Illustration by Ginnie Hsu, courtesy of the Bright Agency.
Does this sound familiar: Your forehead breaks out in a cold sweat, your throat is dry and your hands are trembling. Saying something simple in the language you’re learning should be easy, but you feel immobilized. Foreign language anxiety usually boils down to a few reasons: the fear of failing, embarrassing yourself or being laughed at.
Speaking a new language can be particularly stress-inducing because you’ve diligently practiced new vocabulary and learned the grammar, but at the critical moment, you lose your courage and can’t find the right words. But don’t give up yet — not all hope is lost! These tips will help you keep your foreign language anxiety in check and slowly conquer your fears.
Tip 1: Prepare Yourself
Start with the obvious: Before you go into a conversation, imagine how the discussion will likely go and think about what you want to say. For example, if you want to order something in a café, recall the words related to buying something (the polite way!) and the names for different food items. Prepare the necessary phrases in your head and play out the scenario as if you were actually using them. This practice helps you feel more sure about the situation and lets you avoid going blank altogether.
Our Babbel app also helps you with this: You’re not just learning the right vocabulary and grammar for different situations, but you also apply your knowledge in focused dialogues. In that way, you can truly prepare yourself for putting your new language into practice.
Tip 2: Put Yourself In The Other Person’s Shoes
You’ve surely spoken with someone who doesn’t speak perfect English. What was your reaction? Did you roll your eyes or make fun of the other person because they made a mistake or had a strong accent? Of course not! On the contrary, you were probably especially attentive and maybe even respected the person for having the courage to express themselves in a new language.
If you’re feeling particularly stressed out, think about your own reactions to these encounters — they’re almost always positive. As a native speaker, you don’t expect someone learning your language to speak it without any mistakes, so neither will they. You don’t have to speak a language perfectly to be understood!
Tip 3: Practice With Someone You Trust
To regularly practice speaking another language, it’s best to start small with someone you trust. Ideally you can even explain your insecurities ahead of time. That way you can decide together how the other person can help you: Do you want the other person to point out your mistakes and correct them while you’re speaking? Or would you find that distracting and instead prefer to get feedback at the end of the conversation?
Whatever you decide, just keep in mind that it’s normal and even important to make mistakes. When you make a mistake, you recognize it (on your own or with someone else) and correct it, which is a great learning process. This helps you make connections in your brain that help you remember it the next time.
Tip 4: Write A Cheat Sheet
So what happens after you’ve found the right person to practice with, but you don’t know what to talk about? It’s best to think ahead of time about a few topics that interest you that you can talk about with your knowledge of the language. Write down everything you can say about the topic and what you can ask the other person. Maybe even look up a few words that you don’t know yet. Put together a cheat sheet with interesting topics, useful words and whole sentences or phrases. Then if you get stuck, you can look at your cheat sheet and remember what you still want to say.
Tip 5: Memorize A Few Standard Phrases
There are a few standard phrases that you can use if you don’t understand something or don’t know what to say. These phrases (translated into the language you’re learning) are essential to have in your arsenal during the learning process:
- “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”
- “Can you repeat that, please?”
- “Can you speak more slowly, please?”
Remember to use the polite/formal versions of these sentences if it’s relevant for the language you’re learning! If you’re especially nervous at first, you can always write these phrases down on your cheat sheet — then you’ll always have them ready to use.
Tip 6: Practice Makes Perfect
Speaking in a new language is just like any other skill that you learn in life — you can only improve if you practice regularly. You can compare it to a sport: Just like our bodies build muscle with regular exercise, you can also strengthen your cognitive language skills with regular exercise. Maybe you’ll have “sore muscles” at the beginning, but as with a sport, it gets easier over time. Once you start talking in your new language, it’s already easier the next time. The more you practice in different situations, the more self-confident you’ll become and the more natural your language use becomes.
Remember: You’re learning a new language and that’s already a great undertaking. No one expects you to speak it perfectly. Use these tips and you’ll be on your way to becoming a social butterfly in your new language!