Fear of speaking in a second language.
November 6, 2007 5:10 PM   Subscribe

How do I get over my fear of speaking in public... in a foreign language? I can barely function when speaking in my second language, partially because of this fear.

Speaking in front of people, in English, and in an academic setting, is fine for me. It's academic, so I find that there's no real pressure. I can just talk.

But as soon as you add French/German/Latin to the mix, I become this quivering ball of nerves for at least 24 hours beforehand. In fact, I have a presentation tomorrow (French), and can only work on it in small chunks because the very idea of it is unbelievably stressful.

Speaking is by far the worst part of a language for me. Reading, writing and listening are all fine. My accent sucks, and my spoken sentences are just messy.

It's not a lack of immersion, or a lack of general French skill. I'm nearing functional bilingualism (except, of course, for speaking).

Immersing myself in the language is not the problem. Half my courses this term are in French (Greek history, introduction to political science, and a French-second-language course). I'm surrounded by French -- my textbooks are in French, my classmates are Francophone, my teachers speak French, I speak to my classmates and profs in French (at least at first, then I get too embarrassed with my mistakes), I listen to French music and TV and movies. I sing along, and memorize dialogue. I watch English films with French subtitles or French dubbing. When it's possible, I go to francophone social events. Barring a francophone SO, I don't know what more I can do on that front.

I understand that it's normal to have difficulty speaking in a foreign language when you're not quite fluent, but past simply translating sentences. My fear, however, isn't normal. This fear is preventing me from relaxing, which is preventing me from improving. In fact, my French is probably getting worse because of it, not to speak about how my other languages are suffering.

This isn't just affecting schoolwork (and my social life, in a bilingual university!), but my job, which requires me to be bilingual. I survive in my job by obsessively practicing the sentences I'll need to use. Even then, it takes me months to learn the sentences well enough to not stumble awkwardly through tenses, moods and subjects.

Writing those same sentences takes no effort at all. A verb here, a noun there, I'm done. It takes me months of work, and much fear, to speak them aloud. Help me out?
posted by flibbertigibbet to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I used to have a similar problem when I started doing trial work.

I found that performing on camera, in my home, and then watching the tape... while at first agonizing... helped some and made me feel more comfortable.

Otherwise I would try and get a xanax prescription and start popping a few when the shakes come on.
posted by Mr_Crazyhorse at 5:17 PM on November 6, 2007

Imagine yourself in this situation : you speak in German in front of the audience and manage somehow to tell the audience something wrong. How do you feel ? Why do you feel like that ? Write it down, doesn't matter if it doesn't make any sense at all to you.
posted by elpapacito at 5:19 PM on November 6, 2007

Also , what does the audience do ? Do they laugh at you ? Do they stare at you as if you were the most stupid miserable idiot ever ? Describe the audience behavior and your feelings about that.
posted by elpapacito at 5:20 PM on November 6, 2007

Best answer: I have several Japanese friends that had a similar problem - they're just shy and get nervous when speaking in English. Working on it in a comfortable environment (with friends at your place in small groups) helped. In my case they already had the knowledge it was just fear of making a mistake that was getting in the way. For that, alcohol worked wonders - just a few drinks and they were fine, it helped build confidence in the language that carried over when they were completely sober. These techniques are probably more a long term solution - I'm not advocating that you get smashed before your lecture. But, on the other hand, a moment by yourself with a glass of wine might help. Good luck!
posted by Craig at 5:21 PM on November 6, 2007

Best answer: Back before Tony Robbins was a self-help guru, he was a high-demand public speaker. Somebody once asked him how long it would take to get as good as he was and he answered, "How long do you want it to take?" His point was that he got very good by working 3-4x as hard (number of engagements) as the average speaker, so he got better that much faster.

With that in mind:

1. Practice (on camera == good, as CH sez) and do it as much as possible.
2. Every day, visualize yourself being a smooth and confident when speaking.
posted by trinity8-director at 5:30 PM on November 6, 2007

Best answer: I think you are focusing too much on your mistakes, and erroneously viewing oral mistakes as something negative. Everyone's goal is perfection, but it's not a good acute goal. Memorizing precise sentences is probably only reinforcing your fears of imperfection, and making it even harder for you to speak spontaneously.

During my master's in TESOL program we read research that found making more mistakes leads to more fluency--it indicates stretching and trying more than those who stick to safe phrases and make few mistakes. Try to think of mistakes as signs that you are pushing your oral fluency. The audience knows French isn't your first language, and they're going to expect mistakes. Try to convince yourself that mistakes are healthy, natural, and a sign of progress. (If necessary, go ahead and memorize a couple of self-deprecating jokes or lines to use when you do make mistakes--people in Taiwan loved it when I would overdramatically complain about my Mandarin skills. Then we'd all laugh and I could recover from my screwup and move on.)

Good luck!
posted by wintersweet at 5:45 PM on November 6, 2007 [3 favorites]

I used beta blockers for the presentations. Once I had done a few, and they went reasonably well because of the beta blockers, I could do the rest without help. It was a confidence issue.
Are you in a place where you can speak with a psychiatrist? I got a prescription without any hassle and only a 10 minute meeting with the psych, but that may not be the case for you.
posted by ohio at 8:01 PM on November 6, 2007

I think this is mostly an extension of your dislike of speaking French generally, so this is where you need to focus your energy. My suggestion - talk to yourself. Try to think in French, and when alone, keep up a running commentary out loud. "now I'm going to the fridge, now I'm opening the door, I wonder if the milk has gone off...." ad nauseum. As you write things, dictate them to yourself. Get used to the sound of your own french. Play around with words, sentence structure, and ask people/google how to correctly phrase something if you aren't certain. Maybe also get some one on one tuition to help you with keeping up a conversation and improving your accent?

As for public speaking, practise like a maniac. Also, make sure that the written French in the presentation is perfect. At least then you know that your point will be getting across, and you know that something is correct!
posted by kjs4 at 9:22 PM on November 6, 2007

Best answer: I'm a performer and I still get nervous before I go out on stage. Eight shows a week, it doesn't matter - the butterflies are always there.

Some things I've tried that work to calm and focus me:

- I remind myself that everyone out there wants me to succeed. It's in their best interest, after all - if I'm nervous, they're not getting the experience they paid to see, nor the one they, as generous, caring people, naturally want for anyone they know is in a stressful situation. And, truly, public speaking is most people's greatest fear.

- I breathe. Try this - when you practice your speech, take in a full breath before every single line. Speak out the full line in as much time as it takes to exhale that breath. Connecting your breath to your thoughts is essential for not only relaxation, but helps tremendously in getting your thoughts across to your audience. I imagine this is particularly difficult if you're nervous and speaking in another language.

- Take your time. Take in a deep, easy breath whenever you feel that flutter in your stomach; it will relax you, you'll get your thoughts in order, and you will speak at a natural pace. People want to keep up with what you're saying; allow them ample time to do so.

- Hold something in your hand. Seriously. A pen. A pointer. A tissue or hanky. It will act as a little security blanket and give you something to do with your hands. Alot of us get stressed when we feel we should be gesturing in some way, but our nerves prevent our natural impulses from coming forward through our hands. Ever notice how it looks odd when someone is gesturing in a forced, unnatural way? A little something in your hands will connect you to them and keep them occupied. This is also great if you tend to shake a bit when you're stressed.

- Don't overprepare. It's tough to resist the temptation, but in my experience there is such a thing as too much preparation. The more you dwell on your speech, the more nervous you will become. Familiarize yourself enough, of course, but put it down well before you go to bed the night before your talk. Read something else, listen to music or watch something that interests you on television before you go to sleep to get your speech out of your mind.

- Eat breakfast before your talk.

Best of luck.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 9:29 PM on November 6, 2007

Best answer: Simply slow down when you speak, and realize that speakers of the language will immediately recognize that you are not a native speaker and - for the most part - sympathize. Everybody likes to hear a funny accent now and then, and your mistakes tend to be covered by the turns of phrase that you do well.

As a musician, I often have to introduce pieces from the stage in languages in which I am not fluent, but the audience prefers hearing me stuggle than to not having any intro at all. And it gives them something to giggle about after the show. (I also speak English on stage, but usually attempt to speak in the audience' language a bit.) I've never had negative feedback about it.

It is all part of developing speaker competance. (I actually have a stock of language-incompetancy puns to play up my lack of fluency in some languages... a laugh always puts the audience on my side.)
posted by zaelic at 6:31 AM on November 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Give yourself permission to make some mistakes. Recognize that you may make some errors, but it's OK. Think of all the mediocre public speakers there are and realize, hell, at least you have an excuse -- one that, as mentioned above, will probably draw sympathy and understanding from a lot of people.

I am generally a perfectionist and can be very hard on myself when I make mistakes — in anything, including speaking Spanish. (I can still distinctly remember an error I made on a Spanish test twelve years ago in high school. Or what about that time at the airline check-in counter nine years ago when I used the wrong word? OH, THE IGNOMINY! I bet the ticket agent still thinks about my verb choice and shakes her head.)

But for all this, over the years I've given myself more permission to make mistakes and, as a result of the practice this has given me, actually end up making fewer mistakes over time.

But it starts with giving yourself a pass to screw things up sometimes. And to learn from it.
posted by veggieboy at 7:26 AM on November 7, 2007

Best answer: I have the same problem...I can read and write French nearly fluently but I'm terrified to speak it. I know, in my case, it's just a natural extension of my social anxiety. I always feel like people are judging me harshly when I attempt to speak French; that they can't understand me and think that I sound like a fool. I think French may be worse than other languages for this as native speakers have a reputation (fair or not) for being unforgiving of people who butcher their language.

My finest moment in spoken French came this summer when a friend and I were helping a little old blind and drunk man in Provence get home. As we walked him home, he and I were jabbering away to each other. I was speaking, perhaps not fluently, but the best French I had ever spoken because I was not nervous that he might be mean to me.

I also found that practicing with people who were at my profiency level in French but who didn't speak any English helped. We weren't likely to be critical of each other but we had to speak French because it was our only common language.

I think the key is finding someone totally non-intimidating to practice with. Ideally that person would be a native speaker or at least at your level of proficiency so you could improve together, easier said than done, I know, but it's all I've got.
posted by Jess the Mess at 7:42 AM on November 7, 2007

When I was learning Spanish and had to give speeches, I wrote out my speeches in Spanish and phonetically. The calming affect of being able read exactly what I was supposed to say helped immensely. Sometime I relied on it, sometimes I didn't need it because I know I had a backup.

As far as speaking off the cuff to groups in another language, I'm not sure if there's any kind of short cut besides practice.
posted by metacort at 8:19 AM on November 7, 2007

Best answer: I have to teach classes, and sometimes give presentations in Chinese. My native language is English, and in the beginning, the thought of giving presentations in Chinese made me want to feign illness.

The key is: HUMOR.

If you can flub through it with a smile, laughing with the audience at your hack French, then you've got it made. It also helps to have someone in the audience who you can give "was that right?" glances, and who will give you supporting nods in return (or really confused looks when you're not clear).
posted by strangeguitars at 7:34 PM on November 7, 2007

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