How Overcome Shyness and Speak a Foreign Language

Chatting with random people in Austria

Chatting with random people in Austria

When I speak to people about language learning, there is one topic that almost always comes up: How do I get over my fear of speaking?

Getting over a fear of speaking your target language with native speakers is a big obstacle for many people – including me. While I wouldn’t consider myself extremely shy, I’m definitely not an extrovert. I’m also not spectacularly self-confident. So I have had plenty of chances to get over my fear of speaking a foreign language I didn’t feel competent in. Luckily for those of you who struggling to do so for the first time, there are several techniques that will help you get over the fear.

1. Put yourself in a situation where you have to speak the language

My key technique for forcing myself to do something that scares me is to put myself in a situation where I can’t back down. I suppose you could always just refuse to utter a word in your target language, but once you put yourself in a situation where it is difficult to avoid speaking, you will be much more likely to use your target language.

This is one of the reasons that living abroad is so amazing for learning a language. You are forced to interact with people who do not speak English on a regular basis – when buying produce, getting a haircut or going to the doctor.

2. Never speak English (or your native language) with your teacher

If you haven’t spoken with someone in your target language “in the wild” yet, you are probably doing most of your learning from a teacher. If your conversations with your teacher are always in your target language, you will become comfortable using the language much more quickly than if you clarify things like homework or schedules in English and then only use the target language to do exercises during class. Use your teacher as a way to practice conversation: Ask him or her how the weekend was, talk about the weather or find other sort of small-talk questions to ask. This will build your confidence about using the language to other, non-teacher native speakers.

3. Speak with people who don’t speak your native language

When I was 14, I took a school trip to Germany and stayed with a German family for three weeks. Everyone in the host family, especially the girl who was my own age, always spoke English with me. They also spoke English very, very well. I wasn’t very confident speaking German, and I wasn’t forceful enough at the time to explain that I wanted them to speak German with me instead. So I didn’t get nearly as much out of the trip as I could have if I had been truly forced to speak German.

When I went to Switzerland a year later, I was much more determined not to get suckered into speaking English with my host family. But people in Switzerland, generally speaking, do not speak English as well as Germans do (largely because they learn French as well). So I met very few people who were genuinely comfortable speaking English – even at the beginning, I spoke German better than most people spoke English.  The result is like point number one: You are forced to speak, for better or worse. Knowing that the other person depends on you to speak your target language in order for the conversation to succeed is much more conducive to a first go at speaking your target language than thinking that the person is just humoring you.

4. When all else fails, drink moderately

Drinking lowers your inhibitions, which means your more likely to do something you would normally think is scary. If we’re talking about jumping off cliffs, that’s a bad thing. If we’re talking about having your first conversation in your target language, it isn’t necessarily bad. As an added bonus, drinking is an important part of a lot of cultures, and your conversations with native speakers might be accompanied by alcoholic beverages anyway.

Note that drinking has diminishing returns. After a couple drinks, your conversational skills in any language take a nose-dive.

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The good news is that you really only need to have a couple decent conversations in your target language before you start to feel comfortable. So use these techniques at the beginning, and you’ll be able to build your confidence. After a couple visits to the doctor using your target language, making small-talk with a neighbor will no longer seem scary.

Questions? Comments? Thoughts? Share in the comments!