How to overcome foreign language anxiety

Having lived abroad most of my life, I’m used to learning foreign languages. I’m a confident extrovert type of person, but I struggle with foreign language anxiety.

I find it hard to speak off the cuff, to keep up with the speed of locals and hold my nerve. While I could extoll the merits of Goethe or Sartre in a prepared speech at university, I can still fall to pieces when speaking about everyday stuff with a local.

I’m not alone. Foreign language anxiety, also known as xenoglossophobia, is the feeling of unease or worry in learning or using a foreign language. Language anxiety not only feels horrid, it can also slow down your progress.

So I spoke to a foreign languages expert for her tips for getting over the fear of speaking another language. Gloria Spagnoli is a language coach helping students of Italian who suffer from shyness.

Gloria Spagnoli

She uses evidence-based coaching to help shy self-taught Italian learners find the confidence and the words to engage in conversations with locals.

Here she answers everything about foreign language anxiety and how to overcome it…

How to overcome the fear of speaking a foreign language 

how to overcome the fear of speaking a foreign language

What causes foreign language anxiety?  

I’m not a psychologist, but I’ll try to answer from a teacher’s point of view…

We get anxious when speaking a foreign language because we’re afraid of what might happen. We think we don’t know how to handle this or that situation, and we’re afraid of other people’s opinions about the way we speak.

When we acknowledge that unpleasant events may always occur, and that we can learn tools to deal with them, we can begin to tackle our anxiety and enjoy our conversations in a foreign language.

How does anxiety affect language learning? 

Anxiety affects many different situations, and language learning is no exception.

A little bit of anxiety can be helpful as it helps us do better. But too much anxiety prevents us from growing, as it keeps us stuck in our comfort zone.

If you feel anxious about learning a foreign language or speaking a foreign language, you’ll inevitably struggle when performing tasks related to that language. This will also probably cause you to avoid situations where you need to use that language.

The issue is that these challenges make you grow in the language. Anxiety causes slowness and struggles. In this way, progressing in a foreign language is no longer about technical skills, but your state of anxiety.

learning a foreign language

Which is a stronger language student: an extrovert or an introvert?

Speaking from my personal experience as a learner, I found it easy to learn languages as it was something I enjoyed doing. It made sense to me. However, I found it hard when I had to speak in front of my classmates, and I still struggle when I’m in large groups.

When I work with my students, I see how the more introverted ones tend to prefer to listen, observe, and learn from me or their peers rather than engaging in conversations right from the beginning.

Conversely, the more extroverted ones are more willing to talk and don’t mind going on and on. Ultimately, the difference between an introvert and an extrovert lies in where you get stimulation from. This, of course, influences the way in which you have conversations in another language.

If you’re an introvert, you generally prefer smaller groups and deeper conversations, whereas if you’re an extrovert you will find it easier to mingle at a party and talk to strangers. It’s not that an introvert cannot talk at a party and have a good time. They can, of course. But these types of interaction will be less stimulating and more energy draining. So, make sure you carefully choose the context which better suits you.

So, to answer your question, neither extroverts or introverts are stronger necessarily. It’s about how you learn, not how much you speak in front of large groups.

Why does my personality change when I speak another language?

Rather than a change of personality, this is a matter of self-confidence.

You know you’re the only non-native person there and the least experienced one, therefore, you don’t dare to talk as much as you normally would. You see and perceive yourself as less competent compared to the people around you.

What can help you during these situations is to look for people to rely on in case you feel alone and want to talk to somebody, or in case you need to talk to someone about what is going on how you feel.

If you feel stressed out by this, you can also reframe what’s happening and see these situations as learning opportunities, rather than a proof of what you don’t know (yet).

language and personality

Is it rude to talk in a foreign language?

It depends.

When I’m in a group and there’s another Italian, I tend to speak a common language for everybody. Even if I want to talk to that Italian person only.

Personally, I find it rude to exclude other people, and I want to make sure everyone around me feels comfortable. I think shy people might be perceived as rude by those who don’t know about their shyness.

Sadly, not everyone has developed a level of empathy that can make them understand what someone else is going through. And it’s surely hard for shy people to explain what is going on inside of them.

My suggestion, if you’re reading this and you’re shy, is to find someone who can understand you and can help you during these difficult moments. Open up with them and ask them to support you when you’re in need. It’s hard to be honest about your vulnerabilities, but it definitely makes things easier for you when people know what you need.

italian newspapers

How can people get over their fear of speaking a foreign language?

Fear will never leave you. It will always be there to protect you from what your mind perceives as a danger. What you can do is break the scary task into smaller less scary mini tasks. By doing this, you’ll reduce the amount of fear that you feel, and you’ll see your obstacle as more manageable.

To give you an example, instead of talking to a group of people right from the beginning, you can start with a trusted friend who you feel really comfortable with. Once talking to this friend feels natural to you, you can expand your comfort zone by talking to someone you know a bit less. And again, once this next step feels natural to you, you can move on and slowly and progressively increase the level of difficulty.

Anxiety can be overcome by taking small manageable steps that take you out of your comfort zone. Always remember to respect your time and needs and to be kind to yourself when things don’t go as you planned.

Also remember that perfection doesn’t exist and that mistakes are nothing but an opportunity to learn and grow. You can decide to see them as a proof of your failure or as a great learning opportunity. It’s all up to you.

Finally, it’s important to learn how to be kind to ourselves when we don’t “meet our standards”. What would you say to a child if they ‘failed to speak properly’?

How can I stop shyness when talking?

If not addressed properly, shyness can prevent you from progressing when speaking a language. It doesn’t prevent you from learning how it works, but it does hold you back when you want to practice your speaking.

In these cases, it’s important to remember that you don’t need to speak in front of a large crowd if it makes you feel anxious. As I explained before, you can begin with someone you know and slowly and gradually increase your comfort zone.

Also, you can prepare yourself for any challenge that might occur. In situations like these, “thinking negatively” can be useful. It allows you to be prepared for what might come and promptly react to it. Also, keep in mind that the worst-case scenario is unlikely to happen, so be prepared for it, but don’t expect it.

speaking a foreign language with confidence

For anyone facing lockdown, or learning online, how can you practice speaking a foreign language alone?  

Language exchange apps are a great tool to practice your speaking. You can send text (or voice) messages and stay in your comfort zone for a while until you’re ready to step out a little bit. This is the reason why I offer a Telegram group to my Italian Warriors Club members. They can begin to talk there and then move on to private video calls knowing that they will find a friendly face on the other side of the screen.

Sure, speaking to yourself works at the beginning. It helps you take your words out without pressure, but let’s not forget that you have to be prepared for someone to ask you questions.

It definitely helps being in the country and exposed to more language input, but it can be a bit overwhelming. So my suggestion is, if you’re beginning, plan some moments when you can relax and shift to a language you’re more familiar with.

Any tips for speaking foreign languages in larger groups?

Again, start small and then increase slowly.

If you have to speak at a conference because you have no choice, you can practice and rehearse your speech and imagine that situation vividly. When you do that, stay in touch with the sensations of your body. Don’t push them away. Once you learn how to welcome them, and maybe put a label on them, it will be easier for you to face stressful situations like speaking at a conference or in a large group.

10 tips for overcoming foreign language anxiety

tips for overcoming foreign language anxiety

  1. Remember that you are the only one who determines how you speak. You have the control.
  2. Start small within your comfort zones, and increase slowly.
  3. Prepare, imagining the scenario vividly, so you feel well equipped.
  4. Keep in mind that the worst-case scenario is unlikely to happen. Be prepared for it, but don’t expect it.
  5. Stay in touch with your sensations. Be mindful that a little bit of anxiety can help you to do better.
  6. Take breathers. Immersion is great, but plan some moments when you can relax and shift to a language you’re more familiar with.
  7. Understand that shyness doesn’t make you worse at learning a language, just that you will learn differently.
  8. Embrace tech. Language exchange apps are a great tool to practice your speaking. You can send text or voice messages and stay in your comfort zone for a while until you’re ready to step out a little bit.
  9. Focus your mindset. You can see mistakes as a proof of your failure or as a learning opportunity.
  10. Consider your motivation style. You don’t need to go in for large groups if they are less stimulating and more energy draining for you personally. Choose the context which suits you.

For more on how to speak Italian with confidence, visit speakita.com

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