This has definitely happened to you before, right? You meet somebody who speaks your target language and you’re excited to practice.
You rush over, brimming with enthusiasm, open your mouth to speak, and…
Yeah, you know where this is going. Nothing happens, right?
Somebody told me this exact story. They’re learning Japanese, and they were SO EXCITED to meet somebody else who speaks Japanese. But when they actually tried having a conversation, it was like all the knowledge and words and grammar they’d studied were on vacation, out of office email autoresponder on.
In this post, I’m going to show you how to be a little more confident when you’re faced down with a native speaker and your language seems to go MIA.
3 steps to deal with the stress and fear
First, let’s recognize that talking to a native speaker is intimidating! They’re much better than you at this, after all. And if you mess up, or don’t speak right in front of them, well…that means you don’t really speak this language, right? And nobody wants to look or sound like a toddler. Obviously, you’re an intelligent human being. What if they think you’re stupid?
The whole thing is stressful, no?
First, calm yourself down.
Under all of this stress and fear is EXCITEMENT. You’re ANXIOUS to get the chance to speak with someone, to practice, and to show off! You remember how good it feels to speak your target language and you want to chase that feeling.
And what’s happening is all this energy shows up as stress and fear—apprehension is a double-sided coin, after all.
So calm yourself down. Take a few deep breaths. Recenter.
Second, be realistic about your expectations
From the minute you open your mouth, it will be clear to this person that you’re a student. That you’re learning.
And do you know what we expect from students?
Yeah, that’s right. We don’t expect them to get it perfect. We expect them to make mistakes!
And speaking another freaking language is so complex that expecting you to get it perfect is absolutely unrealistic.
Hell, we don’t even speak English perfectly all the time. Even the stuff that should be obvious. We misconjugate verbs we’ve been using since we could talk. We mess up irregular forms—how many times have you said “spelt” instead of “spelled” or mixed up “then” and “than”?
Did you know that English has a rigid adjective order that you screw up all the time?
Let go of the expectation that you have to get it perfect.
Third, give yourself permission to speak
I think that so many of us hold ourselves back from speaking when we have the opportunity because we don’t think we’re allowed to.
Even if we make peace with the fact that we’re not supposed to be perfect…
Even if we calm down enough to engage our minds…
If we still have a belief that we’re not allowed to speak in front of this person, we won’t do it.
Do you say any of these to yourself?
- I’m just going to waste their time
- I need to be at a higher level before I can speak
- They’re going to be so annoyed at me
- I’m sound to sound like a child and then they’ll switch to English and I’ll be embarrassed
It’s okay. Give yourself permission to speak.
Because here’s the truth:
You’re NOT going to waste their time.
You’re never going to get to a higher level until you start speaking at the level you’re at.
They will NOT be annoyed with you. In fact, they’re be compassionate and happy you’re putting in the effort.
You might sound like a child and they might switch to English, but they’ll only do so because they think it’ll be easier for you to communicate. There is nothing stopping you from asking them to practice with you later.
The confidence trap
You know, fake it ’til you make it, right?But there’s something stopping you from acting confident.
It’s fear. And I think this fear comes from a couple of places, especially for us Americans:
- We see how some Americans ridicule immigrants who don’t speak English the way we do and we don’t want to be made fun of like that (even though we know it’s unlikely)
- We had an experience, maybe in high school foreign language class, where the Spanish when POOF! out of our brains and we were paralyzed and couldn’t speak and *everyone* in the class was staring at us, annoyed (even though everyone else in that class had also been in that same situation)
- Someone, maybe in our childhood, made fun of us for not being good at, say, painting or running or math or writing, and our years in school let us develop a pattern of not practicing new things in public and not showing our work until we’re really good at it. (Which doesn’t work for languages, because you HAVE to practice with other people!)
But I think that “acting confident” is the wrong way of going about things.
A different way of thinking about confidence and fear
I started Crossfitting a few months ago. Crossfit has a couple of skills that you have to learn, and one of those is the handstand push-up.
Handstand push-ups are difficult. You kick up to the wall, over your head, so your heels are resting against the wall. Then you lower your head to the ground and push back up.
I’m scared of kicking up to the wall. I’d come in, when nobody else was in the gym, and stare at the ground. I’d plant my hands and try kicking up…and then get freaked out and stop. On the rare occasions I would kick up, I wouldn’t get far enough, or I’d get into position and fall over.
So one day, after class, I admitted to one of the coaches that I’m afraid of kicking up to the wall. “I keep falling over,” I said. “I get upside down and my elbows give way and I topple over and I don’t want to hurt myself.”
It was weird, staring at the wall, at the little sweat marks on the ground from where my palms had been, and recognizing and naming that emotion in the center of my chest. Fear. I’m afraid.
I’m afraid of hurting myself, of screwing up, of finding out that I’m still not ready to do this.
But do you know what I did?
I said, “Let me pick a new thought.”
Here’s the thought I picked instead:
I’m scared of doing this, but being scared doesn’t have to stop me. I can say, thank you, fear, for keeping me safe. But I get to grow a little today.
I don’t have to be confident, but I do have to be a little courageous.
I planted my hands, kicked up…
…and fell over.
My arm gave out, I fell onto my elbow and forearm, and landed right-side-up on my butt.
Of COURSE I fell over! I’m the kind of person who doesn’t get stuff right on the first, the second, or even the fifth try. But I do get it right, eventually.
Do it wrong enough times and you’re bound to make a mistake and get it right.
So I got back into position and did it again.
And again until I was soooo close to getting that handstand against the wall.
But I failed the same way three times, so I said, y’know what? I made good progress today.
I didn’t get it. But I got over my fear.
That was on Wednesday. I came back on Friday, when I was a little fresher. Muscles a little less tired. Mind a little clearer. I want more confident that I could do it this time.
And I got it. I even managed two handstand push ups 🙂
If you’re scared of speaking a language, of being bad in front of people who are better than you—can I challenge you to pick a new thought?
What if you said: I’m scared. I’m scared of messing up and embarrassing myself and of wasting everyone’s time.
But I’m a student. Nobody expects me to be perfect. I have to get it wrong before I get it right. And I’m grateful to this person for giving me the space to make mistakes.
My secret for confronting fear: pick a new thought
Do you know that line from Paradise Lost? Milton. The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven…
I try to remind myself of that, whenever I get stuck in my own head. The mind is its own place. And you know the most amazing thing about the mind?
None of it is real.
When I’m afraid of something, I’m really afraid of what might happen. I’m afraid of the unknown.
The reason I told this story about Crossfit is because I want to highlight a few important points.
First, I spoke up about my fears and asked for help.
I went to my coach—somebody who had done this before—and told him what I was afraid of.
This was huge. Had I never said anything, I would still be scared to kick up to the wall, or I’d have hurt myself.
I needed somebody who knew what they were doing to guide me.
Second, I was patient with myself.
I went until I felt it was time to give up. And then I said I’d come back later.
I made a little bit of progress. I didn’t get it, but I let myself be happy for how much closer I did get.
That little positive thinking helped me build the confidence that I didn’t have. The end was a little bit closer.
Third, I recognized that my fear wasn’t helping me, so I made a new decision.
I was making a decision based on something that could happen. I was letting my fear guide my decision-making process.
And then I realized that this wasn’t the decision I wanted to make. I wasn’t making the progress I wanted to make.
So I made a new decision.
I decided to get help.
How can you be confident in front of a native speaker?
You can do exactly what I did.
Recognize your fears.
Be patient with yourself. Give yourself grace.
And make a new decision to seek help.
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