Overcoming Fears When Speaking a Foreign Language

You may think that as a linguist, with all these wonderful opportunities I have had in my life, that speaking French must be easy for me, but the truth is, I find it really hard! 

I panic when someone speaks to me in French and often have to ask them to repeat what they said. I struggle with the local dialects and accents of the rural part of France, where my parents live. I feel embarrassed when I don’t fully understand and am not sure how to respond. I studied French at A-level, a fantastic level of language for what I need it for. However, I then left it to focus on learning German and Russian and in this time, I not only lost the high level of French I had, I also lost my confidence. I felt that because my French was not as good as my German or Russian, that I was no good at it, so I neglected it and, of course, it only got worse! Even when teaching French in school, for many years I did not have the confidence to teach higher than Key Stage 3 (14 year olds). I then had a conversation which completely changed my mindset. 

During a visit to France, I was chatting with the wife of one of my cousins, whom I had not seen for a number of years. The difference in her level of English from the previous time we had seen one another was astonishing! She was fluent and flawless! I asked her about it and she simply said that she had realised she wanted to improve her English, so she started to read books in English and to give a little time every day to practising and that gradually it had happened. Now, surely as a teacher, I already knew this! Of course I did! But that did not automatically mean I could apply it to myself and my own language learning. From that day on, I forced myself to speak French to people whenever I could. I sought out opportunities to pass the time of day or make a comment to people I met, and gradually my confidence increased. Back at school, I took a GCSE French class. This meant a lot more work as I had to really prepare and make sure I was one step ahead of my students, but it was worth it and I definitely feel that my French has improved.

Writing it here makes it seem like it was such an easy process, but it really wasn’t and the first hurdle I had to overcome was the fear. The voice in my head that tells me any of the following:

  • You can’t say that, what if you get it wrong?
  • What if they don’t understand me?
  • What if I say something stupid?
  • What if I mis-pronounce something?
  • They probably speak better English than I do French!
  • What if they reply and I don’t understand them?

A lot of what ifs?!

The truth is, all of these things happened!

It was clear that I was overthinking this.

I had to address that fear that was holding me back. 

Now this is not a phobia. I have a phobia, I am terrified of rats. I have a physical reaction to them; I scream and I get hysterical. I actually lose control and cannot stop these things happening. I suspect I would need a lot of help to actually overcome this fear! 

No, the fears I had surrounding speaking languages were definitely ones that I could address. 

So I did. 

I broke them down and looked at why I felt these fears.

Some came from negative experiences as a teenager, when someone had corrected or criticised me and I had taken it to heart. [Again, this is a whole new blog –  Why Our Experiences in Education are Holding us Back!]

I looked at my fear of looking stupid and considered it from another perspective. I often hear non-native English speakers speak my language. I don’t judge them when they make mistakes. I don’t criticise their pronunciation. I simply have a conversation! 

On many occasions when I speak German in Germany, people speak back to me in English and a conversation with a German friend once explained why this is. It is not based on the assumption that my German is poor (it really isn’t!). It’s actually due to a cultural difference. They believe it polite for them to speak in the language of the visitor. We believe it polite to speak in the language spoken in the country we are in. 

Admittedly, this has happened far less in France, where they are happy to hear a native English speaker speak in French, but whenever or wherever it happens, I just politely ask if we can please speak French or German and explain that I would like to improve my language. So far, every single time, we have continued!

As for the mistakes and the mis-pronunciations, well yes they definitely happen and I get corrected but I just remind myself that this is not criticism! It is, in fact, a great learning opportunity, as all mistakes are!

So now it is up to you!

Can you face up to your fears about speaking in another language and overcome them?

If you want to chat to me further about this or would like some help improving your languages, then please get in touch!

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