I get it—speaking a new language is hard.
Between the new words, the pronunciations, the grammar, and the syntax…it’s easy to get overwhelmed.
But…you also know that the only way to get better at speaking a foreign language is to speak a foreign language.
Here’s the tl;dr: start speaking as soon as you can.
Yeah, you gotta face the music.
Fortunately, there’s a Britney song for this 😉
Let’s talk about a thing called foreign language anxiety.
Foreign Language Anxiety Reactions
The 1986 paper by Elaine Horwitz & co. puts it better than I could, so here’s an excerpt (emphasis mine):
“I just know I have some kind of disability: I can’t learn a foreing language no matter how hard I try.”
“When I’m in my Spanish class I just freeze! I can’t think of a thing when my teacher calls on me. My mind goes blank.”
“I feel like my French teacher is some kind of Martian death ray: I never know when he’ll point at me!”
Such statements are all too familiar to teachers of foreign languages. Many people claim to have a mental block against learning a foreign language, although these same people may be good learners in other situations, strongly motivated, and have a sincere liking for speakers of the target language. What, then, prevents them from achieving their desired goal? In many cases, they may have an anxiety reaction which impedes their ability to perform successfully in a foreign language class.
Horwitz & co. go on to liken this to anxiety reactions people get from math, science, or taking an important exam.
This is a specific anxiety. You can have “foreign language anxiety” and not suffer from an “anxiety disorder.” Anxiety is a natural response to the fear that something bad might happen.
So, to clear that up, foreign language anxiety is different from general anxiety. Experiencing some foreign language anxiety doesn’t mean you suffer from an anxiety disorder.
How does foreign language anxiety affect me?
I assume that, if you’re reading this, it’s because there’s a disconnect between your desires and your behavior. You want to speak another language. You know that the only way to get better at speaking is to practice speaking. And yet, for some reason, you don’t take action.
Here are some other examples:
- You might be avoiding skills or topics that give you some anxiety (speaking, the subjunctive, verb tenses, etc.) while overfocusing on the things you’re good at (reading, vocabulary) or that don’t involve the participation of others (listening to audio, practicing on an app)
- You sit in the back of the class and don’t volunteer
- You find it hard to use your new language in a creative or interpretive manner and opt for more concrete, exact communications and word choices
- You struggle with grammar or specific features that don’t directly translate
- You avoid voicing personal or complicated thoughts in your target language, instead opting for simpler ones (with a simpler sentence structure) that you know you can say
- When you do write, you don’t write much and you write with less complexity
The core theme here is avoidance.
Somebody once told me to look for patterns in my own behavior: what do I avoid? Why do I avoid it?
When I was first learning French, I had a lot of these anxieties. My other classmates seemed to be doing much better than I was. They seemed to be better at speaking. They definitely were better at listening comprehension. But I was good at reading comprehension and writing, so those were the areas I “specialized” in, as much as I could within the constraints of the classroom.
Even years later, in college, I’d write long papers in French and dread the oral examinations. I was trying to avoid speaking, and when I couldn’t avoid it, I dreaded it. Anxiety.
But that pattern of behaviors didn’t serve me. Think of all the lost practice time! Obviously my French wasn’t at the level I wanted—I was hiding from the work!
Me Against the Music, or How to Overcome Foreign Language Anxiety
What follows is a dissection of this criminally underrated Britney-and-Madonna collaboration in which I reveal its true meaning: instructions on overcoming your fear of speaking a foreign language.
(I’m, joking…but we can do that if you want to.)
Now, the simplest solution to overcoming foreign language anxiety is to stop being anxious, right? But that’s incredibly unhelpful, because, well, if you could stop being anxious, you’d have done that already.
Here’s what I did:
Step 1: Identify the pattern
If you’re reading this article, chances are you’ve done the work here. But ask yourself anyway, in the context of learning a foreign language:
- What am I avoiding?
- What are the things I don’t want to do but know I should?
- What fills me with dread when I attempt to do it?
You should know these pretty immediately. That’s part of what anxiety does—it’s a lurker. It stays in the back of your brain until it’s time to show up.
If you need help identifying a list of your avoidance—and maybe it’s just one thing, not a list—look at your language-learning practice.
- Have you turned off the speaking exercises on your apps?
- What about the listening comprehension exercises?
- When’s the last time you scheduled some speaking practice?
- Do you often ask people who speak the language (a teacher, a native speaker, members of a Facebook group, etc) to correct your grammar in your writing?
- Do you go out of your way to practice speaking with other people?
- Do you actively volunteer and participate in class?
And so on. If you’re not actively developing a skill (say, writing ability), then ask yourself: does this make me anxious?
Step 2: Identify the beliefs behind the pattern
I had a mentor who once said that your thoughts influence your beliefs, which influence your actions. So if you can master your thoughts, your actions will change.
So let’s figure out your thoughts.
I want you to take a sheet of paper and divide it down the middle. Title the left “Current Beliefs.” Title the right “New Beliefs.”
You’re going to write down as many current beliefs as you can think of.
…current beliefs about what?
About your ability to learn a language, your worthiness, and your own confidence levels.
For example, a current belief might be that “I don’t like speaking up in class because if I get it wrong, I’m wasting everyone’s time.”
Then, you’re going to take those negative current beliefs and write a new belief that reflects the mindset change you want to see.
“I don’t like speaking up in class because if I get it wrong, I’m wasting everyone’s time” becomes “Making mistakes is part of the learning process, and other people in class will be grateful I spoke up so we can all learn from my mistakes.”
Step 3: Recognize why you need to change your behavior
This is a simple step, but it’s important.
All you have to do is make a connection between your limiting beliefs and your current behavior that isn’t getting you results.
So, if “I don’t like speaking up in class” is your current negative belief, connect that to how it’s impeding your ability to learn to speak the language.
Then so the same thing with the new, positive belief.
So, if “Making mistakes is part of the process” is your new belief, connect that to how it’ll allow you to learn to speak the language.
I like to get a blank sheet of paper and draw this out, but you can do this however you’d like.
The point is you connect your beliefs with your behavior.
Step 4: Reclaim a sense of safety
Now that you’ve mapped out your new beliefs to your new, desired behaviors, it’s time to take action.
I want you to repeat these beliefs to yourself right before you practice your language. That might be before class. Maybe it’s before your dedicated language time. Maybe it’s in the morning if you don’t have a dedicated language time!
Allow these things to be true. You won’t change overnight. The anxiety won’t go away immediately. But it will start to.
You will start to be more comfortable and even look forward to the things you used to be afraid of.
That’s the power of this exercise.
In the comments below, let me know one new belief!
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