How to get over the fear of speaking a foreign language? 3 basic issues in a natural communication

A different language is a different vision of life.

Federico Fellini

There are so many references on how to learn foreign languages and so many tools to achieve it that we could easily cover at least one hemisphere. We are still talking about the great value that speaking a foreign language provides. There’s a number of available certificates by which we are able to prove our stage of language. However, I have a feeling that we are not talking enough about the psychological aspects of speaking a foreign language such as different barriers or immersion in a foreign-language environment. Unfortunately, because I reckon that these parts are crucial within the whole complex process of acquiring a foreign language and overcoming the fear of speaking.

I have been observing my own actions with the English language for last year. I’m lucky since I can learn it through a direct contact (I live in Ireland and my boyfriend is a foreigner what you may read about here). Beginnings were very tough. In the further part of this article, I will share with you a few pitfalls and snags related to speaking a foreign language in its natural environment and also some simple guides on how to deal with them in order to fully enjoy of discovering this different vision of life.

1. Language barrier

You can’t skip this aspect in the context of speaking a foreign language. Even people who know a given language very well might struggle with this issue. There can be a few sources of barrier such as anxiety about making a mistake and misunderstanding, shame or just a fact that a foreign language sounds… strange in our mouth. Persistent barrier may cause frustration (I know how to say it!), decline your self-confidence and general stress because living abroad, you can be involved in communication anytime. 

My barrier was so strong that I avoided even answers for how are you? in the shops and walked everywhere to not take a bus since I’d have to buy a ticket from a driver. One day I finally realised that I couldn’t work like that anymore and lack of communication with others makes me feel even stranger.

How to deal with it?

I began in small steps. Firstly, I talked to myself, read out loud etc. what let me get used to my voice speaking foreign words. Secondly, I stopped avoiding opportunities for small talk with locals — in the shop, cafe, neighbourhood so I could get out of my comfort zone and expand my confidence. Finally, I directly admitted my interlocutor that I didn’t understand them and I couldn’t speak English very well. This simple statement lightens the mood and lets your interlocutor know that they should speak slower.

2. Mixing languages

Living overseas, you are around between at least two languages. Therefore, some linguistic experiences build up in our minds which, I have a feeling, just hang somewhere in the depths of our memory. Speaking, we have to reach for them and sometimes we do it completely blindly. That’s the reason for mixing the native and second language. 

For instance, when I try to remember something during the talk in English and someone helps me find the right word, I scream in Polish WŁAŚNIE or DOKŁADNIE (eng. EXACTLY). Another example is answering co? or proszę? (eng. what? sorry?) when I’m focusing on something and couldn’t hear what someone had told me. Leaving home in winter, I blurt out: Jezu, ale zimno! (eng. Jesus, so cold!) and nie, dzięki (eng. no, thanks) when I’m suddenly asked if I want to eat something. It seems to be nothing but at the beginning, I used to do it frequently what made me feel a bit embarrassed and distracted in the further part of the conversation. 

How to deal with it?

First of all, I realised that probably around 90% of my environment is foreign just like me and it doesn’t matter if they have been living here for six months or ten years cause it happens to them, too! They mix languages, make mistakes and slip of the tongue. And also… they don’t care at all to your mistakes. I finally understood that the biggest problem was in my head and even if I sometimes feel slightly embarrassed, it’s much better to just smile and go towards an interaction instead of torture yourself for small mistakes.

3. Bottled up emotions

Expressing emotions in a foreign language is the most difficult thing for me after overcoming the barrier. Especially if we talk about the relationship. However, it’s not the only case, since, in essence, each first reaction may be an issue. For instance, judging the movie which extremely delighted you (or adversely), talking situational joke or the story that someone seriously hurt you. There’s also hard to say about your bad mood in English. Especially for me since I’m Polish and in Poland, we complain a lot. For example, if someone asks us how’s going? we have the whole range of typical answers: from I’m fine/good/ok, through same old, not bad, aaaahh, no complaints to same old shit, shitty, do not even ask. The last ones are always the perfect introduction to common complaining or talking about your biggest worries. Whereas in English, I normally hear only: I’m good/fine/alright/great. That’s it. I’m asking then, how can I talk about the heavinesses of my life after this opening?! Other examples are arguments during which your feelings are hugely intensive, the atmosphere is very tense and you’d like to say so much but at this moment, it’s not possible to find the right words since you’ve never fought in a foreign language before.

How to deal with it?

At the beginning, I prepared short texts about my favourite and hated movie/book/whatever and I learnt to talk about them. It gave me a model of a statement which I could repeat or gently modify in a right time. This strategy helps you collect your thoughts faster, brush up your vocabulary and through practising out loud, provides you with bigger self-confidence. You may also think (in a foreign language, of course), after the viewed movie, what would you say about it to your friends. For the rest, just watching foreign-language films can teach you a lot. Take a look at how actors act during the arguments or criticism scenes and comedians on the stage and try to catch vocabulary they use then.

Take it easy!

In general, finding yourself within a foreign reality is not a bed of roses. Getting to know a language is only the one stage. Then we also need to understand the cultural context, some customs and above all, go beyond our comfort zones regularly. Speaking a foreign language is like a blind man’s buff game at the beginning so the stress is completely understandable. However, the most important is to take your time and be regardful for yourself during this tough but extremely exciting process 🙂

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