Reflections in the Sand

Get Speaking: How to Rid Yourself of New-language Nervousness

Tips for speaking a foreign language

So let’s say you’re learning German. Your notebook is filled with scribbles, new words, and all manner of verb forms. You’re feeling good. You’re starting to think you might be getting this thing.

But when it’s your turn to open your mouth to speak? Nuh-uh. You’re too scared. You worry you’ll sound like an idiot.

Sure, accents are real and you’ll probably have one in your new language. Most learners have one – and at some point in the language-learning journey, most of us wish we could flick a switch and instantly sound like locals.

Here’s a big secret: when you’re learning a new language, the only person who cares about what you sound like…is you.

To get you from “man, she never talks,” to “wow, she never shuts up!” here are five tips to help you get rid of new language nervousness once and for all.

Remember what it’s like to be the listener

Think about when you interact with foreigners in your country. Are you secretly laughing at how they speak mix up their “Ls” and “Rs,” or talk in an obviously French accent? Being a language learner yourself, you most likely don’t – so don’t think others are doing the same to you! Remember: everyone’s much too focused on their own issues to be snarky because you can’t pronounce burro.

Learn and memorise word patterns

If you really want to sound as native as possible, start by memorising word patterns; especially for commonly-used suffixes and prefixes. After all, nothing calls you out faster than poor pronunciation. Take note of where the emphasis lies and whether these patterns have names in your new language (like “esdrújula” or “aguda” words in Spanish). Knowing which syllable has the stress on it goes a long way to making your spoken efforts more understandable.

Talk like an idiot

Why not get together with a friend – native speaker or another learner – and dedicate a few minutes to paying out the language? Think of a few musicians, politicians or actors (speakers of your second language) who have particularly amusing speech patterns, posh accents or who overuse slang. Mimic them and have a little laugh. Why? This helps the language seem more “approachable” and less of a personal linguistic Everest.

Give perfectionism the chop

When I was a new Spanish learner, a friend did once giggle at my accent. She didn’t mean any harm by it, but I let the moment get the better of me. For a while, I withdrew and became less inclined to speak. Later, I realised the source of my feelings wasn’t my friend’s jibe, but my own need to be “perfect” mere months after beginning learning. I’d put the bar too high for myself and was finding it hard to live up to my own expectations. Of course, these days there are still words I don’t know and sounds my Anglo-mouth has trouble forming, but I no longer care. I’m aware that learning is a constant process.

Be curious

Half the confidence battle has to do with actually knowing the words. So give yourself a chance by forming a strong arsenal of words. To do this: ask questions around the words themselves. Not just “How do you say ____?” but “Can that be an adjective too?” “What’s the verb for that?” “Can I only use it in informal situations?” Go ahead and pepper your teacher or native-speaker friends with questions. Make dorky flashcards. If you’re learning alone, post your ponderings on a forum.


What about you? What other tips do you have for stuck language-learning newbies?


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