Love. Life. Fear.
What’s up with four-letter English words having so much gravity?
That last one in particular throws us for a loop, making the other two more complicated than need be.
But fear has a purpose. Though it limits us, it also protects us.
Even when we try to do something as awesome as learning a foreign language, fear rears its ugly head and creates this thick muck of foreign language anxiety that’s overwhelmingly difficult to wade through.
Though we know how beneficial learning a foreign language is, fear still wants to do its job and protect us from that uncomfortable feeling of trying to use a language we’re not comfortable with yet.
That’s especially true when it comes to speaking in a foreign language.
But if everyone let fear stop them, I’m positive there’d be zero speakers of foreign languages.
It’s possible to battle foreign language anxiety and win.
You don’t have to hide from your anxiety, you may just need a little help taking it on.
Here’s where I come in: Keep reading for a list of tips to help get your foreign language anxiety under control!
4 Powerful Tips for Overcoming Your Foreign Language Anxiety
1. Try a new approach to learning.
Your foreign language anxiety could result from trying to learn in a way that doesn’t match your learning style. You may need to switch it up!
Learning with a suitable style leads to more language learning success, which in turn leads to more confidence. Confidence is the enemy of foreign language anxiety of any kind.
For example, if you lack confidence when talking to native speakers, but you build up your general language skills on your own, you’ll feel better about trying to have a conversation the next time an opportunity comes up.
Not sure what your learning style is? Try this multiple intelligences self-assessment to figure out your strong suits.
Then, use that technical term for your learning style or just read the descriptions below to find out which language learning approach(es) it may be helpful for you to try next:
- Real-life immersion: This is the tried-and-true method of spending a lot of time in a country or place where your target language is primarily spoken, whether for work, leisure or study. Immersion is best for the daring and adventurous, or the procrastinator. If you’ve been trying to learn the language for a while and can’t seem to get around to it, this method will definitely help build your confidence. Learning style: Interpersonal, Naturalistic.
- Language learning software: This method benefits the organized and time-pressed language learner. If you have the discipline to learn independently and would benefit from being able to study around your busy schedule, you may want to look into using a guided language learning program. Learning style: Intrapersonal, Mathematical, Spatial.
- Classroom learning: The learner who lacks discipline blossoms in the classroom. You need a teacher to hold you accountable and smaller goals to make study less intimidating. The feedback you receive in a classroom environment also helps you see realistically what you need to work on. Learning style: Linguistic, Mathematical, Interpersonal.
- One-on-one or small group tutoring: The wallflower may need to be around fewer people in order to get the right level of attention and not just feel like blending in. Individualized learning that’s tailored to you can really make your language learning blossom. Learning style: Kinesthetic, Intrapersonal.
- Immersion through videos, TV & other media: There’s a host of entertaining TV shows, music, movies and YouTube videos that you know nothing about just because they’re in a foreign language. Go explore them! This is best for the media lover who enjoys a good movie or TV show above all, and the easily-bored learner. Keep in mind that this technique requires a lot of discipline. It can also be hard to understand native speakers who speak fast and use slang, but there are ways to work with this (see below) and media learning can be a great confidence-builder. Learning style: Musical, Kinesthetic, Spatial.
2. Focus on the true purpose: communication.
The goal of learning a language is not to speak perfectly. Expecting yourself to speak error-free not only puts an insane amount of pressure on you, but it’s also incredibly unrealistic. In reality, the more you pressure yourself to speak perfectly, the more mistakes you’ll probably make, if you find the courage to speak at all. Instead, focus on communicating.
Communication is 100% possible while making a ton of mistakes. Forget grammar and perfect pronunciation. Was your communication successful? Let that be your litmus test.
For example, if you’re in a foreign country and you enter a shop, point to an item that you don’t know the name of, say “buy” because that’s all you know, and the cashier proceeds to pick up that item and ring you up, congratulate yourself on communicating successfully.
When you have a conversation with a native speaker and you just know you’re asking something the wrong way, but she gets what you’re trying to say and answers your question anyway—congratulations, you successful communicator, you!
In order to do this, though, you do need to know enough words, so build a strong vocabulary. Make sure you know the most common nouns and verbs in your target language and use dictionaries with audio pronunciation that you can copy.
It’ll help to commit to learning a certain number of common nouns and verbs—say, five per week or one a day—and then it’s good to have conversations with native speakers as often as you can to practice your new vocabulary.
Make a commitment that works for you: For example, you might aim to have two 30-minute conversations per week. There are lots of meetup groups for this very purpose, or you can research local language exchange clubs. Your exchange doesn’t have to be in person, though! There are loads of websites specifically designed to help you find a person to practice with online, too.
Shift your focus from speaking perfectly to communicating and feel the pressure melt off, and you’ll more than likely make fewer mistakes!
3. Transform negative thoughts.
Maybe you’ve heard of the term “cognitive distortion,” or what psychologists call those illogical, false and negative patterns of thought that convince us we’re less-than. For example, you head to a party and predict that “the people there won’t like me” when you have no idea how they’ll feel about you, and how can strangers have already formed an opinion of you, anyway?
Well, it’s time to pinpoint the cognitive distortions blocking your language learning success. By recognizing what they are, we can catch ourselves in the act.
PsychCentral has a great list of the 15 most common ones, and some of them may resonate with language learning especially. Do any of the examples below sound familiar?
- Filtering: “I just spoke with perfect grammar and great fluency but all that matters is the one word I mispronounced.”
- Polarized thinking: “I have to speak Russian perfectly or else I’m a failure.”
- Overgeneralization: “Since that one native speaker couldn’t understand me when I tried to speak in Spanish five years ago, that’s going to happen every time, so I might as well give up.”
- Jumping to conclusions: “These native speakers will judge me for making so many mistakes!”
- Personalization: “That cashier was so short with me because he could tell I had a foreign accent.”
- Control fallacies: “I can’t help it if my French sucks; my life’s so demanding with work and family that I’ll never have the time.”
- Fallacy of fairness: “It’s not fair that some people have the money to go off and study abroad and learn the language almost overnight.”
- Blaming: “It’s my teacher’s fault I’m no good at Arabic.”
- Shoulds: “I should be fluent by now.”
Now that you can identify cognitive distortions, your job is to talk back to them and question their validity. For instance, let’s look at that filtering example above. Your talk-back could go something like this:
“It’s better to focus on my success rather than highlighting what I did wrong. My grammar and fluency were perfect! Why don’t I congratulate myself for that?”
Answer “I should be fluent by now” with:
“I’ll become fluent in my own time as long as I practice and don’t give up. There’s no set timeline for fluency. What I should do is not make myself feel guilty when I’ve already come so far!”
Refute your distortions with truth and common sense as many times as you need to, until they dare not pop up again.
4. Set realistic goals.
You can’t get far in your language learning if perfectionism makes you strive for the impossible. Perfectionism and foreign language anxiety feed off of each other, so it’s important to make sure your language learning goals are realistic and attainable, or you’ll feel even worse when you can’t reach them.
How do you know when a goal is unrealistic? One sign is if you make serious efforts towards your goal and you’re still nowhere near achieving it.
Another way to tell is by questioning whether what you want is actually possible (and by extension, if it’s really important). For example, it’s not possible for an adult to speak a foreign language without any trace of a foreign accent. But luckily, it doesn’t matter if you speak with an accent as long as you’re understood. Really assess if your goal is feasible and essential to your needs.
Here are some examples of common unrealistic language learning goals and their realistic counterparts:
Unrealistic: If I practice and study really hard, I’ll speak error-free although I’m just starting out.
Realistic: I can’t expect to skip speaking the broken version of the language. There are stages of fluency I must go through to become fluent. What I can do is measure the number of mistakes I make and aim to decrease them.
Unrealistic: I’m going to practice for two hours every day. That way I’ll become fluent in no time.
Realistic: It’s good to aim high, but that’s a huge time commitment to make when I’m just beginning and I may burn out fast. I should start by practicing five minutes a day and increase the time in increments to cultivate the habit and work my way up.
Foreign language anxiety’s no fun, but these tips can make the battle to overcome it a lot easier.
It may never truly disappear, but now you’re armed with some tips and tricks to keep you motivated.
Don’t let anxiety kick you off your language learning journey!