overcoming the anxiety of speaking a foreign tongue?
January 17, 2011 11:21 AM   Subscribe

How to overcome anxiety about speaking a language while learning it?

I've been volunteered to participate on a committee that is setting up an event that will be conducted entirely in Irish. I'm a learner, and while I'm no beginner, my conversational Irish could use some work.

Due to past negative experiences with native speakers while learning Irish, I have a lot of anxiety about conversing in Irish (no problem singing or writing in it, though).

This hasn't stopped me from being active in the Irish community in my city, and supporting Irish-language initiatives wherever possible. This is, I suspect, why I wound up on the committee.

I'm now about to find myself hip-deep in the kind of environment that led to the aforementioned negative experiences in the first place. But because I'm on the organizing committee, I don't want to blow this by stumbling like a noob through simple sentences. I don't want my committee mates to look bad because my brain decided to strip its gears.

Needless to say, my anxiety is high. I am back in language classes to brush up, and intend to practice as much as I can in the months before the event takes place. But come the day, how can I manage my anxiety enough to function effectively?
posted by LN to Writing & Language (17 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Think about the kind of things you'll have to say in the scenarios you will find yourself in, roleplay them and make a point of learning any words you came across but realised you didn't know. Learn and memorise set pieces "I'm glad you asked that..." "On the other hand..." "Following on from that..." etc. These are little things which add nothing in meaning, but buy you time to think as well as making your language usage sound better than it actually is.
posted by dougrayrankin at 11:28 AM on January 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

Similar to native-language public speaking techniques, do a practice session of the announcements you'd be making at the event, video yourself, and correct the phrases you stumble over. Or if it's less formal than addressing a crowd, maybe record one of hte preparation committee meetings (in Irish, I assume?), and go back over it, make sure you actually understand everything that each person said, and think about what you said, and any phrases you wish you could have used but talked your way around (can't remember [specific noun] so just call it the adjective adjective [general noun]).
Having the recording means you can pay attention to the ideas in the moment and not look like a goob to your colleagues at the meeting, and then go back and make notes on the words later.
posted by aimedwander at 11:35 AM on January 17, 2011

Best answer: I've studied several foreign languages, and I've struggled with this anxiety myself. The thing that helps me the most is to just accept that I'll make mistakes--sometimes to the point of being unintelligible. That's part of the process of learning a language; if you wait until you're "good enough" to talk to native speakers, you'll never be good enough.

The other thing is to recognize that all but the most hard-assed, intolerant speakers will give me leeway as a learner, and their opinions on my language facility are just not important to me. I'm more interested in the opinions of people who are supportive of my efforts.

(Especially with Irish... if native speakers are being hard on you, then they're really just shooting themselves in the foot. Language revitalization efforts have failed partially due to native speakers being too hard on learners before. If they want their language to have continue on, they have to be a little more flexible.)

I don't know what kind of negative experiences you had, since you don't say. But whatever they were, I think what's important is to accept that you'll make mistakes and be okay with that. Otherwise you'll just continue to feel anxious, because you'll never be perfect.

A more practical suggestion: When you're practicing alone, move outside of the confines of your assigned exercises. Narrate your activities, for example. "I'm opening the refrigerator. I'm going to make soup. I need celery to make soup. Where is the celery?" And so on. It's so incredibly inane, but it gives you practice composing spoken sentences on the spot. It also gives you practice compensating for things that you don't know yet, since you won't have a dictionary to consult if you don't know "celery"; you'll have to figure out a way to work around it.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 11:48 AM on January 17, 2011 [5 favorites]

I've always found it best to just ignore the mistakes and let the language roll. I am sometimes aware, even as I am speaking the words, that I am making an error... but if I stop to correct it, the flow of the language is completely broken. So instead of sounding like an idiot that goes on forever, at least I am a brief, to-the-point idiot. Maybe afterward thank them for their patience.

That said, I've never had to speak a foreign language under pressure (my experience has been with in-laws and their friends). So my situation is not directly parallel - others may have better advice.
posted by letitrain at 11:49 AM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Is there a possibility that you could put yourself in the kind of situations you'll face in advance, but with a friendly/understanding Irish speaker? As a sort of practice?

I find that, even if my knowledge is perfectly good, I tend to choke in situations like this. Because of the stress/pressure (especially the perceived judgment from native speakers), not so much because I don't have the skills.

Being able to show yourself "OK, I can totally do this" in the presence of a friendly face might make it less stressful when the time comes to do it with strangers.

Do you have any native-speaker friends who can reassure you that you're fine, and the average Irish speaker is not going to think badly of you? I have a number of friends whose first language isn't English, and a lot of them are worried about their accents and how native speakers feel about them. Most of them barely have perceptible accents, or have accents that are actually considered charming - or they have noticeable accents, but it's not an impediment to communication and nobody thinks ill of them over it.

Lastly, I'll leave you with this - some people are jerks, and they're going to be jerks no matter how well you speak their language.
posted by Sara C. at 11:52 AM on January 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

I totally feel you. I am in the process of learning Japanese and I'm always stumbling through conversations. Inevitably I make mistakes. But most of the folks I speak with are pretty gracious and no one gives me a hard time, and if I ask for help they help. I want to clarify something too: when you say "negative experience" are you talking about some rude things that people did when you (predictably, if you are not a native speaker or perfectly fluent or, for that matter, human...native speakers make mistakes too!) made mistakes? Or are you talking about your own mistakes which you recognized, but gave yourself a hard time about? 'Cause if it's the former, those people are jerks. If it's the latter, don't beat yourself up: making mistakes is inevitable, and what's more, it's how you learn.

Don't get me wrong, I realize it is easier said than done. I struggle with this all the time. But the fundamental fact is that it's all about YOU and getting over your own inhibitions. I recently read this (coincidentally by "Benny the Irish Polyglot," haha) which I found pretty interesting, and gave me some strong food for thought: his argument is basically to get out there and make a fool of yourself, more or less. Mistakes are inevitable, and language is about communication, not perfection.

Additionally, if you read about Stephen Krashen's theory of second language acquisition, one of the things he talks about is the "Affective Filter" hypothesis: Finally, the fifth hypothesis, the Affective Filter hypothesis, embodies Krashen's view that a number of 'affective variables' play a facilitative, but non-causal, role in second language acquisition. These variables include: motivation, self-confidence and anxiety. Krashen claims that learners with high motivation, self-confidence, a good self-image, and a low level of anxiety are better equipped for success in second language acquisition.

This is all saying the same thing: make mistakes, don't beat yourself up, people who give you a hard time are jerks. You will improve and become more self-confident if you just suck it up, and cut off those negative ideas when they start popping up in your head. It's got nothing to do with your skill, but with your attitude. And think of it this way: you are setting yourself up not to be back in the sort of situation where you had this bad experience before (= building negative expections), but rather you are setting yourself to be in the sort of amazing learning environment most of us practicing second languages would kill for ( = positive expectations). Also, rather than assuming you'll make your committee members look bad by stumbling through sentences, assume you are actually making them look good because you are a ardent, sincere learner and someone who really appreciates and loves Irish culture. How can anyone think badly of you when you think of it this way? And you know what? It's true!

Good luck. You can do it!
posted by dubitable at 11:53 AM on January 17, 2011

They trusted you with this position even though - and maybe partly because - you are an ambitious learner, and you should take that to heart.

I second the above mental scripting of potential conversations, and add that you should look up and even write down potential stumper-words. Also seconding that some people are just assholes. Or jealous, there are those people, too.
posted by whatzit at 12:07 PM on January 17, 2011

What is there to be anxious about? You need to make mistakes speaking in order to get better. I would say the reason I learn languages quickly is that I just plow headlong into it.

Making mistakes is actually part of the fun.
posted by tarvuz at 12:07 PM on January 17, 2011

Response by poster: In terms of negative experiences - I'm referring to native speakers who gave me a hard time in social settings for my lack of fluent Irish. It was of the order of "hey, we want to hang out speaking Irish together. We don't want to have to chivvy along yet another foreigner who wants to learn Irish. Fuck off."

This is not to say, however, that all native speakers of Irish are assholes! I met a lot of people who were very encouraging of my awkward attempts to speak Irish.
posted by LN at 12:09 PM on January 17, 2011

I stumble through spanish on a daily basis here in Mexico, and the anxiety is worse because I need to interact with students, and I always feel bad about it. However, my policy is that the burden of understanding is on the listener, they can fill in the gaps, or correct the grammar in their minds. I do the best I can, but since they know the language much better they can understand me with ease even if I'm making a mess. So I get myself to talk all the time, practice all the time, and I've already noticed that my errors are getting less frequent. And also, in general, people really appreciate the effort you're making to speak in their language.

On a more practical note, maybe you can arrange for someone else to give the speeches, or anything that requires long conversations, while you restrict yourself to few words, etc.
posted by dhruva at 12:14 PM on January 17, 2011

It also helps to think about your reaction to someone learning YOUR native tongue. When I hear someone who's not a native speaker of English take on a high-pressure English-language situation -- writing a formal paper, giving a speech -- mostly I'm busy being mindblown that they are speaking English SO WELL and are SO BRAVE, and not at all bothered by the occasional verb tense stumble since I certainly know what they mean.

and in social settings I mostly find my non-native-speaker friends' English foibles charming.

(Also, I think the internet has given English-speakers artificially high standards of non-native-speakers' ability in a second language ... no other language has as MANY foreign speakers or as TALENTED foreign speakers, so nobody is expecting you to be as good at Irish (say) as English speakers expect non-native-speakers to be at English. English speakers are spoiled that way.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:25 PM on January 17, 2011

Alcohol. It will lower some of the inhibitions and anxiety that come with speaking a foreign language. A lot of people (like myself) actually experience increased recall of words as well, perhaps a result of some subconscious inhibitions being lowered? I don't know, I looked for a study on this but there is nothing strong worth reposting. That said I still have terrible anxiety about it, but thats life. Also try and be in a situation where you are doing language exchange with someone so they can actively correct you, and wont blow you off. Random conversations with fluent people can bring down anxiety about speaking but most people wont actually correct your mistakes, which can end up reinforcing them.
posted by tmthyrss at 2:19 PM on January 17, 2011

Kutsuwamushi's advice about narrating your daily activities to yourself in Irish is great. I spent some time living abroad and started out INCREDIBLY nervous to speak in the local language. Trying to think in that language as much as possible is what helped me the most. Make your mental grocery list in Irish, think through directions (I need to turn left here, don't I?) in Irish, remember things in Irish (I'm pretty sure I left that pen on the table, but it's not here right now...), daydream in Irish. Once all of that is in your head, you may find it also comes out of your mouth with greater ease.

Practice is also super important... if you've experienced issues speaking Irish casually with people you already know, could you find a friendly person with whom you can do some kind of exchange? Cooking/painting/carpentry/driving/cross-stitch lessons in return for Irish speaking time and tips? (I usually do this as a language exchange but I don't imagine there are many Irish-speakers learning English...)
posted by equivocator at 3:42 PM on January 17, 2011

I see my pathetic attempts at language as fodder for other people's anecdotes. "This girl was trying to ask for the bathroom but kept telling us all to go sit on a dog! It was hilarious!"

I'm not screwing up the language, I'm making somebody's life more interesting.
posted by TooFewShoes at 3:50 PM on January 17, 2011

The most effective motivation I've discovered for overcoming my fear of speaking a foreign language to natives is realizing that, no matter how embarrassingly I mangle that language, I'll look like even more of an ass by speaking English in a non-English-speaking environment. Besides, the only folks who won't appreciate your honest effort are stone cold pricks.
posted by milk white peacock at 9:23 PM on January 17, 2011

In terms of negative experiences - I'm referring to native speakers who gave me a hard time in social settings for my lack of fluent Irish. It was of the order of "hey, we want to hang out speaking Irish together. We don't want to have to chivvy along yet another foreigner who wants to learn Irish. Fuck off."

If they phrased it like that, they're assholes.

That said, whenever you're learning a language, you're going to sometimes feel excluded because you're not good enough yet. It might be intentional, like with this incident, or it might be unintentional--the group you're with talking too quickly and idiomatically for you to follow, for example. Work on recognizing that it's not some failing of yours; it's just bald fact that your native language is (presumably) English, not Irish, and you have a ways to go. Keep in mind that most people never work to learn a language as hard as you have, so if anything, that you're in this kind of situation at all says something positive about you.

And sometimes people just want to talk in their native language without having to work to include someone who's not fluent. If you speak a minority language under threat by English, and the presence of an English-speaker makes you slow down or use English when you really just want to speak your language... that can be sensitive. That isn't a personal slight against you, unless it's phrased as one.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 11:13 AM on January 20, 2011

A little late on this one, but what helped me was remembering this: when I'm speaking English with a non-native English speaker and they make mistakes or have hard time getting their point across, I don't care. I understand that they're not a native speaker, and I usually get the gist of what they're saying even if it isn't textbook perfect. I put the pieces together. Likewise, when you speak Irish, even if your grammar isn't great or you're not the best speaker, people will know what you're talking about and probably forgive you. Granted, Irish has a lot of politics and feeling associated with it, but if you don't act embarrassed about yourself, and you are honest with yourself about your level of learning and skill, your confidence alone should be enough to quash assholery.
posted by sarling at 9:35 AM on January 26, 2011

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