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  • Writer's pictureKate

Why does speaking a foreign language make us feel nervous?

Updated: Aug 23, 2021

A story of terror, coach trips and a magical sandwich order

"A foreign accent is a sign of bravery". This is what I often tell my students. About 8 out of 10 new students tell me they feel nervous in their first taster lesson, even if absolutely nothing is expected of them! But they’re determined to learn their new language and, crucially, they're willing to overcome the feelings of anxiety that come with taking a risk.

I experienced anxiety around speaking with an accent quite early on in my language learning journey. It's something that students often ask me about, so I thought it would be an interesting topic to explore further.

Many years ago, way back in 2002, I ordered a sandwich outside a football stadium in Germany. It was terrifying, magical and transformational. More on that later.

Where does language learning anxiety come from?

For most of us, the classroom is the first place where we speak a new language. Even those of us without confidence issues would most likely find it quite intimidating to speak a foreign language in front of a room full of people. It often only takes one negative experience to knock our confidence. This can create a real fear of trying again. Seeing a classmate trying and failing, or mispronouncing a word, can set off feelings of anxiety.

Good students want to achieve good grades, and languages can be an area where even the most academically gifted of us struggle. For those who feel under pressure to live up to a strong academic reputation, it becomes easier to stay in the ‘comfort zone’ of written language where – even if we don't sound like native speakers – we can at least put pen to paper with 100% accuracy.

Perhaps it makes sense that those of us who are most determined to do well are the same people who are afraid of making mistakes.

The fear of failure

At secondary school, German was my favourite language, but my experience of learning was characterised by a fear of failure. (German has its own fabulous word for this, of course: Versagensangst.)

In those days, the internet barely existed and, despite my best efforts to practise the language, I'd never had a conversation with a native speaker. Writing to a pen pal was the closest I could get to real-world, face-to-face dialogue.

The huge disparity between my writing and my speaking skills quickly turned into a fear of saying anything in class. The more I learned, the more I wanted my spoken German to match the high standard of my writing. Instead of speaking with an English accent, I preferred not to speak at all.

But this is where a foreign accent really is a sign of bravery.

Knowing that you don't sound like a native is a reality that most of us have to accept, at least at first, in order to improve. Unless you’re my friend Jack, who, two weeks after picking up the language ab initio at university, was fully, irreversibly Italian.

It's always useful to work on pronunciation, of course. But, at some point, placing too much emphasis on sounding perfect will become an obstacle to your progress.

The most successful linguists I know take every possible opportunity to speak up in their target language.

How can we overcome this fear?

For me, the answer was to replace the academic pressure of the classroom with positive, authentic experiences.

It’s possible to learn your language in a way that doesn't involve constant assessment, instead focusing on things that make you feel happy and fulfilled. This can be something as simple as ordering a meal, buying something at a market or even attending an online event in your target language. Creating language learning opportunities like that, which are immersive and authentic, was a founding principle of Kate Maria Languages and drives everything we do.

Fill your language learning schedule with opportunities for positive interactions like these, and you’ll move from nervous to confident in no time. What could those scenarios look like for you?

My own experience – and the sandwich of confidence

For me, my first positive interaction took place during a coach trip to Germany. I’m determined not to be embarrassed as I share this story of desperation and triumph, but OK – maybe it is a bit awkward.

At school, I was good at German but failing speaking tests because I was too terrified to say anything. I just wanted to build up my confidence and validate what I had learned by having a real conversation. No amount of reading or writing practice would achieve that – I knew I had to do something.

Arsenal didn't triumph in Dortmund, but I did*

My solution was a bit extreme since I was only 13. It involved signing up to Arsenal's Junior Gunners club with the sole aim of joining the coach trips to away matches in Germany. Now that the internet fully exists, your journey will be a lot easier and a lot more convenient than mine. Not to mention that you won't have to spend 48 hours on a bus just to order a sandwich in your target language and go home smiling, being considered a weirdo by every single one of the other passengers on board.

Arsenal lost 2-1 to Borussia Dortmund but later signed the German team’s star player, Tomas Rosicky, so they triumphed in the end.* And so did I – kind of – by ordering my magical sandwich.

* or so I tell myself


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