Monday, 7 August 2017

7 Ways to Beat your Fear of Mistakes When Speaking a Foreign Language

As a foreign language learner you are bound to make mistakes when speaking. Loads of them. Grammar mistakes, lexical ones, stylistic, you name it.

Smart adults however might feel embarrassed by silly mistakes they make, the mistakes even kids-native speakers do not make. Calling tongs ‘thongs’, saying ‘I have catched’, messing with pronunciation of the word ‘sheet’. Embarrassing. So, they think twice before opening their mouth and embarrassing themselves. And sometimes think three times. And sometimes just think. And think. And think. And don’t open their mouth at all.

Curling inside their little shell, thinking and not sticking out in case they embarrass themselves by making a silly mistake is in itself the biggest mistake. A great psychologist Lev Vygotsky believed that people learn by doing. And mistakes are part of the game.

The problem is many people know it but still find it difficult to pull out of their shell and start moving. So here are some actionable tactics for you to beat your paralysing fear of mistakes when speaking.

Drop your ego. It's a heavy weight that you don't need on your language journey. Even if you are a CEO of a big successful company, when speaking a foreign language you are just a foreigner who is bound to make mistakes.

Let those with whom you speak know it too. Smile the most disarming smile you have in your arsenal, apologise and say you are a foreigner and your English (French, Spanish, German, etc.) is not perfect.

With this tactic though, you should be careful and not overdo it. Don’t go completely off rails. After all, being a foreigner doesn’t mean being a complete idiot.

Don't compare yourself to native speakers or other learners. It's again your ego that you need to drop. Yes, maybe some other people speak this language much better than you do. And it’s ok. Each person has their own unique language journey based on their personality and circumstances.

Some people are extroverts and speaking is natural to them, while others are much better with listening; some people have a great musical ear and picking up pronunciation of a foreign language is a piece of cake for them, while with others you are lucky you don’t hear them sing and they do struggle with pronunciation subtleties; some people thrive studying in a group and find time to attend courses in person, while others prefer one to one Skype lessons or studying on their own and don’t want to spend their precious time traveling to get to some venue where a course is taught.

So, if you have chosen a path suitable for you with your learning style and it fits into your daily life, you need to stick to it no matter what others are doing and how they are smashing it. It doesn’t mean you cannot follow their example and borrow some ideas if you like them and they fit into your lifestyle. Just don’t feel you are any worse off than someone else, make more mistakes or are less capable of mastering a foreign language in general. You are not them and your life is not theirs. And you never really know, that guy might have been studying French for a few years already to get to that level, so don't expect you will be there after starting a couple of months ago.

Speak a lot in your target language with yourself. While you are cooking your dinner, driving to work, taking a bath. Imagine you are talking to your annoying sister, inconsiderate friend or self-centered boss. Tell them all you have to say about how you feel when your sister takes your stuff without asking, when your friend didn’t show up at the party you had organised, when your boss keeps bombarding you with emails at the time when you have this important deadline set by the client.

Speak with yourself when you have a tough decision to make, explore pros and cons and different scenarios. Speak with yourself about your dreams and aspirations, your fears and concerns. Speak with yourself when you are just bored and feel like speaking. Your monologues will be a great training for your dialogues with other people, you will get used to how you sound in a foreign language, get used to imperfection of real speech and the fact that you do make mistakes and struggle to find words sometimes.

Face your mistakes. You need to understand your mistakes to reduce the fear of them and tackle them effectively. Mistakes are usually made in one of the two cases. First, you make mistakes when you don’t know how to get it right. Second, you make mistakes even though you know how to get it right.

In the first case the solution is obvious: you need to identify what it is exactly you don’t know and learn it. It can be a grammar structure you haven’t yet studied; it can be a word you are not sure how to use or a word you don’t have in your vocabulary; it can be a sound you mispronounce because you don’t know how organs of speech need to be positioned for you to produce it correctly. Grab those grammar books, that dictionary or just google it. If you study with a teacher, they will be able to help you identify the gaps in your knowledge and suggest a course of corrective actions.

In the second case it is practice that will put the things right for you. If can be a case of you knowing forms of irregular verbs but getting them wrong in speech; it can be a word you know but keep forgetting when you need to use it; it can be a sound you know how to produce but your organs of speech just refuse to when you speak. Grab those grammar books with exercises, put the stubborn words you keep forgetting into vocBlocks or any other spaced repetition software to learn them, read aloud and speak with yourself making sure you produce that sound right.

Take it step by step. People who speak a language without making many mistakes (native speakers including) were not born with this ability, they learnt it. And it took time. So just allow yourself this time and don’t try to be where you are not ready to be.

For example, if you are a beginner, your mouth trained for the sounds of your native language rebels. So don’t expect your pronunciation to be perfect - you are lucky if you manage to string a couple of simple words together without stuttering. And forget about any coherent speech, you are not there yet.

Once you are at intermediate level, the mistakes you make are more high level too. There is still loads to learn and the fact that you can already speak more or less decently doesn’t mean that you will be speaking without any mistakes in each and every situation. Your next step is to grow more specific vocabulary, tackle more complex grammar, improve your speed of speech and pronunciation while allowing yourself to make intermediate level mistakes. Well, and occasionally some beginner level mistakes too.

Focus on your non-language goals. If you are speaking to your friend, your client or just need to get by while travelling abroad, focus on the task at hand and do the best you can with the language skills you have at the given time. After all, it’s not a language lesson, your main task is to communicate, to get your message across, so no one will give you a bad mark because of your mistakes and send you home.

Work on your language in your own time but don’t let your mistakes stop you performing real tasks in this language, it’s a theory and practise matter, one feeds the other. You dive into the theory, apply to your real life what you have learnt, then dive into the theory again, then apply again and this cycle goes on and on.

Let your subconscious do the job. Don't try to analyse how you speak while you speak, it might freeze you up. Just like thinking about how you drive a car or ride a bike would suddenly make your body go all clumsy: you might forget how to change gears or pedal and might even crash or lose your balance on bike.

So trust yourself. Your brain is a wonderful thing. It stores information which you might not know is there. Some learners accounted for suddenly remembering words and phrases they didn’t know they knew. They were just speaking and were amazed when they suddenly used the exact words and phrases they needed without thinking. A lot of study preceded those ‘magical’ occasions of course, so if there is work put in, you need to trust yourself to know things and just go for it. You might actually be making fewer mistakes than you think.

Fear of making mistakes when speaking is a real killer of any progress with your speaking skills. It is a paradox: you learn by doing so if you are afraid to speak because of the mistakes you will be making as all learners do, you are killing the only opportunity of learning to speak with fewer mistakes. So, kill your fear of mistakes before you gradually kill those mistakes. We hope that the tactics in this post will help. Happy speaking!

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