Arachnophobia: The fear of spiders.
Coulrophobia: The fear of clowns.
Xenoglossophobia: The fear of foreign languages.
Okay. We’ll be the first to admit that foreign languages aren’t half as horrifying as a massive spider or an angry clown (or a tiny spider and happy clown for that matter).
Yet when it comes to using a foreign language, even many well-educated speakers get sweaty palms, an upset stomach and the urge to find the nearest hiding place.
Even if you’ve studied your target language extensively, you may still be afraid to actually use it.
And beyond just making you feel uncomfortable, one study suggests that apprehension can make you underestimate your language abilities.
Another study takes it a step further, suggesting language anxiety can actually affect your skills in your second language.
Self-doubt and diminished skills are a high price to pay for a little nervousness, but you don’t need to sacrifice any of the benefits of learning a foreign language just yet.
With the right approach to foreign language anxiety, you can decrease your fear and stay on track with your language skills. You just need to be aware of what you’re afraid of in order to address your fears.
Here’s all you need to know about the most common language fears and how to address them.
Why Is It Important to Understand and Face Your Fear of Speaking a Foreign Language?
The nature of foreign language anxiety can vary between cultures and learners.
You can’t just assume that what scares you is what scares everyone. Everyone has different fears. One study suggests that the nature of language anxiety could vary between cultures and even genders. Regardless, since every learner is different, it can be assumed that there will be some variations between stressors.
You must identify barriers in order to overcome them.
One study suggests that there are several possible psychological barriers to language comprehension. Issues like aphasia (difficulty understanding speech caused by brain damage) and dyslexia can be more challenging to address, but language anxiety is one identified barrier that you can start working on overcoming right away.
Facing and reducing your fear will help you get the language practice you need to improve.
One of the biggest paradoxes of language learning is that interacting in your target language can be stressful without practice. However, that same stress keeps many learners from practicing. If you never use your target language, you won’t get all the social benefits of learning a second language. Luckily, if you can reduce your stress, it will be much easier to get the language practice you need to continue improving, and the more you improve, the less stress you’re likely to feel.
How to Conquer the 4 Top Foreign-language Speaking Fears
Fear #1: “What if I don’t know enough words to make it through a conversation?”
Many learners fear that they won’t know or understand enough words to interact in their target language. After all, how do you know when your skills are strong enough? Luckily, there are some simple tricks you can use to overcome this fear and be confident in your vocabulary.
Build your functional vocabulary with authentic media.
Once you have practice understanding words in context, you might find your fears about your vocabulary subsiding. That’s why it’s so valuable to build your functional vocabulary with authentic media. Not only does this help you learn more words, it also helps you understand them in native speech.
One fun way to ease yourself into understanding native speech is with FluentU. FluentU features real-world videos, like news, music videos, movie trailers and more. However, with FluentU’s unique system, each video is transformed into a powerful learning tool. Videos are captioned, and the captions are annotated, giving you easy access to any word’s definition, example sentences and an associated image. You can even enjoy quizzes that help you practice what you learned in a fun, interactive format.
Another great option is to use YouTube. You can find a huge array of authentic materials just by searching in your target language, giving you plenty of tools to use to practice understanding vocabulary in context.
Prepare to make the most out of the words you do know.
When speaking another language, you probably don’t need as many words as you think. You just need to make the most out of the words you do know.
To practice this, practice thinking in your target language. Even if you don’t have all the words you want, you can often find workarounds that still allow you to communicate what you want.
Recognize the value of nonverbal communication.
To quote the great Ursula from “The Little Mermaid,” “Don’t underestimate the importance of body language!” For language learners, that couldn’t be more important. If you don’t have the vocabulary to communicate what you want, you might have the body language, facial expressions, hand gestures or drawing skills.
Want to practice? Find a friend and try to communicate with each other without using any words.
Don’t be afraid to use translators/dictionaries.
When in doubt, a good translator or dictionary can help you fill any gaps in your vocabulary, and there’s no shame in using these to help you along. For instance, with Google Translate, you can enter in text or audio for speedy translation, so you’ll never need to worry about not knowing a word again.
Fear #2: “What if I feel shy and freeze up?”
Shyness can hold people back from interacting in their native languages, so it should come as no surprise that the same trait can hold people back in a foreign language. Here are some ways you can overcome your shyness and put yourself out there.
Build up your confidence in an online chat room or message board.
Chatting online through platforms like Reddit can be less intimidating than face-to-face interactions. You can post on message boards in your target language. For instance, there are subreddits that use predominantly Chinese, French, German, Spanish or another language. Not only will posting in your target language give you practice, it can also help you build up your confidence to overcome your shyness.
Pretend you’re playing a role.
Purposely not being yourself can make you less nervous. When speaking your target language, just create a character in your mind that you’re playing. That character can be confident and outgoing. You might even give them a fun name for a little extra excitement.
Find groups that are designed to help you meet people.
When everyone is together in order to interact, it can take away some of the intimidation factor of trying to interact. Services like Meetup can help you find groups that are getting together specifically to practice language skills. Hey, if everyone else is doing it, so can you!
Build yourself up.
There’s no shame in talking yourself up, especially when you’re reminding yourself how awesome you are. Positive self talk can go a long way in helping you overcome your shyness.
You might go over nice things people have said to you, think about the strides you’ve made in your target language or even listen to a motivational song in your target language to pump yourself up.
Fear #3: “What if I embarrass myself?”
It’s easy to come up with ways you might embarrass yourself when using your target language, and this fear can fester. However, with some preparation, you’ll be ready to push that fear of embarrassment to the back of your mind.
Run through common scenarios ahead of time.
People who fear embarrassment often have worry about all the ways a conversation could go wrong. One way to overcome that fear is to run through common scenarios. You can consider what someone might say and also consider your response.
For instance, if you want to use your language skills at a restaurant, consider what the waiter might ask and how you might answer. You might even role play. If you don’t have a friend who will do it with you, you could always play both roles yourself.
This extra level of preparedness can help reduce fear of embarrassment.
Consider using a chatbot or virtual reality program for practice.
There are some chatbots and virtual reality programs specifically designed to simulate real conversations, allowing you to practice without fear of embarrassment. This will give you time to build up your confidence before you use your skills in real life.
Fear #4: “What if I accidentally offend someone?”
If you haven’t mastered your target language, you might fear that your imperfect communication could actually offend someone. However, as long as you’re prepared to react to possible snafus, you can move past your fear of offending.
Remember you can use your smile to your advantage.
Even if you accidentally say something offensive, a smile can help show that you mean well. Most native speakers will be able to tell that you’re a non-native speaker and will cut you some slack if you seem pleasant.
Learn how to apologize and admit you made a mistake.
If things go poorly, you can always apologize. “I’m sorry, I’m confused” can go a long way, so be sure to learn this phrase in your target language.
Never fear! By identifying and addressing your language learning fears, you can continue your journey towards fluency confidently. As long as no spiders or clowns pop up along the way.
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