Speaking a foreign language can feel terrifying.
Making mistakes shows that we’re not perfect. As a perfectionist, the idea of this still scares me.
You’re probably a perfectionist too and don’t even know it! You want to speak a language but at the same time you’re thinking, “If I mess up, I might as well throw in the towel.”
Well, you wouldn’t be wrong to think that there are people who view language learning this way.
I used to think like this.
You have to speak.
Asking questions, forgetting phrases, mispronouncing words—these are all very natural in the realm of language acquisition. Knowing how to ask questions and admit that you don’t understand is one of the fundamentals for language learning! It’s also a great way to build relationships with people—they make speaking languages worth it in the first place!
Of course, you don’t want everything you say to be a cry for help. You’ll want to form your own unique thoughts.
Becoming comfortable with speaking a language will help you get there faster.
How Do We Become Comfortable with Speaking a Language?
I’m not going to say that comfort varies from person to person because that’s obvious.
What’s not so obvious is that language learners go out of their way to avoid discomfort.
The reason goes deeper than perfectionism.
First, it’s important to consider how our relationships with target languages blossom.
Learning a Language Begins Long Before You Start Speaking
It Starts with Exposure
Did you hear your target language somewhere or did you see it written?
The desire to comprehend something may have inspired you to want to get more exposure to that language.
For example, stumbling upon Telemundo on TV piques your interest in the Spanish language.
Visiting your friend’s family and noticing that their parents speak not only English but Vietnamese as well!
Stimuli are all around us. As you gain more interest in that language, you nourish the relationship that you have with it.
It Continues with Motivation
Why do you want to learn a language?
How would you respond if someone told you that your target language was not worth learning? Or worse, if they said that learning your target language was next to impossible?
There are plenty of polyglot-positive communities out there so it may not happen. Telling someone that you’re learning a language should be celebrated, not criticized. You’re going to open yourself to another culture. Who wouldn’t be excited about that?
Alright, I’ll fess up. Learning a language to get a reaction out of people is great motivation! Maybe it’s the shock value or the awesome conversations I’ve had as a result of sharing my journey with a fellow language enthusiast.
So don’t feel discouraged because you tell someone that you’re learning Spanish and you get the “Really? C’mon, everybody knows Spanish” look.
The desire to stand out kept me motivated to learn Japanese. I did, however, develop some misconceptions about Spanish and perceived the romance language as incredibly easy, even generic.
I’m happy to say that things came full circle when I inadvertently picked it up again.
It Grows through Nurtured Interest
The bond with my husband Javier led to transforming the way I viewed the Spanish language.
I had prior exposure to Spanish before but I saw it more as an academic subject than an actual language.
In my case, my relationship with my target languages evolved this way:
Spanish → I want to pass the 7th grade → (9 years later) I want to communicate with my husband→ (2 years later)→ I want to raise my son bilingual
Associating a language with a person that you care about is a great way to build an indestructible force of motivation. And hey, it can be yourself!
Even on bad days, you need to have your main purpose and goal in mind.
How does your relationship with your target language look like? How has it changed?
I’ve been studying Japanese a lot longer than Spanish, so my relationship with the language is considerably different:
Japanese → I want to speak it → (3 years later) I want to be perfect → (4 years later) I just want my degree → (2 years later) I want to be a role model for my son
The motivation behind these changes was always a person. My husband, my son, or myself. It can be someone in your family who only speaks the language you want to learn. It can be a friend that you cherish. Someone to keep you grounded on your goals on days when the perfectionist in you is too critical.
Speaking a Language Comfortably Requires Time and Practice
I know, this one is a given. But how many language enthusiasts overlook this? Given the rage about obtaining fluency in mere minutes, quite a few language learners have given this reality little attention.
Time, Effort, and (Dis)Comfort
What if you don’t want to think about time and learn a language effortlessly as you do something that makes you feel comfortable?
But before we start throwing that term around, we have to ask ourselves what immersion looks like for us.
For example, I started working for a Japanese immersion program that spanned over a hot Minnesota summer with the expectation that I’d be the only non-native speaker around.
Turns out the camp was run by non-native speakers! At first I thought, how they heck can we immerse these kids when we’ve got less than a handful of native speakers!
But their curriculum was actually immersive.
The sales point was that English wasn’t allowed.
Now for campers whose native language was English, reverting back to English when the word just wouldn’t come out in Japanese wasn’t something worthy of punishment or penalty in my opinion.
I don’t have scientific research or linguistic studies to back up my disapproval. I’ve just never been a fan of programs that promote this kind of learning because it’s annoying.
Don’t fight me on this, it’s just me being real.
In fact, during one of the camp sessions, a camper came up to me and asked where the restroom was.
I pointed away from me and responded in English, “It’s by the flagpoles over there.”
This kid looked at me like he was about cry. “Thank you for responding in English!”
So yeah. I had to draw the line somewhere. I get it, we need to focus on immersion, but c’mon people. The kid had to go pee.
I know I sound like a living contradiction here but you have to feel comfortable enough to do something uncomfortable in your target language.
It will be much easier for your to feel confident speaking, even about things you’re not 100% knowledgeable about, once you’ve established your goals, your go-to phrases, and your limits. After that, you can go beyond your limits!
I’m talking about language learning but you could apply this to anything in life! If you prepare yourself with the right tools, you’ll know how to deal with challenges that come your way. It’s how I’ve survived as a new mother, as a language learning, and as a small business owner.
Lastly, I want to talk about personalities and language learning. Some argue that there’s a connection between being an extrovert and being able to speak a language quickly. I don’t necessarily disagree with that but if you consider yourself an introvert, I don’t believe that your shyness will hold you back from speaking a language.
Introverts and Introverted Extroverts Can Learn How to Speak Languages
Have you ever heard of Laoshu (Moses McCormick)?
He’s a black polyglot who makes these authentic videos where he approaches people and just starts speaking to them in a foreign language.
It’s pretty awesome to watch him work his magic on people!
Watching videos like these brings back the wonder and love that initially swept me away when I first started learning Japanese. And not just learning it but speaking it.
Confidence Comes from the Desire to Learn
As a preteen aspiring polyglot, my goal was to get exposure NO MATTER WHAT.
Then I started high school and Japanese became an everyday occurrence through homework, book reports, assignments, etc. I got comfortable and I felt that I wasn’t challenging myself.
When you avoid challenges, you can end up losing the wonder that comes with language learning.
I challenged myself through language competitions and speech contests. All of them were terrifying.
But you don’t have to be fluent in a language to be comfortable speaking it.
I sure was not fluent in Japanese when I walked up to strangers at the Japanese festival in Houston and asked things like, “これはいくらですか” (How much is this?)
What surprised me was that people responded back in Japanese!
As you continue to put yourself out there, you’ll attract people! Like I mentioned earlier, language learning opportunities present themselves in all kinds of forms.
Don’t run away from a chance to speak your target language.
Moses himself says in one of his videos, “I was a shy person, but I realized that I had to get out there and talk to people.”
Please watch his videos, they’re really inspirational! I have a YouTube channel too. Watch switch between English, Japanese, and Spanish (unintentionally of course)!
Anyway, now that you’ve got some inspiration, it’s time to get fluent!
Find a method that works for you and use it to encourage your voice.
What helped (or is helping) you become comfortable enough to speak another language?Should I have told that kid where the bathroom was in Japanese?
I want to hear from you so speak up!