We often talk about language learning as an experience that brings feelings of great satisfaction and accomplishment. And of course, it is! But just because it can be rewarding and full of triumphs doesn’t mean it’s without its fair share of challenges, frustrations and discouragements. If you’ve ever struggled in a conversation with a native speaker — whether you can’t recall a word you know you’ve studied, you fear making a grammar mistake or you are embarrassed about not having the right pronunciation — you’ve likely suffered from foreign language anxiety. And you’re not alone.
In this episode of Multilinguish, we’ll talk about what language anxiety is and what it feels like, and we’ll hear that it’s a completely natural and normal part of the language-learning experience. We’ll also dive into ways to mitigate it so that it doesn’t leave you feeling defeated and uninspired to keep going.
Multilinguish: Language Anxiety
In the first part of the episode, we talk about what it’s like to experience foreign language anxiety. Content producer David Doochin is joined by two Babbel employees — Elin Asklöv and Diana Tur — who aren’t native English speakers but who live in the United States and have to speak it every day. We also hear from Áine Gallagher, a native English-speaking Irish comedian and social scientist who used humor and an attitude of perseverance to immerse herself in learning the Irish language and connecting with her heritage.
Later in the episode, we discuss a few tips, tricks and strategies to help you combat language anxiety when it pops up. You’ll hear from the co-hosts and our guest interviewee about the most effective ways they get over their fears and frustrations when it comes to having conversations in a foreign language.
This episode was produced by David Doochin and edited by Ruben Vilas. Jen Jordan is our executive producer. Our logo was designed by Ally Zhao. Special thanks to Áine Gallagher for her contributions to this episode.
How To Combat Foreign Language Anxiety | Babbel Magazine
Foreign Language Anxiety: The Universal Equalizer | Medium
Speaking A Second Language: It’s Terrifying But Wonderful! | Áine Gallagher, TEDxFulbrightDublin
Conquer Your Fears: 6 Tips To Reduce Foreign Language Anxiety | Babbel Magazine
Thomas Devlin: I always feel this great sense of defeat when I’m in a restaurant on my own in another country and I have so far have been able to speak, let’s say German because I was learning German, and I’ll be able to be like, “A table for one,” and then sit down and ask for the menu. But then it always reaches a point where they’ll ask me a question and I just won’t know what it means and then I’ll just kind of stare frozen and they’ll look at me and they’ll say, “English?” And I have to say, “Yes.”
David Doochin: From the language app Babbel, this is Multilinguish. I’m producer David Doochin.
David Doochin: We talk a lot about the joys and the rewards of learning a new language, but do any of these experiences sound familiar to you?
Ally Zhao: So I was visiting Paris and it had been three years since I had studied abroad there so I remembered enough French to get around but not quite enough to hold very serious conversations. So I walked into a boulangerie to buy a baguette and I asked for une tradition, which is the traditional baguette, and that’s when I realized the lady at the counter thought that I might be from France and so she started speaking to me very, very quickly in words that I didn’t understand and so I panicked and said, “Yes,” to whatever she had said. She ended up giving me a baguette that was not the one I asked for because as it turns out they were out.
Tom Horak: I went to Vienna for personal solo vacation and I had to take Lime scooters everywhere that I traveled because initially when I tried to hail a cab and ask for directions for my Airbnb I got a very angry, frustrated response so I pretty much ditched that idea and traveled everywhere via Lime scooter.
Alex Breaden: Yeah, I took a trip to Paris a couple summers ago and I tried to have these phrases learned just so I could interact, basic communication type stuff with different establishments. But every time I’d try and bring one out I could see one their faces they were saying, “Please stop.” It was just like I was butchering the language and so eventually I just had to learn this phrase je ne parle pas français because it means I don’t know how to speak French, which, to me, was the lesser evil than just sitting there and looking like an idiot basically.
David Doochin: If there’s anything these stories have in common, it’s that they highlight how sometimes foreign language experiences don’t go as smoothly as planned. Speaking a new language can be a nerve wracking experience. If you ever try to speak in a foreign language you’re learning and you felt flustered, nervous, embarrassed, or confused or you struggled to find the right words to say in a conversation because your mind draws a blank, or you fear the humiliation that comes with mispronouncing a word or making a grammar mistake, you’re not alone.
David Doochin: As most people who have ever learned a new language can tell you, it’s a nearly universal sentiment. On today’s episode of Multilinguish, we’ll be talking about foreign language anxiety. First, we’ll talk about what it is and why it happens and we’ll hear from people who have a lot of firsthand experience making mistakes in a second language. And then we’ll offer some tips, tricks and insights into curbing this anxiety when it crops up. Before we get started, make sure to rate and review Multilinguish wherever you listen. And don’t forget to subscribe so you get new episodes as soon as they are released.
David Doochin: Joining me are members of Babbel’s content team, Elin Asklöv and Diana Tur.
David Doochin: So I figured you two would have actually particularly great insights into this topic because your native languages aren’t English. Diana, yours is Spanish. Elin, yours is Swedish.
Elin Asklöv: Correct.
David Doochin: So you’ve both had to learn a foreign language and move to a country, mainly the US where you are right now, and use the language every day, I’m guessing.
Diana Tur: Yes.
David Doochin: So, I figured that you would be great as co-hosts on this episode to talk about what it’s like on the other side of the coin not having English as your native language, but rather learning it as a foreign language and having those experiences grappling with the challenges of learning a language that’s not your own, specifically English. Does that sound good?
Elin Asklöv: Yep.
Diana Tur: Sounds great.
David Doochin: So, let’s just dive into talking about foreign language anxiety, what it is, maybe more the technical terms and definitions that characterize it, and then we’ll get more into the feeling about it and the emotion behind it because foreign language anxiety is something that is very feeling driven. It’s technically known as xenoglossophobia, or linguistic insecurity, those are other names for it.
David Doochin: It’s typically measured in the classroom. A lot of studies that have been done about foreign language anxiety revolve around education. How students, who maybe are in grade school or university classes, respond when they’re in environments with other students or teachers, maybe talking in front of the class or hearing what a teacher has to say to them and not being able to come up with the response or express themselves in the way that they want to.
David Doochin: But that’s not to say that this sort of anxiety is at all tied to the classroom. I’m sure you both have experiences with one-on-one conversations with native speakers, even here in the Babbel office, you’re not at all in a learning environment but you still have to have these one-on-one conversations or conversations talking to big groups of people. So I would love to hear your experiences with foreign language anxiety as non-native speakers of English coming to the United States, using the language on a virtually daily basis. What’s it like for you?
Diana Tur: Do you want to go first?
Elin Asklöv: Yeah, I can start. So I thought a bit about this topic and I would say for me, foreign language anxiety is highly contextual, right? It’s a social anxiety for me more than a foreign language anxiety per se.
Diana Tur: Why is it more like a social anxiety?
Elin Asklöv: I think because the situations I feel anxious in in English now, or in German which I also speak, are the situations that I would also sort of feel anxious in in my native language. Like, on this podcast for instance, this is a more charged situation than if I’m by the water cooler talking to a colleague. If I’m giving a speech, that’s also a lot more charged socially. So I think that’s more the anxiety for me today-
Diana Tur: Just speaking in general.
Elin Asklöv: Yeah, just being myself every day out in the world.
David Doochin: When you experience this anxiety Elin, what does it feel like for you? What are the sensations that you get in your body? Does it remind you of the regular anxiety you’d feel if you were speaking in Swedish, for example?
Elin Asklöv: I think for me it can be the same sort of performative speaking anxiety that I can feel in Swedish in certain contexts. I would say the difference is probably that in English and German I would experience that I feel blocked. I can’t think of a word and then that becomes this whole thing so instead of trying to formulate something differently you’re sort of just digging in your brain for that exact word and this is sort of vicious cycle where you just start to feel, oh, I can’t think of this word.
Diana Tur: Yeah. I decided to abandon that technique a long time ago because I realized that it didn’t take me anywhere. I have a lot of blanks a lot of the time and then what I do is I just start from the beginning of the sentence. Like I try to go to get to same point but in a completely different way and that’s how I try to get my point across. But yeah, I know what you’re talking about.
Diana Tur: For me, it’s an everyday thing. All these examples that we hear before are people who had this experience when they were traveling or one time. That one time, it was so bad, and yes, it’s really bad. But when you have to face that every day, it’s…
David Doochin: It sounds exhausting.
Diana Tur: It’s very exhausting and it’s also very emotionally tiring, you know?
Elin Asklöv: It is. And at the same time you’re also navigating another culture. Like you’ve been here for a longer time, I have not been here for that long. So you’re also trying to navigate all the other social cues and social norms at the same time in another language.
Diana Tur: Yeah. At some point I feel like you have to prioritize things like when am I going to focus on the meaning of what I’m saying? Trying to get the meaning across, trying to speak the right way, trying to look confident, you know? Because I don’t feel like I can do all the things at the same time.
Elin Asklöv: No, and I think those things are also depending on the context. If I’m on stage giving a speech or a talk about something, then I would probably prioritize looking confident because if that doesn’t come through then everything else is going to fail whereas in just normal day to day communication I would probably focus on just getting my point across and I don’t care what it ends up sounding like.
Diana Tur: So, for me, I feel like people understand me better once they know me better and they kind of get used to my accent so it’s easier if it’s a close friend or something like that. But at the same time, it’s kind of funny because the more I know a person the more I relax and speak like a Cuban like, blah, blah, blah. My English accent gets even more and more Cuban as my friend is closer to me. I don’t know if that happens to you.
Elin Asklöv: For sure with people I know because even before I moved here I would speak English almost daily with friends and the better I know someone the more relaxed I am, of course. That’s what I also mean about it’s not only the foreign language parameter, it’s also just the social situation in general.
David Doochin: I think that’s such an interesting point that especially in a place like the US for a native English speaker, you don’t have to think about how am I able to convey the meaning that I want to communicate because I don’t necessarily have the right words to do it or because maybe someone doesn’t understand my accent as well as I want them to. So it feels like you almost take on a whole extra burden in having a conversation with a speaker who maybe isn’t a native speaker of Spanish, Diana, or of Swedish, Elin. You have to consider a whole other set of factors which is, how well does this person understand me? How well am I getting my point across? Things like that that I, as a native English speaker in the US, rarely have to think about.
Diana Tur: I cannot tell you how many times that I had an idea in my mind when people were having a conversation and I didn’t say anything just because I didn’t want to go through all the work that it takes to explain my point because sometimes… For me it’s especially harder because I went to school in Cuba for literature and linguistics. So my Spanish is like, really, really good, you know? I have a lot of tools in Spanish to express whatever I want to express and then in English it’s like one third of that. So I feel very frustrated a lot of the time because I cannot really explain my complicated brain in this not so complicated level of English that I have.
David Doochin: I like that you use the word frustrated. I feel like that is a feeling that’s common to people who experience anxiety. On one hand, it can be scary, it can be daunting and challenging because you want to communicate yourself, express yourself, and you can’t. But also it seems frustrating and maybe it can make you angry if you think, I want to be able to tell someone all the really beautiful and rich profound thoughts inside my head but I don’t necessarily have the tools, like you said, in English for you Diana or for you Elin, to do it, whereas you know that you are very articulate and very eloquent in your native language but perhaps you don’t have the nearly as many words in your vocabulary that can convey the same thought maybe in a more beautiful or poetic way.
Diana Tur: I feel like I feel the most frustrated when people are not patient with me. It’s like, just be nice, be kind to anyone. Not only to people who speak a different language, just to anyone, you know? Because I might be a super smart person that’s just having a hard time trying to explain herself.
Diana Tur: I think that people need to be more open in general to making the other person feel more comfortable and that will help so much if you can just relax.
Elin Asklöv: I feel like people also have different expectation and expectations play a big role in this as well. I speak a bit of Spanish, it’s a very, sort of, I can get around when I go Spain. I can ask almost anything that I need to know but I couldn’t be like, “What do you think about the current political situation,” right? But I feel like when I’m in a Spanish speaking country then people have such low expectations of me. So there I feel like I’m really doing well and I feel good about myself.
Elin Asklöv: But in other situations where people have higher expectations, like probably here with English or in Germany with German, that’s when I think a lot of disappointment in yourself could arise potentially just because you are… I don’t know. You just don’t fulfill other people’s expectations and that’s always an issue.
Diana Tur: The worst part is that I feel like sometimes, not all the time, but sometimes that’s Elin’s or mines, you know?
Elin Asklöv: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Diana Tur: It’s not like people are actually understanding what you’re saying, your point’s getting across, everything is good, and we’re just like, “But I didn’t use the right conjugation, oh no.” People don’t care that much.
Elin Asklöv: I think that’s the hard thing about being at the level of a language that you and I are on because we want to—
Diana Tur: Be perfect.
Elin Asklöv: Be perfect or we want to come across as native speakers or we want to be able to be as eloquent as native speakers whereas if you’re in a lower level of your language learning journey then you just expect other things of yourself as well.
Diana Tur: Exactly, yeah.
David Doochin: So I think one common thing that I’ve heard from you both and from the earlier anecdotes that we heard in the episode to open us up and just from conversations I’ve had with other people who have experienced this same thing is that this anxiety tends to revolve a lot around the element of speaking a new language and to maybe a little bit of a lesser extent listening, but not so much reading or writing. I feel like that is a really telling characteristic of foreign language anxiety is that it effects the parts of language that are more spontaneous and that happen in real time.
David Doochin: We actually did a survey of some of the participants of the Babbel challenge. I think it was the most recent challenge we did last year. And we asked them at the end, “What do you think is the most difficult part of learning a new language?” And we gave them four options; reading, writing, listening and speaking. Almost half of the participants marked that speaking was the most challenging part for them followed by listening at about 30%, and then reading and writing didn’t really make as much of an impact at all. Because speaking is one of the most improvisational parts of learning a language and it doesn’t allow for preparation it also requires you to be both paying attention to what someone else is saying and reflecting back in real time, it moves really quickly and it can be scary if you lose track of something that someone says you might be lost for the whole rest of the conversation. Whereas with reading and writing, you have a lot more time to think about what you want to say. Or if you’re reading something you can consult a dictionary on the side, you can pause, you can go back and re-read something.
David Doochin: Do you think that makes sense as to why people are saying generally that speaking and listening are the most difficult parts of learning a new language?
Diana Tur: I have a very funny story about that. So, for me, speaking was definitely the hardest part of learning a new language because I learned basically from TV and from music so my listening was great, you know? Even my writing was good, too, because I took my time with the writing and then I could basically be great at it. But the speaking was very hard.
Diana Tur: But the funny thing is that my boyfriend is now learning Spanish and his experience is completely opposite of that. You might think, oh yeah, speaking is so hard. For him, speaking is very easy. He’s really good at it. He has a great vocabulary. But he doesn’t understand anything. When I speak to him I have to speak in a very low speed so that makes me frustrated and then it’s really hard for both of us to practice Spanish together because he can’t understand what I’m saying.
Diana Tur: Sometimes I’m not patient enough. I should be, I totally should be, that’s my bad. Patient enough to speak at the speed that he needs, you know?
Elin Asklöv: Yeah.
David Doochin: That’s an interesting point that foreign language anxiety doesn’t effect just the person who’s learning the language but it also can almost take a toll on the relationship between two speakers if one is losing patience and getting frustrated with the person’s who’s learning then it’s kind of like the anxiety has taken over the entire conversation on both sides.
Diana Tur: Yeah. Yeah definitely.
Elin Asklöv: And that’s not something you want in a household.
Diana Tur: No, not at all. That’s why every time that happens I switch to English immediately and I know it’s a bad thing to do. It’s so funny because also I’m trying to speak a different language so I totally get his point but sometimes it’s not as easy to keep speaking the same language especially when you’re talking about practical things in life. You’re like, “Oh, can you pass me that thing?” And then you have to be like, “Can you please pass me the salt?” You don’t want to speak like that in real life.
Elin Asklöv: It’s like by the time you get the salt you’ve finished your meal and what are you going to do?
Diana Tur: Exactly.
David Doochin: What experience, I’m curious to hear from both of you about, is whether you ever find yourself apologizing for your mistakes. I know in my personal experience, when I’m trying to speak a new language with someone and I make an error or I feel really flustered and I get embarrassed my first instinct is to say, “I’m so sorry,” whether that’s in English or in the language that I’m trying to learn. But I don’t want someone else that I’m speaking with to lose patience with me or get frustrated. I’m curious if you ever find yourself falling back into saying, “I’m sorry.”
Elin Asklöv: Apologizing I actually don’t do.
Diana Tur: Me neither. I won’t apologize for being myself, you know? This is who I am, I was born in Cuba, Spanish is my first language so if I don’t know something what I actually do is to ask the other person like, “Hey, what is the thing that looks green and has brown roots? What is that?” And the person is like, “Oh yeah, that’s a tree.”
Elin Asklöv: It’s a tree.
Diana Tur: Yeah, that’s exactly what I was talking about, thank you. And then I keep going with the conversation. If you don’t know something just ask the person.
David Doochin: That’s very humble of you to be willing to be vulnerable and say, “I actually don’t have the answer to this, please help me.”
Diana Tur: For that, that’s very clear, also. A lot of the times I don’t know this word.
Elin Asklöv: Yeah.
David Doochin: So, I’d like to move now into playing clips from an interview that I did with a really delightful woman named Áine Gallagher. She’s an Irish comedian who grew up in Ireland. Her native language is actually English, but she was explaining to me that in the Irish school system, most students are required to learn Irish. It’s a minority language in the country and there are native speakers, of course, but most people speak English and they know a handful of Irish terms that they learned in school. They might have some chances to practice but for the most part everyone knows English.
David Doochin: So she took it upon herself because she really wanted to connect with the part of her Irish heritage that she feels she started to get to know in school. She wanted to learn Irish and really make it her project to become fluent in Irish. One of the really cool ways that she did this was to actually enter an Irish language comedy competition in 2013. So it was a two month competition with almost exclusively native Irish speakers and she’s coming into it as a native English speaker who knows a little bit of Irish, but not a lot. And so I thought it was a really, really cool experiment for, as she described, putting herself through, to force herself to learn the language but really struggling at first.
David Doochin: So, I’m going to play some clips from the interview and I would love to hear your reflections on what she has to say. First, let’s hear about her experience in the Irish language comedy competition. And remember, this is a two month window of her life that she’s really challenging herself to speak Irish, to tell jokes in Irish, the whole deal.
Áine Gallagher: Basically I entered this competition, somehow I got into it and my Irish was still at a very, very basic level so it was terrifying. Absolutely terrifying. It was all native speakers, all of the other people involved in this, all of the crew, and I just realized how difficult it is. Really when you start to try to immerse yourself in a context where you’re speaking a second language, the first thing I noticed was how I just had no personality at all. That’s what I found was kind of the hardest thing and I couldn’t understand what everyone was talking about all of the time, I couldn’t really contribute in conversations. I just felt like I really wasn’t myself in any way.
Áine Gallagher: Then it was terrifying at the time to even try and speak because I was so concerned about whether my Irish would be grammatically correct or not when I tried to speak that that just stopped me from interacting at all with people.
David Doochin: So what did you get from that interview clip? What stood out to you?
Diana Tur: I think she’s so right.
Elin Asklöv: Mm-hmm.
Diana Tur: I feel exactly the same way.
Elin Asklöv: I think it’s really difficult to sort of discover that new part of yourself that is boring, has absolutely nothing to say, is really uninteresting.
Diana Tur: It’s like being in a jail a little bit. It’s like you have that beautiful personality inside of you but you don’t know how to put it out there because you don’t have the words. That’s actually one proof of how important language is and speaking can be. You can disappear really in a group of people if you don’t speak the language.
David Doochin: I like that she said she just lost all sense of her personality. And you put it really beautifully, Elin, that you discover part of yourself that is boring that maybe doesn’t have a crazy story to tell because you cannot actually find the words to tell your own story. It must be so frustrating and it must just feel like you’re constantly hitting a brick wall. You said you feel blocked earlier and I imagine that Áine, my interviewee, must have just felt that all the time.
David Doochin: She’s a naturally very funny person. She’s been doing comedy for so long, it’s one of her passions. It makes her so happy but then to enter a comedy competition where you can’t really even tell a joke because so much of your identity revolves around your language and you’re now supposed to be telling jokes in a different language that you don’t know as well.
Diana Tur: Do you feel like you’re less funny in English and German than in Swedish?
Elin Asklöv: Again, I feel like it really depends on who I’m talking to and how relaxed I feel. But I’m funnier in Swedish perhaps.
Elin Asklöv: I remember talking to a colleague back in Berlin, I was telling her about my German language learning journey basically and I was like, “Yeah, I remember when I started to be funny in German, that was so great. Such a great feeling.” And she was like, “Uh-huh. And when did you stop?”
Diana Tur: That’s so funny.
Elin Asklöv: It was just friendly colleague banter. I hope she didn’t mean it.
Diana Tur: I have a question for you, and for you too, David, because I don’t know if this happens to you two guys. Wait, I have to think about my question because I forgot. It was, oh yes, so it happens to me that when I’m speaking with non-English native speakers but that speak really good English, like for example me talking to you in English, I don’t feel that shame when I’m talking to you because I know you feel the same way, you know?
Diana Tur: But when I’m talking to a native English speaker then it’s like, “Oh, no.” So I feel less pressure with people that are non-native English speakers, even if their English is amazing. Does that happen to you too?
Elin Asklöv: Yeah. I think so, too. Especially in the beginning of…
Diana Tur: Of the relationship.
Elin Asklöv: Of the relationship but also in the beginning of when your language is on a lower level, then it’s certainly… I think that can be a good thing also to talk to other non-native speakers because you have the same. Then you can really have that patience, you can practice together. It doesn’t always have to be another native speaker that you talk to.
Diana Tur: Yeah. And it’s great at the same time because you get to learn other accents because one of the things that for me is actually a really bad is like… So I got really used to speaking fluently in English here, living here in America. But before I lived in Denmark and that’s another country where I practiced a lot of English because people are great at speaking English in Denmark. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t have an accent. They do have an accent and sometimes I would find myself speaking English with a little bit of a Danish accent that for a Cuban is really funny, you know?
David Doochin: Did people have a really hard time understanding you?
Diana Tur: In Denmark?
David Doochin: Yeah.
Diana Tur: Oh, yeah. Again, I feel like in that kind of situation I have to build that friendship so they get used to my accent and they can eventually understand what I’m saying, you know?
Elin Asklöv: Mm-hmm.
Diana Tur: It was especially hard also because I was going to film school in Denmark. So I had to be good at convincing people that my projects were good so they would be in my crew and give me money to make the projects and stuff like that. Sometimes my English level wouldn’t be good enough for them and then I would have to find clips and find stuff and make a mood board and stuff like that to show them what I was trying to say. Instead of just pitching them the idea I would use other resources to be able to put my idea out there so they would follow me.
Elin Asklöv: Yeah.
David Doochin: So, I’m going to play another clip from the same interview that I did with Áine and this is about her journey through the comedy competition and what she learned about herself and about her Irish skill level throughout and I think there might be some really poignant remarks in here that might stick out to you. So I’ll play it.
Áine Gallagher: That fear never went away. I actually did find a way to cope. I think probably what stands to me is I’m a person who will just keep putting myself in difficult situations and keep… There’s something about the challenge and the humiliation of it all that I kind of like. So somehow I managed to find a way to use my lack of Irish as a strength within this competition and I gained a bit more confidence.
Áine Gallagher: At the end of it, it went on for about two months, I found that my Irish was at a much better level at the end of that.
David Doochin: So she moved from Ireland to Berlin, which is a whole different can of worms that she’s now opening because learning German—
Diana Tur: You know about that.
David Doochin: Yeah, and Elin, you can speak a lot about this, too. German, for many people to learn is considered a really difficult language. But when you’re leaving your home country and you have to adapt to a new culture like you’ve already touched on before, both of you, that adds a whole new dimension.
David Doochin: What really stands out to me about this clip is the way that Áine describes everyday tasks that we would otherwise take for granted, but that now become these monumental challenges when you can’t convey the simplest of ideas. Let’s listen to this one.
Áine Gallagher: Getting a haircut over here is a really scary spot because I mean, getting a new haircut with a new hairdresser is scary anyway even if they speak your language. But having to go in and try to describe how you want your haircut in a different language would be impossible. Just kind of avoiding these situations at the moment, letting my hair get really, really long. A lot of people I speak to here travel back home to Ireland to get their haircut, which is crazy.
Áine Gallagher: It’s all those little things we take for granted that are so much harder, which is interesting. Or just the idea of needing to go to the post office and buying a stamp is a really scary idea. The kind of fun thing about it when I do manage to do a really small activity, like I went to the library the other day and joined and spoke in German and I had such a sense of achievement at the end of that. So that’s kind of nice, this whole things that you wouldn’t see as a success if you were just doing it in your native language become mammoth achievements in a second language.
David Doochin: Do you agree with her?
Elin Asklöv: Yeah. Yeah, totally. I think that’s also important to know when you are learning a language you really should allow yourself to celebrate those small things that you can actually do.
Elin Asklöv: I think also what she said about getting a haircut is what I was trying to say earlier, also. That institutions where you already are a bit anxious or you are afraid like, will I come out of this hairdresser place looking like, you know…
David Doochin: Like I want to look.
Elin Asklöv: Yeah, exactly. Or not. Then the fact that it’s another language, it only adds on to that anxiety whereas completely friction free experiences maybe wouldn’t cause as much anxiety.
Diana Tur: Yeah, I cannot think of the idea of going to therapy in English.
David Doochin: Oh gosh.
Diana Tur: For me that would be like, “Pft, no way,” you know? I don’t know. Going to the doctor is also very stressful sometimes because I feel like sometimes when you feel sick… I had appendicitis and I had to go to the hospital and, of course, I spoke English anyway because my life was depending on it but you feel a little scared. What if they’re telling you something and you understood the wrong thing and they’re giving you surgery for something that you don’t know what it is and stuff like that. It’s very scary, you know?
Elin Asklöv: Mm-hmm.
David Doochin: Yeah, I guess I never thought about foreign language anxiety as a matter of life or death.
Diana Tur: Exactly.
David Doochin: When your life is on the line what you say and what you hear really matters.
Diana Tur: Exactly.
David Doochin: Well, we have covered a lot of ground so far in the first part of the episode. We talked about what foreign language anxiety is, what it can look like, your own personal experiences with it. We started to touch on a few ways that you can deal with it when it happens, but that’s going to be the focus when we get back. So we’ll hear a few tips and tricks to mitigate foreign language anxiety. We’ll return shortly.
Thomas Devlin: Multilinguish is brought to you by Babbel, the language app. Babbel’s teaching method has been proven to be effective across multiple studies and convenient lessons take only 10 to 15 minutes to complete.
Thomas Devlin: David, beyond normal language learning methods, what’s your favorite way to approach a new language?
David Doochin: I listen to a lot of foreign language music. I’m always on the go with my AirPods in, whether I’m on the subway, or just jamming out at work, while cooking dinner and I think the most immersive way for me is to have music playing in the background. I can pay attention to the lyrics and try to pick them apart, figure out what they mean, or kind of just let them float in my mind in the background. Either way, I’m definitely engaging with the foreign language in the music.
Thomas Devlin: I love that. We’re offering Multilinguish listeners 50% off a three month subscription. New customers can get this offer by visiting Babbel.com/podcast. That’s B-A-B-B-E-L.com/podcast.
Thomas Devlin: Now, back to the show.
David Doochin: Welcome back to Multilinguish. Before the break we heard about foreign language anxiety and what it is and when it happens and we heard stories from Elin and Diana about their experiences with it. We also heard from Áine Gallagher who is the Irish comedian who was trying to lean Irish by actually forcing herself to do it in a comedy competition and who now lives in Berlin and is feeling a lot of the same experiences and sensations with learning German as well.
David Doochin: So, now that we’ve talked about what it can feel like when you can’t necessarily find the words, or you feel frustrated or not confident about your language skills, what are some things that you can do to prepare for those sort of situations that you will inevitably find yourself in if you’re learning a new language?
David Doochin: A lot of these tips and tricks actually relate to addressing anxiety as it exists even when you’re not speaking a foreign language. So, that can include public speaking in your native language. Or it could also just be having an anxiety disorder as a person, feeling naturally anxious when you have a conversation. A lot of social anxiety even in your native language can hamper you from having a full-fledged conversation in a foreign language.
David Doochin: One step is to address the anxiety that lives within you even in your native language, whether that’s seeing a professional for it, maybe going to therapy, or just practicing public speaking, for example. Taking a public speaking class and being able to find the courage to communicate and express yourself even in a language that you’re not learning for the first time. But, of course, I think our listeners would want more foreign language oriented advice and tips and tricks. So that’s why I’m going to hand it over to you two to offer any strategies or suggestions that you may have, whether it’s really generalized and about the feelings, or it’s very specific things that have worked for you, I would love to hear them.
Elin Asklöv: I think a lot of this depends on what level you are on in your language learning. I think if you’re just starting out it can help a lot to just speak to yourself. Talk to yourself when you’re cooking, describe what you’re doing. I don’t know, it sounds crazy but talking to yourself is actually a good thing. Even out loud because then you hear your own voice and you get acquainted to how you sound in another language.
Elin Asklöv: Once you’re ready to get out there and put yourself out there, I think it’s really important to find people who you trust who you know will have patience with you.
Diana Tur: Not me.
Elin Asklöv: Not Diana.
David Doochin: Not Diana. Don’t consult Diana to practice a foreign language.
Elin Asklöv: I think it’s important to be… Now the words start failing me, so I’m proving my point. To be forgiving of yourself. You can’t compare yourself to native speakers because they were literally born with it.
Diana Tur: Another tip that I want to give you guys, you all, is that don’t think that you have to know everything. If there’s something you don’t know, just ask. Probably it’s going to help you more to put your idea out there if you get help. You’re not alone in this. Most of the time people actually want to know what you’re saying. They’re interested in the content of your idea and not in the shell of your idea. Focus on that. Focus on sharing what you want to say and being yourself and then I’m sure that everything is going to come little by little. It’s a lot of work, but I’m sure you can do it.
Elin Asklöv: Yeah. I think it can also help if you’re in the lower level to learn phrases like, “I’m practicing. This is hard for me but can you help me out?” Things like that.
Diana Tur: Or even, “How do I say this?”
Elin Asklöv: Exactly, “How do I say this? What’s this in X, Y, Z language.”
Diana Tur: Make the people part of your language learning journey, you know? Have them take part of your experience and ask for help.
Elin Asklöv: Mm-hmm.
David Doochin: I like what we said about not expecting too much from yourself, being patient and forgiving. I think those are some of the most important things you can do because language learning is a journey. You’re never going to be perfect, especially at the beginning. Recognizing your own strengths and weaknesses. Being able to say, “I might not be at this level yet, but look how far I’ve come,” gives you a sense of pride and it lets you benchmark your progress and say, “I can see where I started and now where I am and I know that in the past couple weeks or months I have improved this much. So that really gives me hope and inspiration to be able to continue doing that in the future.”
David Doochin: I think comparing yourself to native speakers is one of the most destructive and harmful and unhealthy and toxic things that you can do when you’re learning a new language because like you said, Elin, a native speaker has had the ability to speak that language since, I mean—
Diana Tur: For their whole life.
David Doochin: Their whole life. So there’s just no way you can compare. Most people are going to be willing to work with you and help you learn because I think it’s really admirable when someone wants to speak English and I would do so much to help them if they’re willing to show me that they’re vulnerable and need the help and are willing to try and to be honest about how much they know.
David Doochin: A lot of that also revolves around reframing your thought patterns. If you keep thinking, “I’m not good enough. I’ll never be good enough. I put in all this work for nothing. I have reason to be afraid or someone’s going to laugh at me if I make a mistake if I don’t pronounce this word perfectly.” A lot of those are just self-fulfilling prophecies. If you think that a conversation’s going to go one way, if it’s going to fail, it’s going to be a real challenge and a struggle, you almost kind of create that reality and manifest it because you start out on a foot without having a lot of confidence or self-esteem. But if you’re able to reframe your thoughts and say, “I’ve come so far already, here’s a way I triumphed speaking Spanish,” for example, if I’m learning Spanish. Or, “I really struggle with German sometimes, but I had a successful interaction with the barista at the coffee shop, wasn’t that amazing? I can see how far I’ve come.”
David Doochin: So, I think a lot of it is about looking inside yourself and figuring out the root causes of the anxiety that you might feel, which can be related to the thought patterns that you have, which ties back into the need to be perfect, which no one is, of course. We’ve been told that all of our lives, that no one is perfect.
Diana Tur: I feel like also failing can really help you be better in the future because usually if you’re looking for a word that you can’t find and then you somehow get over that in the moment but then later you do your research and you find that word or you find the right way to say what you were trying to say, it’s not like, oh no, I did terrible and then I didn’t do anything about it. That’s not the way it works.
Diana Tur: You fail and then you learn from your mistakes and you find ways to improve them and to make it better and failing means that you know what you have to work on and you know the things that you have to do to get better. I would just use these advantage in your advantage.
David Doochin: And then you have to actually go do those things, too. You have to know what you need to do to get better once you fail because you make the mistake and then you have to be willing to say, “Although it will be hard and although I might make more mistakes in the future, I’m willing to try.” I think the combination of the willingness and the vulnerability to make the mistakes and time is the cocktail for success in this situation.
David Doochin: So I would like to now play another clip from my interview with Áine from before. In this one she tells me about a pretty specific strategy that she uses to overcome to fear of putting her Irish language into use. This might be just particular to her. I don’t know. I’d love to hear what you have to say about it. But she does offer some pretty good insight about what it’s like to recognize your own vulnerability and then use that to your own advantage. So here she is.
Áine Gallagher: I think what I’ve managed to do, or a coping mechanism that I have, you know, I’m a comedian. I’ve always liked to be the center of attention. I’ve always enjoyed being a bit of a clown. But what I started finding in Irish was my way of coping in situations when I didn’t understand what was going on was to make a joke out of the fact that I had no idea what was going on. So somehow I still kind of involve myself in a social situation even though I hadn’t understood anything that had been said. I suppose that was one thing.
Áine Gallagher: It was kind of as I became more comfortable with people that I could do that a bit more.
David Doochin: Have you ever used that same strategy of laughing at yourself or admitting your own weaknesses, your own vulnerabilities to get people to trust you more and to be on your side? Do you think that would be an effective way to combat foreign language anxiety?
Elin Asklöv: Yeah, I think so. I think in her case it sounds like it really made sense. I don’t know if I’ve done it that much. Perhaps when I was at a lower level of German maybe. But I really get what she’s going at because you’re in a social situation, there are tons of people there, you’re playing football or soccer, and you have to keep playing so you don’t want to interrupt the whole thing by being like, “Oh, sorry, I don’t understand,” or switch to English or something because you want to keep going. So I think those coping strategies make sense.
Diana Tur: I feel like in my experience it’s more like an identity conflict because when you are in your country that you were born in, you don’t have the conflict with the way you speak because everyone speaks that way. But then when you’re in a different country you’re like, “Am I the one that’s wrong? What am I doing wrong? Why am I the one that’s different? Is it wrong to be different?”
Diana Tur: Then I think I learned so much from not being a native speaker because I’m so much more proud of being Cuban now and of my culture and my identity and who I am. I just feel very comfortable with my personality and my identity in general just because I know it’s not bad. It’s actually very interesting and people really like it when you have an accent and when you are from a different country and they probably have a lot of questions for you and are very interested in your culture. So it’s a great thing.
David Doochin: I’ve never thought about it that way that because you stand out so much that people want to get to know you and this might just be because you, Diana, happen to be so amazing and fantastic and interesting and you are so colorful and you have so many stories to tell and you’re very multi-dimensional so you actually have the personality to back it up. But I wonder for people who maybe don’t want to be put in that position to be the odd one out or to always be questioning, “Do I belong here?” That might be kind of tough and more difficult.
David Doochin: Going back to the interview, we’ve talked a lot about how you need to just get out there and practice, practice, practice when it comes to learning a new language and time is so important to that. Any new skill that you learn will take time and you have to be patient with yourself to be able to truly master any new skill. So Áine has some really poignant things to say about the nature of practicing and how it makes you get better with time.
Áine Gallagher: The fear of making mistakes is just something that I managed to get over with time. I think it’s just about practicing so the more I engaged with people and spoke in Irish, the more I realized, oh, actually speaking a second language, it’s not about being 100% grammatically correct. It’s about being able to get your point across and to be able to express the point that you’re trying to say.
Elin Asklöv: Yeah, I think this is one of the most important points because there’s the word fluency is thrown around a lot. But what does it actually mean? To most people being fluent is actually to be able to just get through your daily life in whichever way you end up doing that.
David Doochin: And you can’t reach fluency without the intermediary steps between.
Elin Asklöv: Exactly.
Diana Tur: Of course. It’s a step by step process.
David Doochin: So I think the last clip that I’ll play from this interview in Áine reflecting on her experience first using Irish in this competition where she has very little experience and up to the most recent couple of years where she’s using it on a regular basis. It’s cool to see that she’s able to track her own growth as well.
Áine Gallagher: I remember the first gig I did was the worst gig I’ve ever done. I tried to kind of do a direct translation from English into Irish and nobody understood what I was even trying to say and nobody laughed. Anyway, it was awful. So definitely over the course of the two months of that competition I developed a way to tell jokes in a second language which was amazing.
Áine Gallagher: It’s not like I set out to intentionally track my progress, but over the years, that was 2013, let’s say then up to 2018 I just notice every year I get more and more confident to start doing things. I would MC a comedy gig in Irish, I would agree to do different events with the football team and every event I just noticed that things that would have seemed daunting to me, I didn’t think twice about them after a certain amount of time.
Áine Gallagher: I suppose I’ve come now to the point where I speak Irish on a daily basis with people. It’s given me opportunities work wise. I’m a content creator for an Irish TV channel. But in terms of success with putting myself through this whole process, the main thing I’ve gotten out of it is the ability to realize how resilient I can be. These situations are daunting but you do get through them and when you come out the other side you feel so much stronger.
David Doochin: Those are really beautiful words, I think because you see that for all the work that you out into learning a new language, for all the struggles that it entails, it actually is a major growth point for a lot of people. You learn a lot about yourself in the process and when you look back you see not all the individual moments that you might have failed or made a mistake but you see the culmination and where it led you to in the current moment and you can be really proud of yourself for making it this far.
Diana Tur: Yeah. Knowing a second language, or a third is like having a super power so if you have to fight a lot for it, it’s worth it.
Elin Asklöv: Yeah.
David Doochin: Well, thank you to both of you for joining me for this episode. I couldn’t have asked for two better co-hosts.
Elin Asklöv: Thanks for having us, David.
Diana Tur: Thank you. This was actually a lot of fun.
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David Doochin: I want to wait for the siren to go by.
Diana Tur: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I think that’s really bad.
David Doochin: It’s going to take so much editing.
Elin Asklöv: So many fires and crimes and sick people.
David Doochin: Fires, crimes, and sick people. That’s a good band name.