How to Build Your Confidence When Speaking a Foreign Language

Do you feel you say filler words like “um” and “uh” more than any of the vocabulary you’ve learned in your new language?

Most of the time, it’s not because you don’t know the word, but because you doubt yourself.

And believe me—I know that simple advice like “Be confident!” and “Don’t worry!” isn’t helpful.

Instead, I’ve got six actionable tips for how to be confident speaking another language: pay attention to your body language, speak loudly and clearly, practice often, get feedback and use your mistakes to improve.

Let’s look at each one in more detail to help you increase your foreign language confidence!

Contents


1. Use the Right Body Language

I know you’re probably wondering, “What the heck does my body language have to do with speaking a foreign language?”

Well… a lot. 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.

When we don’t feel confident, our body language actually says much more than our faces do. We slouch, speak softly, break eye contact and try to take up as little space as possible.

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The good thing about this tip is that you can fake it until you make it. If you make an active effort to use enough confident body language, eventually, it will become second nature to you.

Here are some body language tips to help boost your foreign language speaking confidence:

  • Make appropriate eye contact. The “golden rule” 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. Do note that in some cultures, however, eye contact may be perceived differently.
  • Pay attention to your hands. Don’t stuff them in your pockets or fidget with them. 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 that won’t cause a distraction. Public speakers often do this to avoid looking awkward. And if all else fails, you can use your hands to clarify what you’re trying to say.

  • Don’t move around too much. Shrinking into yourself and shifting around makes you look and feel like you’re not in control. Not outwardly showing your nervousness to whoever you’re speaking to means that you’ll get to a point where you also don’t know you’re nervous—because you won’t be anymore!
  • Use your face. Don’t forget to smile! Or at the very least, try to maintain a neutral expression to help keep your worries at bay and to look friendlier.

So, next time you’re speaking in a foreign language, observe your own behavior. Are you maintaining eye contact? Are you standing up straight? What are your hands doing?

If you want to see how native speakers talk and use their bodies in your target language, you can check out the videos on FluentU.

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2. Speak Clearly and Loudly

Now let’s talk about actually speaking a foreign language.

No matter how incorrect you think your word use or pronunciation is, remember the most important point of all: Speak so people can hear and understand you.

Don’t start mumbling when you get nervous. To have a conversation, you need the other person to be able to hear you, after all.

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 grow accustomed to it.

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Further, pay attention to how well you’re enunciating. Even if you have an accent, saying words clearly will greatly improve your chances of being understood.

Even if you don’t feel confident, act like you are. I promise, “fake it ’til you make it” really works.

3. Practice, Practice, Practice

If you really want to know how to be confident speaking another language, you gotta do it often.

The more you speak, the more you’ll improve, and the more you improve, the more confident you’ll feel!

You don’t have to dive right into super awkward or embarrassing situations, though.

You can start with shadowing practice, where you’ll repeat after a recorded audio (like a TV show or podcast) and match the speaker’s pronunciation as best you can. As a bonus, shadowing will also allow you to practice your listening skills—another essential for conversations!

You can also practice speaking more confidently in your foreign language by talking out loud to yourself at home. Narrate what you’re doing as you wash dishes or fold the laundry. Pretend you’re having a conversation with a friend or new acquaintance. Talk to your pet, if you have one.

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The important thing here is to just keep speaking.

Said something wrong? It’s okay, no one was around to hear you. Say it correctly and then keep going. Don’t know how to say something? Try anyway. Write it down so you can look it up later, then keep talking. The more you practice, the sooner you’ll hear improvement.

4. Seek Feedback from Others

All this talk about improvement and practice leaves me with another important point to make: You need other people to tell you how you’re doing.

When you’re ready, start actually talking to a trusted friend. Let them know you want to practice your foreign language speaking skills and that you’d like feedback about how you’re doing.

You can also find a language exchange partner (or a few!). Not only will you get native speaker feedback on your speaking abilities, but you’ll even return the favor by helping them with your native language. Plus, there’s no shortage of topics you can discuss!

While you’re building speaking confidence, you’ll find that most people are more than accommodating and, more often than not, they’ll even have fun helping you while you’re trying to learn.

If you want professional feedback from someone who really knows what they’re talking about, you can also consider hiring a private tutor.

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You can look for someone with a language teaching degree or certificate, someone who specializes in a certain field or any other sort of parameters you’d like. A language tutor or teacher will be able to give you honest, detailed critiques about your speaking and help you fix any mistakes afterwards.

5. Embrace and Learn From Mistakes

Mistakes, in fact, are essential to gaining confidence while speaking another language.

This tip really goes hand-in-hand with the previous one: You need someone to point out your mistakes (there’s no way you can see all of them yourself, after all), so that you know how to improve. Improving, in turn, will boost your self-assurance.

Language learners—especially adult language learners—often get stuck on perfection. They’re afraid to say the wrong thing, because they’ve been taught that that’s not acceptable.

It’s okay if you’ve internalized this message too. Most of us have. But letting go of the desire to be correct and perfect will do wonders for your foreign language speaking skills—there’s even science to back this up.

Whenever you catch yourself feeling scared, nervous or discouraged about your language abilities, remind yourself that the only way you can get better is to make lots of mistakes.

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That way, you can see where you’re going wrong and learn how to make it right!

6. Accept That You Won’t Speak Perfectly

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. And anyone who does mock or make fun of someone else in a mean-spirited way simply isn’t worth worrying about.

Most people will be incredibly excited that you’re trying to learn to speak their language, no matter your actual abilities. They may chuckle a bit when you start to speak, but it’s usually because they’re nervous about their own ability to understand you!

They may also just be surprised to hear their language spoken with your accent. They’re (most likely) not laughing at you or your speaking skills at all.

So: Laugh with them! Speak more! It’ll help ease the tension.

Hi, I'm Alan! I became obsessed with learning Chinese, Japanese, and Korean in 2001, and managed to get good enough to work professionally in those languages as a management consultant.

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Even when you do inevitably say something incorrectly, remember that you’re still learning. And in fact, you’re already doing the thing you’re scared about—you’re speaking in another language, and that’s amazing!

 

Learning how to be confident speaking another language won’t happen overnight. Mastering your confidence, like mastering a language, comes with time, patience and practice.

In the meantime, 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 in your foreign language.

And One More Thing...

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