“I’ve learned a foreign language for many years, but I still can’t really speak it.”

Whether you’ve heard it from someone or this is you, it’s a clear case of xenoglossophobia. It’s nothing to worry about: feeling anxious about foreign languages is a common issue. Many of us have encountered this at least once in our lives, most likely when we had to take a second language in high school or college as a prerequisite to graduate.

However, given the fact that it’s a common issue, why are there people who can dive straight into language learning, have confidence in holding conversations with limited vocabulary and do this with only few months of studying?

Most of the time, it’s as simple as: you have a preconception from society and “assume” the language is difficult even before you start. Having said that, there are still many ways you can overcome your fear of foreign languages. The first step is to figure out which part you have difficulty with and focus on developing that particular skill.

Catherine K. highlights 3 main issues people face when learning a foreign language and offers solutions to overcome them.


ISSUE 1: I just can’t seem to strike up the courage to speak it

The majority of people learn a language because they want to speak it with someone. However, most learners struggle more with speaking than any other aspect of language learning (ie. listening, reading and writing) and may spend years learning it but never reach the point to have a decent conversation with a native speaker. The main reason behind that is because speaking happens in real time.

“Conversations happen in real time and put you under the spotlight.”

How can I improve my speaking?

Practice makes perfect. This holds even more truth in language learning, as it is an ongoing process that needs frequent reviewing and brushing up. Join language conversations and exchange groups with like-minded people who are going through the same challenges. This way, you won’t feel alone and will have a support group with you during times of frustration.

Speaking in a foreign language might be scary since you are not used to the vocabularies and sentence structures (especially if they are very different from your native language), but in order to reach the stage of basic communication, you need to start at some point, so why not start right now?

Holding a conversation with a native speaker is a two-way street, meaning that not only will you have to construct sentences, you will need to understand what is being said back to you. These are two skills that need to be developed ideally at the same level, as encountering frustrations in one skill will impact your confidence in the other. That brings us to the next point – listening.


ISSUE 2: Even if I can speak, I don’t understand what’s being said back

For some people, speaking may not be the problem, but rather understanding what is being said. This is very likely to occur, especially if you’re still in the beginner phase where your brain is still not used to processing incoming foreign words. Even in the same language, different people speak in varied accents, tones and at different speeds.

How can I improve my listening skills?

Expose yourself to your target language every day to keep the momentum going. 20 minutes per day is better than spending long hours once every 2-3 weeks.

Nowadays, the Internet has made language exposure a possibility without having to be in the country of your target language. Resources like YouTube, online podcasts and radio channels serve as a great foundation for listening practices and you can select the one that best suits your level. Even if you’re only at a beginner level, it’s absolutely okay to listen to more advanced resources, like the news. You may not understand the majority of what is going on, but just getting used to “the sounds of the language” may help you greatly in the long run in terms of pronunciation, language structure and relieving your stress (so you don’t feel like you’re listening to completely alien sounds!). The point to note is to try diversifying your listening resources, as you may get used to one or two individuals’ speech, but as soon as you listen to a different speaker, you have to re-adjust again. Expose yourself to multiple speakers so your ears are better trained to process different styles of speeches.

However, it is important to understand that if your goal is to hold a conversation, speaking and listening go hand in hand, and ideally, they should be practiced simultaneously. Even if you are used to processing a foreign language by listening to media, radio and podcasts, your brain will have to put in more effort during real-time conversations, as you need to understand and process what is being said and formulate a response. Therefore, practicing speaking and listening at the same time is still the best way to go.

Are there any strategies that I can use?

Initial conversations are repetitive

The Pareto principle says that 80% of results is based on 20% of effort. That applies to language learning as well. 80% of your conversation with native speakers consists of approximately 20% of the language, and many vocabularies and questions will be repeated during initial encounters. Common questions include:

  • Where are you from? What is your native language?
  • Why are you interested in this language?
  • How long have you learned this language?
  • How many languages do you speak?
  • Have you traveled to… (a country where your target language is spoken)? Did you enjoy your time there?
  • How did you learn the language (classroom, textbook, digital resources, etc)?

So if you are one of those people who gets really anxious when you speak a foreign language, prepare answers to common questions in advance and jot down possible responses. If you still feel uncomfortable, it is absolutely okay to memorize your script if that makes you more confident. It is important to build up your confidence in the beginning of the conversation, as you will feel more empowered to move on to other topics later on. A good start serves as a foundation for a great conversation.

Learn from context: entertainment is the best resource

If you really delve into how we learn our native languages, it’s all about learning from context. How do you know you have to say “thank you” (instead of “hello” or “goodbye”) when you want to express gratitude? Because you learned by observing others: every time they are grateful towards somebody, they say, “thank you”. It’s fascinating how the human brain works, but we all learned our mother tongues solely through context. First, you hear the words or phrases being said in a situation, then you unconsciously memorize it through repetition and when the same situation occurs again, you automatically know what to say. That explains why individuals who never took a single step outside their own country, but seem to have an excellent grasp in the language are people who most likely watched a huge amount of movies, TV shows or dramas in their target language. These resources provide excellent context and teach you how to respond during specific circumstances.

Last but not least – it’s time to ditch perfectionism and be ready to get out of your comfort zone.

language partner

ISSUE 3: I want to be 100% grammatically correct and wait for the “perfect” moment before I start speaking

Just by reading the title above, everyone knows it is unrealistic (even in your native language!). If you’re a perfectionist, give yourself a break, it’s totally normal to not get it right sometimes: language is always changing and evolving, and it’s also important to keep in mind that many things can impact your speech: being in a bad mood or feeling tired after a long day at work, for example.

However, many people who never got the chance to speak their target language would secretly admit that this is the exact reason why they put off speaking for so long.

Unknown words, unfamiliar grammar structure and foreign pronunciations all add into the formula of why people fear languages.

Two of the biggest enemies in language learning are foreign language anxiety and the desire for perfection. According to research, communication apprehension and fear of negative evaluation are the two main reasons we have discomfort when talking in front of other people.

How can I overcome my anxiety and perfectionism?

First thing you need to understand is that you are not alone. Anyone who is learning a foreign language will experience the same feeling and that is true for professional language learners as well. Even if someone can speak multiple languages at a convincingly high level, when he or she starts a new language, they will still have to start from scratch and therefore, the same anxiety applies. The reason why they “seem to” have a lower anxiety is that language learning gets easier with experience, just like every other skill we learn in life. They know that being anxious is part of the process and the more you push yourself out of your comfort zone, the quicker you will get used to it.

Furthermore, you will not be able to speak a language at a good level without starting by speaking a “broken” version of it first. Initially, it may be extremely frustrating as you won’t be able to express your thoughts and emotions fully, but as you practice and make mistakes along the way (which you will!), you will quickly progress and start grasping what professional language learners call “the feel” or “the sense” of the language. So, don’t overthink, simply take the big step forward and start practicing. Everything else will fall into place as you go.

Striving for perfection is great, as it pushes you to achieve better results. However, if being a perfectionist hinders you from taking the initial step to start speaking and practicing a language, then it is only going to hold you back greatly in your learning process.

So, start speaking, make mistakes and as you practice and use more of your target language conversing with native speakers, you will realize that most of the time, our brains have the fascinating ability to naturally correct our mistakes along the way (just like how we learned our mother tongue!). By the time you realize that fact, you will already be confident in speaking your target language!

Are you ready to take the challenge and learn a new language? Choose your language here.