italki, or you can use it with a native speaker and ask them to correct you if you use the word wrong.

LABELLING
You can label things around your room/house. Stick a piece of paper to your fridge that lists the word for “fridge” in your TL. You can do it with anything from your mirror to your closet to your potplant.

SHOPPING LISTS/PLANNERS
I usually write my shopping lists and planner/diary entries in another language. For example, if I have a “meeting”, I won’t write it in English, but rather in a language I’m learning. Especially if it’s a new word (like “call plumber”, for example), writing it down more than once in your planner will engrain it into your memory if you use it enough.

NOTETAKING
I find it much faster to write notes using Chinese characters/Korean words mixed in with English. It sounds insane, but writing “名” is much faster than writing “name”. Fellow students in university used to get frustrated when they asked to borrow my notes because half of it wasn’t English. I guess this is just for speed rather than vocab retention. You can make up your own ways to write things. For example, instead of writing “design”, a word I use a lot, I take the Korean word 디자인 and shorten it to ㄷㅈ – two characters which are super fast to write!

Finding new words

Watching TV shows/movies/dramas can help you pick up new words easily if you make sure to write them down when you encounter them. Korean/Japanese/Chinese shows are especially good because they often put the word being said on the screen (especially with explanations or something funny someone said). You can also watch shows with subtitles in your TL rather than your native language so you’re sure about the spelling.

Listening to music/radio/podcasts: Same concept. You might not know how to spell the word that you hear, but you can try, and then type it in to a dictionary app and check if you were right. In terms of checking word meanings, you can also do a google search/other search engine search with the word to see what pictures come up.


tl;dr: Here’s a video to go along with this post!