Overcome the Fear of Speaking

Written by Yuri Karabatov. Follow me on Twitter.

There is time, especially in the early stages of learning a new language, when it’s hard to make yourself speak out or actually talk to someone. The words won’t come out, or you feel shy, or both.

Beware: if you let this persist, it can stretch for years. Some people are known to leave speaking for later, when they are more confident or know more words. This later of theirs never comes.

Benny Lewis of Fluent in 3 months is sure that one should speak from day one of learning a new language: it helps memorize words and yields invaluable practice. I can’t but agree with him: you should speak as soon as you know a few words.

Remember about the natural way? Children start with just one word: mama. They don’t wait until they know more.

Fear of speaking may come under different guises, but embarrassment is the king. Everyone is afraid of being laughed at. You know what? Nobody laughs.

So, what are the key factors of overcoming the fear of speaking?

1. Acknowledge fear

In order to overcome fear, you must acknowledge that you have it and name it. Ask yourself: “What am I afraid of?”

As soon as you define your fear, getting rid of it will be a matter of hours, if not minutes.

If you are afraid of speaking to someone, talk to them and tell them you are shy of speaking a new language yet, and could they help you with it? Faced with such sincerity, few people will refuse to help.

2. Vocabulary

Vocabulary is a large chunk of reasons for fear. I could write a whole blog post about it, but here I will touch the most common problems.

As you may have guessed, fear of speaking usually manifests itself in the early stages of learning a new language, and gradually disappears over time. Early stages mean lack of vocabulary and common expressions.

How does lack of vocabulary work when you try to speak?

  1. You think in your native language
  2. You want to say something
  3. You have a phrase ready in your native language
  4. You are trying to translate the phrase into your target language and fail (not enough words)
  5. You try to paraphrase it into the words you already know …
  6. You are stuck

a) You don’t have an inventory of your vocabulary

What’s an inventory? Basically, it is the list of words of which you know that you know them. These words are always at the ready when you want to say something, they are your active vocabulary, always on standby.

On the other hand, there are words which you also know but you don’t know about it. You may have seen them in your textbook, heard them in a movie, read them in a book. You know these words when you see them, but you can’t use them freely: they are in hibernation, and need time to go back to life.

That’s why you have problems when trying to compose a phrase: you don’t know, which words you know, and which you don’t. You may have too many in your passive vocabulary, and too few on standby, in the active vocabulary.

Increasing active vocabulary should become one of your top priorities. Learn the word not to know it; learn the word to use it.

But there is a big BUT. Don’t fall into the pit of learning wrong words. By wrong I don’t mean obscene, I mean unsuitable for your level.

Always learn only the vocabulary, which is suitable for your level of knowledge, i.e. falls into the most frequent or less frequent category of words.

If you are a beginner, you don’t need to know words like “abolish” or harder color names, like “auburn”. You don’t need synonyms as such, just learn one generic word, you will have time to learn other ones later.

If you are an intermediate, you may occasionally need something like “auburn”, as in “auburn hair”, but I say: don’t anticipate, look up as you go. Start from the beginning and take baby steps, one word at a time. Baby steps will eventually take you to fluency.

b) Lack of “canned phrases”

You see, it’s perfectly fine to translate something in your head on the fly from your native language, but why bother if there are phrases ready to be used?

Simple dialogues are full of ready-made phrases like “How do you do?”, “Let me introduce …”, “What do you think of …?” and a whole lot more.

Besides meaningful phrases like the ones above, there are also special phrases to encourage the person you are talking to and indicate that you are listening and interested, like “Really?”, “How interesting!” or just nodding your head.

Just look up and memorize some of these in your target language, and dialogues will be a breeze.

c) You don’t have a plan in mind about what exactly you are going to talk

It’s a well-known fact that it’s hard to choose when there are no limits. Ask someone to say any word they like, and the person will struggle for several seconds.

Creative power is all about limits. Your speech and your dialogue with someone is an act of creation, and you should limit yourself to succeed.

As a beginner, you have trouble talking on pretty much any topic, so choose the topic of your dialogue with someone beforehand, and look up words which may help you. For example, you decide to talk to someone about a hike, not just have a general small talk. Lookup the words “hike”, “tent”, “rain”, “fishing” and such, and you’ll have no problem talking to a native.

Gradually increase the list of topics you’re comfortable with, and very soon you’ll be able to talk about anything you like. Isn’t that nice?

3. Dead-end situation

Put yourself into a situation where you have to speak in a foreign language. It’s not as hard as you may think. I bet you’ll come up with something after a couple of minutes.

While you are considering, let me give you an example. My wife learns Japanese, but she is shy of speaking, especially to natives. When she was in Japan in summer, she got lost somewhere in the suburbs of Sapporo and couldn’t find her way to the bus stop. She overcame her fear and talked to a Japanese man nearby. He ended up walking her all the way to the bus stop and wishing her luck on her way to the hotel.

After that my wife was never afraid of speaking first, and told me about several more times when she spoke first and everything turned out just fine. Don’t be afraid of fear, fight it!

4. Start speaking

My last advice will be: forget about fear and just start speaking. I know, this may sound counterintuitive, but there’s even psychological evidence behind that.

If you have fear of doing something, get over it by starting to do this something. Fear is mostly imaginary, and as we take action, it becomes smaller and smaller, only to vanish later.

So forget about fear, close your eyes, embrace confidence and start speaking. After the first few words you won’t be afraid anymore. Your own speech will motivate you to go on.

No fear

I hope you’ll be able to get rid of your fear, if you had any in the first place, using these few simple steps.

Remember: nothing is as fearful as you imagine. Fear is in your head. Switch it off. Shut it out. Forget about it. Speak. And smile.

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