How To Combat Foreign Language Anxiety

Don’t let anxiety get the best of your language-learning goals. Fight back with these helpful steps.
language anxiety

There I was — sitting at the end of a table full of students, professors and professionals; all gathered for the commencement of our 10-week immersive internship program in Buenos Aires. I was surrounded by optimism, excitement and delicious Peruvian food, and yet I sat enveloped by imposter syndrome. Anxiety had hijacked my voice and, with it, any inkling of ability to speak in Spanish. I sat in a quiet state of horror, attempting to pre-conjugate Spanish verbs, and anticipate any conversation as to avoid an embarrassing language blunder. I laughed at jokes that I didn’t understand, kept from making eye contact with anyone and left feeling defeated in my attempt to become a better Spanish speaker.

Considering all of the benefits that come along with learning a new language, it’s become far too easy to neglect the parts of learning that may not be as attractive. Foreign Language Anxiety, or xenoglossophobia, is a specific anxiety reaction that affects roughly a third of American students. It’s a condition of mid-to-high level tension and nervousness in regards to learning foreign and second languages and specifically influences speaking, listening and writing. Ultimately, Foreign Language Anxiety harms progressive and productive learning.

But anxiety is not the end all, be all of your language-learning efforts. If you want to reach your multilinguistic goals amid your nervousness and come out on top, make a habit of these tips and tricks.

Tailor Your Teacher

You’ve probably heard of “love languages,” the act of understanding and catering to differences of needs in a relationship, depending on your respective partner. Now, apply that same practice to the way you learn a new language. Finding an instructor or program with a teaching style that matches what you need to succeed helps to make you feel more comfortable in navigating a new language. Personally, I knew speaking in casual conversation was my biggest anxiety hurdle in regards to language, so that was what I specifically searched for.

Find Other People In Your Shoes

The usual tendency can be to automatically seek out native speakers of the language you’re learning, but the gap in understanding and confidence can be counterintuitive and instead send you deeper into your shell. Finding another learner not only helps with gradual language learning, but you also gain an encourager — which is hugely important. If you’re in a classroom setting, make friends with one of the other students. If you’re learning with an app like Babbel, follow the platform on social to join the community of users. You’ll learn that you aren’t alone in your struggles.

Embrace Mistakes As Part Of The Process

I’m sure I speak for many other people when I say a huge source of my speaking anxiety came from not wanting to make a huge mistake and end up looking like a careless fool. What’s hard, yet crucial to remember is that making mistakes is inevitable — and a good thing. Instead of beating yourself up, make your missteps a learning opportunity for your next conversation. Keep a notebook with a priority study list to record things you recently struggled with. This will help personalize your language-learning journey.

Keep Going!

The worst effect of foreign language anxiety is arguably its influence on giving up learning completely. But stopping your studying does a disservice to you, your potential, and the ensuing cultural nuances to learn as you add more languages to your arsenal. Learning a new language, as noted, is a process. Accepting that helps to demystify any unrealistic goals and allows you to pace yourself accordingly (you won’t become fluent in a month, and that’s okay).

For me, following these tips meant scheduling one-on-one classes with a Spanish instructor, carving out an hour every day to go through Babbel lessons and making friends with a French exchange student who enjoyed eating tartas at the corner café as much as I did. Nine weeks after that dreadful dinner, I sat at the same table to celebrate the culmination of fully immersing myself in Spanish language and culture. You can, too. 

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