When you’ve just started learning a new language, speaking to other people might be the skill you struggle with the most. You’re afraid that you won’t understand what the other person is saying, or that you’ll make mistakes or embarrass yourself. You’re not alone in this; in fact, it’s actually a really common fear. Luckily, it can be overcome.
First and foremost, ask yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen?” You might conjugate a verb wrong or completely forget a word in the middle of a sentence, but is that really so bad? A good speaking partner will either correct you or ignore it and move on because they still understood your point — which is the main goal of communication — so there’s nothing to be embarrassed about. Still, if you’re nervous, you can try practicing with language tutors like those here at NaTakallam. They already have experience teaching the language and are familiar with all of the mistakes learners can make.
If the person you’re talking to does laugh at you or otherwise makes you feel bad, that really says more about them than it does about you; it has nothing to do with your language skills! You should be proud that you can speak another language, however imperfectly, and look for someone else to spend your time with — someone who appreciates your efforts and encourages you to speak.
Before you start speaking with someone, try, whenever possible, to imagine the conversation in advance and plan ahead. For example, if you’re meeting your language exchange partner for the first time, naturally you’re going to introduce yourself, so you should take some time to imagine possible questions and answers in the target language: “My names is…” or “I work as…” and of course, “Nice to meet you.” If you’re practicing with a tutor, it might be useful to plan a topic in advance, so you’ll have time to learn some vocabulary and create sentences before the lesson.
Remember to always learn functional phrases, especially if you are a beginner. Phrases like “How do you say…?” “Can you repeat that?” or “More slowly, please” will really come in handy if you get stuck or struggle to keep up. Your speaking partner knows that you’re still learning and need to practice, so there’s nothing wrong with not understanding everything right away.
If speaking with someone else scares you, you can also try talking to yourself first. You can think out loud in your target language while you’re driving to work; describe your activities while doing housework; or have a fake conversation on the phone. No one will know you’re actually practicing!
Whether you’re talking to yourself or with someone else, use words that you already know as much as you can. This will make you more confident and help your conversation flow smoothly.
Also, speak about topics that interest you. Not only will this be easier for you because it’s more likely that you already know the right words (and if you don’t, you’ll be more motivated to learn them), but it will also be more fun to talk about something you’re passionate about. Who knows? Maybe your speaking partner will be just as interested as you are.
If you notice that you often need a word and can’t seem to remember it, or that you make the same grammar mistake over and over again, take note of that. Making mistakes is a normal part of the learning process. Acknowledging them will show you what you should focus on during your next study session.
To be a good speaker, you have to be a good listener. Practice listening with your favorite songs, an interesting podcast or an engaging TV series. You’ll get used to the speed at which native speakers talk and maybe even learn a few new words along the way. If you’re struggling to understand, put on the subtitles in your target language (so for instance, you’d watch French series Lupin with the French closed captions instead of English subtitles), so you’re reading and hearing the language at the same time. Also, using your computer, you can often slow down audio or visual files. Take some time to repeat what you hear to improve your pronunciation. You can also opt for audio books.
Speaking of books — if you’re more of a bookworm, reading will also be very beneficial. Try reading silently first to focus on the content. Read at least a paragraph or an entire page without stopping to look anything up, then go back and check your dictionary or grammar book as needed. Read it again focusing on new words and grammar points and finally, if you feel ready, read it out loud to practice pronunciation.
That said, always keep in mind that speaking with someone else is a step you’ll have to take at some point. Imagine how happy and fulfilled you will feel once you start communicating in your target language and seeing the results of all your hard work!
If you still don’t feel confident in spite of all your practice, don’t rush it. You don’t necessarily have to start speaking right away; you can focus on other skills related to your target language until you feel ready to talk to someone. Each language learning journey is personal, and everyone has a different pace.
Finally, remember that native speakers make mistakes too when they are speaking, even though they are communicating in their mother tongue, so stop worrying so much about grammar and spelling and try to follow the natural flow of the conversation. The point of communication is just to get your point across, not grammatical perfection, so speak at your own pace and celebrate every word you share with others.
For more information, you can explore the following sources:
Horwitz, Elaine K., Michael B. Horwitz, and Joann Cope. 1986. “Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety.” The Modern Language Journal 70 (2): 125–32.
Chastain, Kenneth.1975 “Affective and Ability Factors in Second-Language Acquisition.” Language Learning 25 (1): 153–61.
Woodrow, Lindy. 2006. “Anxiety and Speaking English as a Second Language.” RELC Journal 37 (3): 308–28.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alice Zanini is a copywriting intern at NaTakallam while pursuing her bachelor’s degree in linguistics and Middle Eastern studies. Her research focus is on sociopolitical and sociolinguistic issues in modern Turkey and the Persian-speaking world.
ABOUT THE EDITOR: Mikaela Bell is a freelance content writer and editor working with NaTakallam. Her academic background is in linguistics and anthropology, and she also taught English as foreign language for several years. An American living in France, she also enjoys reading, creative writing, cooking, hiking, and Irish stepdance.