When many of us start speaking a new foreign language, it can seem like our favorite new words are um, er and uh.
After all, we say them all the time, so they must be our favorites, right?
It’s exciting and fun to start learning a new language, but it can be a bit disappointing when, after studying a little while, you find yourself saying filler words like “um” and “uh” more than any of the new words you’ve learned.
Much of the time, though, you struggle not because you don’t know the word, but because you doubt yourself.
When you’re learning any new skill, you’re more than likely to feel uncomfortable with actually using it in the beginning, and that’s OK. It’s natural to be unsure of what you’re doing at the start.
Of course, you’ll also experience those same feelings of discomfort when you’re learning a new language.
It doesn’t matter if you’re learning that new language in a class or by yourself at home. Either way, those first conversations with native or fluent speakers can be nerve-racking.
You might stumble through your sentences worrying about where to place the negation in Japanese, whether or not you’ve chosen to use the right prefixes in German or if the idea you’re trying to communicate is getting lost because of your accent when speaking French.
Striking up conversation with a stranger is difficult enough for a lot of people. But doing it in another language? Forget about it!
The fact of the matter is, you’re never going to master that language without using it in conversation, but you’re not going to get through a conversation (if you’re even able to begin one) if you don’t stop doubting yourself. So how do you push yourself toward speaking without hesitation in a foreign language?
Speak Up! How to Improve Your Foreign Language Confidence
It’s easy to give advice like “Be confident!” or “Don’t worry!” However, that’s much easier said than done, since being confident (or worried) are basically uncontrollable reactions we have to a situation.
In this post I’ll try to give you some actionable tips that you can follow, as well as a bit of good, old-fashioned motivational pep talk speech thrown in for good measure.
We’ll start with things you should (and shouldn’t) do with your body, since a lot of your emotions are manifested through body language.
Then we’ll look at how to deal with your accent and actually begin speaking in a foreign language, since a lot of language learners lack confidence because they struggle with those areas.
So don’t worry: Confidently keep reading and we’ll get you all ready to talk in a foreign language!
Work That Body!
Let’s start with body language.
I know you’re probably wondering, “What the heck does my body language have to do with speaking a foreign language?”
Body language is strongly linked to behavior. Studies have shown that one greatly affects the other. Ergo, working on your body language will impact your confidence when speaking another language.
Body language: Fake it till you make it
What do we do when we don’t feel confident? We give away much more through our body language than we do with our faces.
We slouch, we speak softly, we don’t occupy as much space as we usually would and we start breaking eye contact. You might even stop smiling or get an uncomfortable look on your face, which tends to make everyone feel a little bit uneasy!
Observe your own behavior the next time you have a conversation. Are you maintaining eye contact? Are you speaking loudly and clearly? Are you standing up straight? These are just some things to think about the next time you approach someone with the intention of speaking in a foreign language.
Make a habit out of ensuring that you maintain eye contact (unless that’s frowned upon in the cultural context in which you find yourself), and be sure that you don’t start fidgeting or trying to shrink down with your body.
You tend to do these kinds of things when you feel that you’re not in control of a situation. All those doubts you have about what you’re saying will start to really show and, as we’ve said before, it’ll make conversing with people that much more difficult.
You need to counteract all of those instinctive physical expressions of doubt.
Be “Golden” with Your Eye Contact
When it comes to “appropriate” eye contact, it’s all about achieving a balance between too much and not enough. You want to be the Goldilocks of eye contact and get things just right.
The “golden rule” for making eye contact is to do it about a third of the time for a comfortable conversation, and you can do even more once you’ve mastered it.
Try not to have that shifty, uncertain gaze. It’s acceptable if you break eye contact every now and then in conversation. Take a moment to look into the other person’s eyes, then switch to something else, then back again; just be sure not to do so too often.
Other “Handy” Tips
Don’t stuff your hands into your pockets or fidget with your hands. If you’re that nervous, try interlocking your fingers (behind your back, if necessary!) to keep yourself from doing these things.
You can also try holding something—anything that won’t cause a distraction—in your hands. You’ll often find that public speakers do this to avoid that awkward, “I don’t know what to do with my hands” look. If all else fails, try using your hands to clarify what you’re trying to say (obviously, without going overboard…unless you’re a mime and that’s your thing).
And remember to smile!
These might seem obvious but they’re good things to pay attention to regardless. It may not be that extreme for you, but no matter how confident you are when speaking your native tongue, you’re going to change slightly when you switch to a foreign language. Keep that in mind.
Now let’s talk about actually speaking a foreign language.
No matter how incorrect you think your use or pronunciation of a word or sentence is, remember the most important point of all: You should do everything you can to speak clearly and loudly.
A Moment of Clarity
Since you’ll be speaking to someone, it’s important that you don’t start mumbling when you get nervous. It’s difficult at times to know for sure when you’re being too quiet, so remember to enunciate when you speak. This is especially important since you’re trying to learn a new language.
Try to fill the room (or your immediate area) with your voice. If it helps, pretend you’re talking to your grandmother who’s hard of hearing! It’ll feel strange at first, but you’ll quickly grow accustomed to it.
Even if you don’t feel confident, you have to act like you are, at least for a while. The feelings of confidence while speaking will follow naturally, regardless of how well you actually speak. That’s what I mean by “fake it till you make it.”
You’ll find that most people are more than accommodating and, more often than not, they’ll have fun helping you while you’re trying to learn. We’ll get into that in just a bit.
Now that you’ve pretty much mastered the basics of confident body language and how you should speak, the next thing we’re going to talk about is the batch of exaggerations and fabrications you might have concocted in your head.
Don’t Worry: Most People Love an Accent
Accentuate the Positive
People are generally most afraid of being teased or mocked when they speak a new language. They can’t stand the thought of native speakers laughing at their accents or their misuse of a word, even if they do it behind their backs.
The thing is, people don’t generally do that. In fact, accents can be attractive! And the people who mock or make fun of you in a mean-spirited way simply aren’t worth worrying about.
People all over the world adore it when you try to speak their language, no matter how bad you are at it. It’s worth it just to try. You don’t have to be afraid of making yourself sound stupid. And even if you do sound a bit stupid, just enjoy it! Laugh it off with everyone else, and realize that some people might be surprised and even nervously chuckle a bit when you speak at first. Usually, they don’t mean to.
When that happens, it’s not something you should take personally… even if it kind of feels personal at times.
The truth is, it’s often hilarious when unexpected things happen, and people don’t usually expect to hear their own language being spoken with a thick foreign accent. That doesn’t mean people are laughing at you, they’re just laughing at the sound of your words.
So laugh with them! Speak more! If it’s really that bad, most people will gladly help you, as long as you’re genuinely trying to learn. You’re putting in effort and people love that, especially these days when it’s so easy to just switch to English when things get too tough.
Know that there will definitely be times when you say the wrong thing in the right way or the right thing in the wrong way. It happens. But you’re still learning.
In fact, oftentimes you’ll discover that you actually know more than you think you do, but you’re just too full of self-doubt to speak. So don’t pause so much to think, just speak!
No more “umms” and “errs” as you try to fill the silence, just so you can struggle to recall some silly grammatical structure or the correct placement of a preposition. Just speak, and let those beautiful new words you learned flow.
You’ll have fun, they’ll have fun and you might find that through learning and being unafraid to speak, you’ll have made some new friends.
The Takeaway: Just Speak!
The next time you start talking to someone in a new language, remember what you learned here. Take a breath, stand up straight, approach the person you’re going to converse with, start speaking and laughing and then, when all that is done, you’ll come back and thank me.
Mastering your confidence, like mastering a language, comes with time, patience and practice. But controlling one will impact your control over the other.
When you stop being afraid of speaking and really start mastering that language, new countries and experiences will unlock for you in completely new ways, and you’ll encounter all kind of new people. You’ll find opportunities you would have never been given otherwise.
That’s all worth being the butt of a joke a couple of times, isn’t it? So don’t be afraid to be the fool: make those mistakes with confidence, and you’ll find that you actually make fewer mistakes than you thought you did.
And slowly but surely, you’ll become more and more confident.
Narayan Liu is a writer based in Sweden who has contributed to several websites, all of which revolve around his fascination with culture, both old and new. It’s a passion he’s cultivated by growing up in the bustling city of Hong Kong. You can discover more about him on his website.