There is a great amount of trepidation and anxiety that comes up when a student of a foreign language considers actually speaking. It’s one thing to study the language, it’s quite another when it’s an actual person. That familiar knot in the pit of your stomach, the fear of looking or sounding stupid… it’s really quite common. It’s something like an unrelenting but admittedly foolish dread of someone figuring out that you don’t know anything at all, that you are an impostor. You’re afraid you don’t know as much as you think you do, or as much as they think you do, and the moment you speak they’ll see that it’s a thin façade after all.
The fear of speaking a language is a multi-faceted issue. For some people, the fear is more linked to the more common phobias like “stage fright”, or fears of public speaking. For others, it’s a fear of letting yourself or others down in some way, that if you can’t perfectly form sentences with relative ease it must somehow mean that you aren’t doing enough or that you just aren’t good enough.
These fears come from a very personal spot inside of you, and are probably linked to this mythical idea about fluency and what being fluent actually means. Plus, it’s a fear of being looked down upon, laughed at, or ostracized.
Every non-native speaker feels this way when they speak the language, at least at first. And some native speakers feel that their speaking abilities aren’t quite up to par.
Luckily, and unluckily, the problem is the solution: to conquer the anxiety of speaking, you must speak more.
When studying a language, I find it important to try and push away the needy perfectionist ego that gnaws at me. I, like most people I know, am terrified of the idea that if my effort isn’t flawless, then it’s a failure. It could be caused by many things, psychologically speaking: the fear of not being good enough, the threat of shame, a desire to please all, being a perfectionist, low self-esteem, lack of confidence in one’s own abilities or knowledge, no chance to practice, and maybe even a few bad experiences.
There are some ways to combat this in a very methodical way. First, you should identify what part of speaking the language frightens you most: is it the idea of speaking with anyone at all, or is it insecurity in your grasp of the language? Do you fear judgement from others, or do you fear letting yourself down?
Since the most common reasons that people are nervous about public speaking have to do with one’s own self-confidence and how they wish to be perceived by others, this is what needs to be discarded.
The ego is a tricky thing to conquer. The ego tells you that if you can’t do something perfectly the first time, then you’re a failure. And that simply isn’t true. The ego is concerned with public appearance and saving face, but the ego catastrophizes. In any natural process of learning, mistakes teach far more than successes.
While we’re on the subject of righting your thoughts or reining them in, consider that anyone who is fluent in any kind of language has made mistakes. Native speakers, non-native speakers, and even teachers made mistakes and probably still do.
Our culture tends to prize perfection that looks effortless. It is unrealistic and unsustainable. Ultimately, it actually does harm.
Consider that fluency is not a thing you possess and always keep, it is a spectrum upon which one falls. I don’t define fluency as a mastery of a language, as it’s more correct to say that language is something one “practices”, just as doctors practice medicine. Furthermore, a better word for fluency would be proficiency or competency.
You don’t have to know everything to be fluent. You have to be able to think and process information in your target language and be able to do it within a certain amount of accuracy. You don’t always get it right, but you get it more right than you did before.
Always remember that your speaking abilities are no indication of your success or failure in terms of the language, or on a personal level.
Leaving aside the pep-talk, we can now talk about some more practical advice.
First is that to practice speaking, you can’t beat yourself up for every mistake you make. And definitely don’t dwell on it if another person teases you for the mistake. Embarrassment can’t actually kill you, but it’s quite easy to dwell on it especially when it’s thrown in your face.
Secondly, I recommend starting alone and working up. Try to speak out loud to yourself. Talk into a mirror, or talk to no one. Try and string your thoughts together as best as possible. You may still be at the point where you translate everything you say in your head. That’s a perfectly valid technique up until it becomes a crutch; when you have the vocabulary, you have more of a flow to go with. This is what “fluency” – the state of flowing – is founded upon.
Once you’re ready to begin speaking with other people, choose carefully. Some find that their friends and family are easier to talk to, so you can use them if that helps. Even if they don’t know the language to correct you, it still helps to be at ease. Others find that strangers are easier to talk to because there’s less judgement implied with distance and anonymity. For these people, I recommend a penpal who can correct you but allows you to keep you as a person out of your speech skills.
I also recommend trying to find a tutor or a teacher that you can talk to who is an authority on the language. Conversation is one thing, but you want someone capable of correcting you if you are wrong. As my own personal rule of thumb, I highly recommend you find someone who doesn’t interrupt you with corrections. Interruptions break up your thoughts, disrupt the flow. They can be distracting and have the potential to be used maliciously. A constant bombardment of corrections and criticism can push someone further into their shell. It is far simpler to break a conversation down by small sentences and offer corrections when a sentence has reached its natural end.
Never have conversations with people who make you feel bad about your skills with malicious intent.
For those who are self-studying, or those not able to find enough resources to be sociable, I also recommend mimicry. By imitating the accents or sentences of another, you can gather an assortment of phrases and references for vocabulary. Speaking aloud, practicing phrases, and committing them to memory, as well as figuring out different filler words in Spanish help you sound more proficient and more like a native speaker.
But if you can find yourself a partner or tutor, you should definitely be practicing with them. You learn so much more by practicing with another person than you can alone.
The most important thing is to choose your partner or tutor wisely! Don’t be afraid to take chances and make mistakes. It’s how we learn.