Over many years of teaching and learning languages, I’d say it was none of the above. Those who just ‘have a go’ are the ones who make best progress and become confident language speakers.
Some people are lucky. ‘Just have a go’ is how they live their lives and it comes completely naturally to them. But for others, opening our mouths to produce a stream of foreign sounds to communicate what we want really is alien.
“What if they don’t understand me? What if I get it wrong? My accent is terrible.”
Well, that’s all part of the language learning process. At some point they won’t understand you, and quite possibly for reasons which aren’t your fault. And if you get it wrong, what’s the worst that can happen? ‘Learn from your mistakes’ is one of the best ways of increasing your confidence in a language. Having ordered 2 beers, salad and a holiday in a Japanese restaurant, I never got the words for holiday and chicken confused ever again. Lucky for me the waiter realised my confusion and very politely ignored my mistake. The chicken arrived and tasted delicious though sadly no holiday.
So how do you leave the safety net of your phrase book?
Use some of the tips below to boost your confidence speaking any language and overcome your fears!
- Choose a situation you’re already familiar with. The easiest example here is going to a café. The exchange will be fairly short, straightforward and familiar wherever you are in the world. If you’re feeling nervous, decide in advance what you’re going to have and make sure you’re comfortable using those words beforehand. It’s quite predictable how the conversation will follow and you can easily repeat the same dialogue anywhere else you go. The added advantage is you start out speaking in your foreign language, which sets the scene for the conversation to continue without the waiter replying in English.
2. Think in advance what they might ask you. One reason we get flustered is when we don’t understand what they are asking us. The good news is, you don’t need to catch every word, often just one or two keywords is enough to get the gist of what they’re saying.
3. Ask questions you already know the answer to. Sounds odd, but the point is to just get speaking and have a conversation, and not to worry too much about the details. For example, you’re at the market in France. You can see on the ticket how much the tomatoes cost. But have the conversation about prices and quantities anyway. Use what you’ve learned in your classes over the last year, put into practice your best phrases and then bask in the glow of your accomplishment.
4. Be brave. Learning anything new means stepping to some extent out of your comfort zone, and with a foreign language it’s no different. Take control of the situation and speak with someone one to one, it’s far easier than having to follow 2 or 3 speakers in a conversation. That way, it’s far easier to ask them to slow down or repeat.
5. Eavesdrop. Discreetly listen in on conversations between native speakers. You don’t need to understand everything but see how many words you can pick out. Over time you’ll gradually understand more and more, to the point when you can proudly say “I got all of that!” Listening is also is a great way to improve your pronunciation as your brain tunes in to the sounds and how they blend together.
6. Boost your vocabulary. Before your trip, think of which area of the language you’d really like to improve on. Maybe you’re going on a tour or a specialist holiday, or will be taking part in a specific activity. Learn the vocab associated with your vineyard tour, how to describe your food or even the different parts of a car if you’re hiring one and become more expert in a particular area.
7. Go off the beaten track. “They always speak back to me in English, it’s so frustrating”. It’s happened to all of us as we start off in a new language. But persevere and keep replying in your chosen language. Away from the tourist areas the chances are you’re less likely to find English speakers which will force you use your language skills. This is a great opportunity, not only to use familiar language but also to push the boundaries of your repertoire and apply it to new situations.
In your language learning journey it’s the end result which counts. Over time, as you learn more, your confidence will grow. The mistakes will decrease and you’ll realise the language you have really can go much further than you ever imagined. Sure enough grammar and vocabulary skills are invaluable, but confidence to ‘just have a go’ is the key to success.
Be brave, give one of these tips a try and let me know how it goes!