Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve had about a dozen conversations with people who are trying to learn a language but struggling for some reason.
This started with me asking people what they find hardest about learning a language. We kept an open mind, and expected to hear things like it being hard to find time or to keep up a routine, or apps failing to deliver, and so on.
I had a lot of fun talking to people from different walks and phases of life, with varying goals and studying different languages.
But we were wrong about our assumptions. Because what we heard was that in many cases, people are fundamentally afraid.
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How Fear Speaking Languages Holds Us Back
Our friend Amy (all names changed) told us about wanting to speak a language she has been learning since she was young — German. She had been through university courses, private tutoring and had spent time in the country.
But Amy still feels embarrassed every time she tries to speak German, because often when she does, after some encouraging sounds, people speak back to her in English. Every time this happens, she feels a little worse. Her inner voice starts to pre-empt the pain.
“What if they speak back to me in English AGAIN?”
Amy dreads the embarrassment.
We actually heard this fear of being spoken to in English from several people.
So many language learners define success as “speaking to someone in another language, and for them to speak back to me in the same language”. They keep trying, hoping for a conversation, or at least a response.
For people hoping for this, being spoken back to in English feels like “a form of rejection”. “It’s embarrassing,” said another friend, Julia. “It makes me feel like I’m not good enough.”
Others among us just want to be perceived as being ourselves, with no barriers.
We’re used to being perceived in a certain way: interesting, eloquent, thoughtful or funny. But all of those go out the window when we try to speak another language. Suddenly we’re struggling to have the vocabulary a five year old, let alone the pronunciation.
Maria told us said when she was younger learning Spanish: “I always felt clumsy. I was worried that people would pay attention to my mistakes. And I didn’t want to create situations of misinterpretation.” She thought about this constantly, until many years later realising she’d be “understood even if you don’t use the subjunctive” (more on this later).
What happens after all this worry?
After many failed attempts to speak to someone, our inner voices start to hold us back:
- “What if I don’t say the words right and they laugh at me?”
- “What if I don’t understand what they say back to me?”
- “What if they hear me talking like a five-year-old and think I’m stupid?”
- “What if they don’t accept me… like my family never did?”
Our inner thoughts can be brutal.
Having these fears in the back of our heads is crippling. It primes us to be upset at all the wasted time and effort we’ve put into the language.
And when something negative — despite our expectations — doesn’t happen, we are at risk of interpreting it as a temporary pause before something negative inevitably happens in the future.
Fear also gives our brain permission to escape. You start creating excuses in your head like:
- I studied so hard yesterday. I deserve a break today. I don’t want to burn out.
- Should I even be doing this? It’s so beautiful today, I should take advantage of the weather and go hiking.
- Is learning this language a waste of time? Shouldn’t I be looking for a job? All my friends and former colleagues are ahead of my in their careers…
- I think I’m getting slower at languages as I get older. Studies show this.
If this sounds familiar and you think I’m writing specifically about you… I’m not. I’m writing about myself. And about you. And about so many other people.
Part of each of these people is me, and part of them, I suspect, is you.
We also spoke to people who have missions in life other than language, where fear holds them back.
I know that Daniel longs to be a musician, but after years of expensive tuition costing tens of thousands of dollars, he is still afraid to perform in public.
“What if I’m terrible? What if they laugh at me?”
He knows he’s not terrible. He intellectually knows he’s decent. But he feels he is bad. He’s also self-aware enough to know his feelings are in control.
Jonathan wants to launch his own business, to get out of retail sales as a day job. But fear and doubt make him slow to act or hold him back from acting at all.
“What if I write the wrong words in the advertisements and waste money? What if nobody clicks on them? What if my friends find out it’s me and I fail? Again?”
The crazy thing?
Both Daniel and Jonathan people are all incredibly brave in at least one other thing that they grew up doing and were always a “natural” at. Sometimes many things.
Jonathan has zero fear of surfing giant waves or investing hundreds of thousands of dollars on clients’ behalf.
Daniel has no issues calling a random person and selling them something he doesn’t even have yet. He knows he’ll figure it out.
And Amy is a successful marketing professional who has done many high-stakes presentations on complex topics her bosses don’t understand.
So how can we translate that bravery from one discipline to another?
In Search of Acceptance
Growing up as a second-generation immigrant, I was caught between different cultures. On the one hand, I just wanted to be accepted in Australia, particularly in the predominantly white-cultured cities in which I was growing up (mostly Canberra).
I succeeded in being accepted more or less. It doesn’t matter that I don’t drink beer, enjoy any sports (sacrilege!), live abroad or have a soft accent; I’m definitely Australian.
But this quest for “acceptance” I have realised is universal.
But this success came with a cost: Farsi is my weakest language (something I have since rectified by learning it) and my cultural identity is a mixed bag. As a result, most of my extended family (not my immediate family) had a nickname for me: khaareji (خارجى). It means “the foreigner”. Never mind that they live in Australia (I’m sure all of you with immigrant backgrounds can relate).
Being called “the foreigner” in my family hurt. It put a division between us: they are them, and I am me. It is part of the reason I’ve always felt displaced, caught between two worlds in many aspects of my life, and never felt comfortable saying I’m any one thing.
Many of us second-generation immigrants are caught between different cultures. Our identities are given to us by what people around us say when you’re young. Those people react to superficial evidence to box us into something they understand.
So if they see someone who eats with a knife and fork (rather than a spoon and fork like most West and South Asians), speaks predominantly English and isn’t intuitively deferent to his elders or worried about “saving face”, they’ll call him a “foreigner”. Identity set for life.
One of our friends expressed dismay at not speaking Spanish well enough for family. Growing up, his parents emphasised the children learn English, to integrate as well as possible. But this came at a cost of ever having a “feeling of truly belonging”.
“I never felt Latino enough for the Latinos,” he said, “and never American enough for the Americans.”
Fear of Failure when Speaking Languages
We’ve all failed at something. Many things.
How we respond to those failures often dictates how likely we are to make another attempt at success.
One friend, Naomi, just wants to feel like she’s getting somewhere with her long journey in Chinese.
“I have an ego, I know. Not a crazy one… but I have goals. I want to get somewhere with my language. So when I feel like I’m not going anywhere it really hurts.”
She has tried many times to immerse herself in Chinese environments. She actually kept diving in further and further, refusing to let this tough language beat her. But she does this to thwart fate: it won’t get the best of her.
Nonetheless, there are many times she has wanted to give up.
The last language I tried to learn before Arabic was Korean. I took about ten hours of tuition and spent maybe 20-30 hours studying it over the course of two months, and came away with… basically nothing.
Korean was MUCH harder than I thought it was going to be. This was actually pretty disheartening. I had planned on surprising Jo’s family with a phone call (I still will, eventually!) and didn’t get anywhere near there.
Luckily, this wasn’t my first rodeo. But the experience with Korean still did chip away at my ego a bit. There’s a dangerous voice in me that says: What kind of polyglot language learner am I if I can’t even learn the language my girlfriend speaks?
We can’t let those egotistical thoughts take hold. I didn’t. But how can we develop the strength to ever let them control us?
The Goal: Be Like my Mum
My favourite conversation was with my own mother. Not for obvious reasons, but because I realised she has somehow cracked the code — she has zero fear speaking languages to strangers, even those she doesn’t know.
My mother has this weird ability to talk to anyone about anything, in any language in which she knows a few words, and for people to respond. Not with suspicion or confusion, but with happiness.
She learned maybe a few hundred words of Chinese and pronounces them… not perfectly (no criticism, it’s hard, and she hasn’t lived in China as I did). I, on the other hand, speak Chinese really well, second only to my English.
I know I need to practise it, and I do in safe situations: language learning partners online, extremely occasional dinners with friends where we make an effort to speak it. I still know I need to practise it more.
Then there’s my mum.
We’ll go out to a park, overhear some people speaking Chinese and my Mum will walk up to them and say “Ni hao. Ni shi nali de ren?” (Hello, where are you from?”) with a big smile, improvising tones somewhat. And they’ll speak back to her. She’ll run out of words quickly, then say “My son speaks Chinese!” and bring me over.
When in China she struck up conversations with random people on buses and on the street and told them her name and email and exchanged stories.
Every time I think of doing the same thing I have all these ridiculous thoughts:
- “What if I’m bothering them?”
- “What if they think I’m being racist for speaking Chinese?”
- “What if they think I’m being weird?”
Not to mention all the thoughts above… wondering if you’ll get the words wrong, pronounce it wrong, or any other fear.
How do we get past these thoughts?
How to Be Unafraid Like My Mum
My mum wasn’t the only person I met who had unbridled self-confidence in approaching strangers. A few others did, too. I asked them all how they got over their fears.
Some people we spoke to think the ultimate answer in language immersion is to go to a place where nobody speaks English, or whatever your mother tongue is. This is possible, but getting harder in developed countries unless you go way off the beaten track. It’s also not available to everyone due to constraints of money and time.
The good news is that many people have overcome fears without having to travel to a rural village. The answer: do something scary. Either do this thing (speak to strangers) or do something else that’s scary, until you’re used to being stared at and judged and it no longer matters.
For example, our friend Peter said that he had grown up shy. As a young man, he had always feared dancing in clubs. (I can sympathise!) Like for many of us, this came from a cocktail of self-consciousness and body issues.
So he decided to tackle this head-on and started taking dancing lessons. Nothing fancy — just regular (“hip hop”) dancing. Over the course of eight years he built up a lot of self-confidence, to the point where whenever music was on, he can dance and feel confident.
“This translates into when I’m speaking another language with someone,” Peter explained, “because I tend to think these days: f*** it, what’s the worst that can happen?”
And it’s true. What’s the worst? They could say what, or not understand and go away, and you’ll never see that person again. And then all you have to do is try again.
There’s a reason why it’s important to have this “screw it” attitude, and why it’s hard to develop. It’s because the people around us are often not good teachers. If you’ve ever had someone in your life who’s very particular about grammar and corrects things you say in your native language, you know what I mean.
Being corrected constantly by a friend, family member, or amateur language teacher is useful if you’re resilient, but can chip away at your confidence if you’re not. You start to worry about all kinds of things that are actually totally unnecessary for effective communication.
“There’s a lot you can say without worrying about conjugation, genders and grammar,” said Peter. As did Maria: “You can be understood even if you don’t use the subjunctive.”
It’s true: for over a decade I’ve spoken with non-native English speakers in over a dozen countries in professional environments, and people have butchered English (as I have butchered other languages) to explain very complicated topics. And everyone involved is still alive.
So to answer “f*** it, what’s the worst that could happen?”: You won’t die, anyway.
One of my Arabic teachers had an unusual suggestion exposing himself to high-stress situations: random chat with strangers on the web. He likes to use an app called Azar, which I absolutely cannot vouch for, but which you might want to give a try.
In fact, for those of you for whom alarm bells are going off, he said two things of note:
- There are a lot of weirdos (though it’s easy to report people) to the point where it’s probably not a good idea to use it if you’re a girl
- It may put you off people from certain countries, showing you an unrepresentative sample
He even told me “Don’t talk to anyone from Egypt. It will make you hate Egyptians!” which was important to note because I was in Egypt, he was Egyptian and I certainly don’t hate Egyptians.
Anyway, the thing he wanted to emphasise was: Talking to weird people on the internet is frightening, and it’s exactly that kind of frightening thing that will pull you out of your shell. He had used it to speak English with people from around the world, and took his bookish school-learned English to the point where he’s comfortable speaking it.
There are a number of probably safer ways to do it, like finding language partners on italki. It’s a little annoying scheduling the conversations and they can be repetitive, but the practise with strangers is rewarding and fun.
Final note… set a small goal
Something I learned recently is how important it is to set a small goal. Learn ten sentences a day. Speak to one person a day on a topic.
If you want to get out there and conquer your fears by putting yourself in an uncomfortable situation… see if you can do it once a day for thirty days and persevere.
I guarantee you’ll want to give up after 5 days (“I’m so busy today! I’ll do it twice tomorrow”), then again after 15 (“I made it halfway! I deserve a break”), and at 23 (“I get the point! I don’t need to finish”).
The number of days isn’t actually important. But set a goal to do the minimum amount, and go after it.
And if you want to share your goal with us, drop us an email and tell us: we’ll keep you accountable.