Thanks to guest blogger Eve Pearce, who’s written today’s really helpful article about something every language learner has had to deal with at some point – overcoming the fear of actually speaking it. If you have any other top stress-busting tips, we’d love to hear about them in the comments!
Seasoned foreign language teachers will probably tell you that one mark of a successful student in terms of language learning, is ‘openness’, ‘daring’ and sometimes, even ‘cheek’. The more free of self-consciousness and shame a student is, the more likely they are to progress, since one vital part of language learning is using it – having conversation with other speakers, communicating, living the language one is learning.
It is easier said than done for some learners, however, especially those suffering from anxiety. Far from being an exotic condition, anxiety is actually the most common mental condition in the US, the UK and many other countries. The daily stresses and demands of life can invoke our ‘fight or flight’ response, raising our heart and breathing rates and sometimes, even causing debilitating panic attacks.
As a language learner, anxiety may have stopped you in your tracks. It may have made you fear situations and people you do not know well. It can stop you from making many important changes in your life, or from learning a new language and interacting with other students and foreign language speakers. Anxiety can play big tricks on body and mind; excess oxygen levels (produced by breathing too rapidly) can cause muscles to cramp and can cause hyperventilation. Sometimes, the problem is mild but still uncomfortable – for instance, a person may fear having to get up in front of a class and make a speech in another language.
If you are suffering from anxiety, and you feel like it is interfering with your ability to progress as a foreign language learner, try some of the most effective relaxation techniques known to those who have recovered from this condition. Foremost among these techniques is abdominal breathing. It is quite simple – just breathe in a large amount of air through your nose, allowing your abdomen to expand. Keep the breath in for a few seconds then exhale, slowly, through your mouth. Do this various times and you will note that your heart rate drops, even when you are very stressed.
Yoga is another highly successful technique at quelling anxiety and stress, so much so that it is offered at practically every top rehabilitation centre for addiction and for eating disorders. Yoga is such an excellent way to battle anxiety because it can be practised by people of all fitness levels and ages, it is cheap, and also a proven method of lowering stress hormone (cortisol) levels. It involves a connection between body, mind and spirit. Controlled breathing is also used, and various poses (asanas) are performed.
Sometimes, mindful meditation can be practised during a yoga session, yet meditation is also useful on its own to calm stress. If you have anxiety, you should definitely set aside a few moments during the day to meditate. There are numerous free online meditation sessions lasting minutes, as well as meditation and breathing apps for your phone, which you can follow while you are in the car or on the bus to work or school.
If you try these methods out and you do not improve, or your anxiety is very severe, then expert help may be required. A good therapist will be able to help you in a handful of session, by utilizing techniques such as CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), which aims to help patients identify stress triggers and find positive ways to channel tension.
If you have an upcoming talk in a foreign language and you are worried about what others will think if your delivery isn’t perfect, remember that most speakers make mistakes and even suffer from nerves before they begin. Language isn’t a competition; it is a progression and it pays to keep in mind that even if the worst possible outcome occurs (e.g. you forget your speech or you feel too nervous to speak), the event is not the be-all, end-all of your language learning experience. There will always be another chance, further down the line, to do that exam or speak before an audience.
Through relaxation techniques, breathing and therapy, you soon discover that anxiety is little more than a trick – it is your body’s way of choosing ‘flight’ (escape) when the ‘fight or flight’ response kicks in. By simply breathing for a few minutes until your heart rate settles, you can stop anxiety in its tracks – and begin to view language learning as the enjoyable pursuit it really is.
So apparently a quarter of Brits are nervous about speaking another language when they’re abroad, and 40% of us are embarrassed by our language skills.
These conclusions come from a study by the British Council, which surveyed 2,000 British adults. While 67% of respondents believed it’s important to learn a few words of the local language before a trip, it seems not many of us are putting that into practice when we actually get there.
There are a number of very legitimate reasons for this fear:
‘What if I get it wrong and everyone laughs at me?’
‘What if I say my bit perfectly, but then don’t understand the response?’
‘What if they just don’t understand what I’m trying to say?’
‘What if I open my mouth and my mind goes blank?’
We all hate the idea of making a fool of ourselves, and it doesn’t help that the Internet is full of stories about people who said ’embarazada’ (pregnant) when they meant to say ’embarrassed’. (Probably more embarrassing than the thing you were embarrassed about in the first place, ironically.) But how many of those people would make the same mistake again? I’m guessing zero.
It sounds like a cliché, but sometimes making a mistake really is the best way to learn. And in my experience, even if you do get things wrong, and even if people laugh, it won’t be mean laughter – and they’ll probably go out of their way to explain where you went wrong, so you know for next time.
Most likely, whoever you’re speaking to will probably be pleasantly surprised that you gave it a try in the first place; in most countries, not much is expected of British or American visitors, so any time we make the effort, it’s appreciated. (Just look at the response to Mark Zuckerberg speaking Mandarin – even though he was very hesitant, and made lots of mistakes, the audience loved it.)
What’s the point?
But at least feeling anxiety over speaking another language shows an interest in trying, and a desire to get it right; the fear of making mistakes is what’s holding us back. The far bigger problem is the number of people who believe there’s no point at all in learning another language, because ‘everyone speaks English’, ‘every time I try, people reply to me in English’ and ‘just knowing a few words won’t help’.
It’s true – last year, when I visited Italy, everyone could tell instantly that I was British, and even if I started a conversation in Italian, they would generally reply to me in English. But here’s the thing: though it’s very easy to seize that lifeline and lapse back into English, you don’t have to. I had very little Italian, but I was determined not to give up, even though the opportunity was there – and the waiters and shop staff I was trying to speak to soon caught on and reverted to Italian. Our conversations mostly consisted of one-word sentences, but at least they were Italian words, and we were able to understand each other. And I was pretty proud of myself afterwards – much more than I would have been if I’d had the same conversation in my native language.
As for everyone speaking English, that’s clearly not true – and it shouldn’t matter anyway. The comments on the BBC article about the British Council study show that we expect those who visit the UK to speak English – so why should it be any different when we travel to another country? Even if you don’t need to learn a language, does that mean you shouldn’t?
And finally, it’s true that knowing a few words wouldn’t help you if you had to go and close a business deal in French, or teach maths in China. But if you’re just going on holiday for a week, the chances are that as long as you’re able to check in to your hotel, order a meal and buy a bus ticket, you’re probably covered – though of course it will depend where you’re travelling to.
This, of course, is the whole idea that uTalk is built on. Because sometimes, just being able to say hello in another language is enough to make someone smile. And why wouldn’t we want to do that?
So let’s be bold, and show off our language skills. And let’s see if we can bring those percentages down in time for the next study.