Overcoming fears about speaking

I’m going to start this post with a confession: I was once a perfectionist when it came to languages. I would pride myself on my accurate verb conjugations, adjective endings, and ability to differentiate between the imperfect and the simple past. I would also speak less (or not at all) when I was unsure of myself; I would concentrate on being a correct speaker, rather than a great conversationalist.

The past year or so I have been working on being less perfect at languages, instead experiencing and absorbing them more. For example, consuming news articles, podcasts, YouTube videos in my target languages, and enjoying them instead of trying to learn every new word.

I suppose with this approach, the last piece of the puzzle, for me, is speaking. The other day, I went to my first Meetup for Spanish (a little more than a year since properly picking it up again). I was nervous. Previously, I’d only spoken Spanish in safe, largely one-on-one situations over Skype or at uni, and awkward nothing-conversations with teammates at soccer. I was nervous about being overwhelmed by speaking with natives… I felt like a novice. In my Star Wars T-shirt, I felt like a kid.

I must admit, I froze up a little. It didn’t help that the first person I spoke to wasn’t the greatest at holding a conversation. Oscar, the coordinator of the event, must have sensed my timidness. He took me under his wing, pushing me to “work the room”, egging me on to approach the blonde at the other table. I felt silly and a little patronised. “Where’s travel Tim, the one who loves to socialise? I should be able to do this” – I was actually questioning myself and my personality.

After a while, I settled at a table, chatting with the group there. Next, a few of them left, and then I finally held a proper, sustained conversation with someone, this guy from Chile. Through this I realised something I should have already been conscious of: My nerves, my awkwardness, my clumsiness… They all stemmed from my lack of confidence and experience speaking Spanish with strangers in larger social situations, not from any personal lack of social skills!

Oscar might have perceived me as a shy, reserved person; but this Chilean guy probably thought I was more sociable and self-assured. Next time, for sure, I’ll be more equipped to just be myself, and less worried about the holes in my vocabulary.

Takeaway: Do you ever feel your personality is being restricted when you try to speak in a foreign language? It can be daunting and frustrating, so be aware of the emotional aspect of it. Go easy on yourself and you will be able to enjoy the process. Keep at it, and you’ll build the confidence to reach the next level.

Related: Moses McCormack on building confidence | Steve Kaufmann on introversion and language learning

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