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Leaving Nervousness Behind: Speaking a Foreign Language

By: Gabrielle R. Wood

For some, the idea of speaking a foreign language is a nerve-wracking idea. It is one thing to learn a language in the classroom and practice with classmates who often don’t share the same interest in learning as you, but another thing entirely to begin speaking with actual native speakers.

All sorts of doubts enter a person’s head when they begin to speak a foreign language: Will I be understood? Will I be able to communicate effectively? Is my vocabulary big enough at this point? Will I make mistakes? These and so many other questions of uncertainty go through everyone’s heads and the answer to all of those questions are that no, you probably won’t always be understood or be able to communicate effectively or have a big enough vocabulary and yes, you will make mistakes and many of them when you begin to speak.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. There was a long time where I would spend so much time thinking about the grammatical structuring of what I wanted to say that I would end up missing my opportunity for speaking, and the conversation would move on.

At the time, however, I preferred this to the embarrassment that I was sure would ensue if I had the audacity to make a mistake. This was to my own detriment, however. I should have spoken.

Making mistakes is important because you learn the correct way to say certain things, and also increase your vocabulary tremendously. Your brain will begin to absorb things that you won’t even remember having learned. It will be awkward, broken and frustrating at first, but it will become easier with practice and time.

You’ll be surprised out how little time it can actually take and how gratifying it can be to be able to communicate with someone in a foreign language.

Getting over a fear of speaking may still seem terrifying. What we say and how we speak are two major determining factors as to how a person decides to perceive us, so it can be daunting to represent yourself in a language that you’re not comfortable with.

There are ways, however, to ease the nerves and strengthen confidence. It is important to remember that you are not the first person to have learned a foreign language. There is a high probability that the people you may encounter have learned a foreign language their own self. They will understand and empathize with your struggles.

While I lived in Norway, I met many people who spoke one or two languages other than their native Norwegian. They were always very helpful and understanding when I made mistakes. In many ways, the fact that I was learning and using Norwegian strengthened our relationship because it was showing that I was taking an interest in their country, their cultures and acknowledging their importance as an individual.

Attempting to speak a person’s native language can garner respect, even if you do make mistakes. You are showing that you are willing to leave your own comfort zone to allow the other person to be comfortable speaking their own language. It shows them that you respect them.

There are moments of course where you will hit a wall, and find that you cannot express yourself in a satisfactory way. Keep in mind that this happens to everyone, even native speakers.

Nonnative speakers do have a slight disadvantage however, though it doesn’t mean you won’t be able to come across in some way. Just take a breath, and try to find a creative way of saying what you want to say. The chances are that you will be understood, and may even be provided with a better way of saying it.

There were many times when I thought that I wasn’t understood because it wasn’t precisely how I would have said it in English just to find out that I was.

Although you will experience positive reinforcement from many people, you should also be aware and prepared for negative responses. There will always be people who decide to criticize, laugh, or tease you about your accent, way of speaking etc.

They may even decide that they dislike you simply because you are a foreigner. Don’t let this discourage you, however. They are hopefully a small percentage of the population, and shouldn’t inhibit you from continuing to speak or learn. It is not your problem or fault that you cannot speak perfectly.

At times where this happened to me, I always liked to remind myself that if they were speaking my native language they wouldn’t have sounded perfect either.

Nervousness oftentimes comes from a lack of experience or practice. Remember overall that the more you speak the more confident you will become with yourself and the more your language skills will improve.

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