Whenever you think about speaking up in English, do you start getting an uncomfortable feeling in your stomach? Do possible scenarios and questions start filling your head? What if you miss something or don’t understand? What if you can’t remember the word you want to say? What if they don’t understand you? What if…..? Replaying these negative films in your head will make you a nervous wreck.
First of all, please stop torturing yourself! Let’s take a closer look at your potential fears and some possible solutions:
Fear no. 1: I won’t be able to express myself or I’ll misunderstand/be misunderstood
1. Have a list of survival phrases ready to use. Don’t be afraid to clarify or rephrase to be sure you’ve understood correctly:
• Could you please repeat that, I didn’t catch what you said?
• If I understand rightly, you’re saying that …..
• Would it be possible for you to clarify please?
• I’d really appreciate it if you could speak slightly slower please.
• I’m not sure if I heard correctly/I’d like to check my understanding, do you mean that…. ?
Don’t feel obliged to apologize all the time, you’re doing your best! Just remember please and thank you, they always make a good impression!
2. Remember to speak slowly and take your time. Don’t be tempted to talk fast because of nerves. Many English learners think that speaking fluently means they need to speak fast, which isn’t true as speaking too fast encourages bad habits. Speaking slowly will give you more time to breathe and think while you are speaking. Thanks to this, you’ll feel more relaxed and be able to focus on your message.
3. Describe a word or simply ask: If you can’t think of a word, try to find a different way of describing it and if you can’t, just ask, people are generally pleased to help. For example, if you’ve forgotten the word for Business «Trip», you could say «I recently travelled for business» or simply ask «how do you say the word “when you travel for work”?».
Don’t forget that it’s our authenticity that often connects us the most with others so, once again, if you don’t understand or miss something, don’t be afraid to say so.
Fear no. 2: I’ll make lots of mistakes and they’ll laugh at me/I’ll feel embarrassed
1. Focus on your message, not on perfection, and try not to feel frustrated if you do make mistakes. Simply make a note of them in your head so that you can hopefully avoid them in the future.
So please, forget perfection as it’s an impossible goal to reach. There is no finish line (it just keeps getting further away) so your only prize is frustration and a feeling of dissatisfaction. If we wait until everything is perfect, we will never speak (and even native speakers don’t speak perfectly). If we want to progress at anything, we have to be ready to make mistakes and, as far as language is concerned, each mistake is a stepping stone towards greater fluency. The main thing is not to make the same mistakes continually.
The problem is that when we speak a foreign language, we tend to relate it to our native language, which we speak fluently, and we feel silly not being able to do the same. We obviously don’t remember learning our language but we can be sure that we made a lot of mistakes, we just got better with practice.
2. Where is the attention when you are feeling inhibited? (Clue: It’s on you). So, what is the key? Shine the spotlight on others. When you genuinely focus on your interest in those around you instead of worrying what they might think of you or comparing yourself with them, your self-confidence increases.
And ask yourself this question: when was the last time that someone actually made fun of me because I made a mistake? I’m sure it was a very long time ago, if at all. If you put yourself in the other person’s shoes and ask yourself if you would laugh at or criticize someone who was trying to do their best to speak in English, I’m sure your answer would be no.
3. Don’t forget to smile. It’s communicative and will immediately «break the ice».
Fear no. 3 – I won’t know what to say during the «coffee breaks» or «business lunch»
1. Have a range of small talk questions on hand (open questions and follow-up questions) that are guaranteed to spark small talk or fill any awkward silences. You can have them hidden on your phone if it makes you feel better.
How was your trip? Is it your first time in the region? I’ve never been to Chicago – what advice would you give to a new visitor? Did you hear about….. ? What do you think of the new…..? What’s the weather like there at the moment?…. are just some possible options.
2. Really listen to the person in front of you. In this era of technology where we can be connected 24/7 and distractions are rife, people rarely listen as well as they could. In fact, we are often half listening, just waiting for a pause to be able to give our opinion or ask our next question. Being genuinely interested helps you connect more with the person and takes the pressure off you. If we really listen, it’s much easier to find topics of mutual interest or ask questions about a topic in which the other person is extremely interested. Try not to dislike these silences when you’re learning a new language as these gaps give us time to form our questions and answers as precisely as possible.
3. Stop worrying! Ask yourself:
• what is the worse case scenario and can I handle it?
• how likely is it to happen? (probably not that likely, particularly if you practice)
Once you have «exposed» your fears and seen them for what they are (a.k.a. False Evidence Appearing Real), it lightens your load.
Finally, another obvious solution to gaining confidence is to PRACTICE CONSISTENTLY and REPEATEDLY. Practice out loud with yourself in front of the mirror until you feel more confident, practice with an English-speaking friend or colleague, practice with an exchange partner on italki, go where English speakers congregate, join English associations or clubs, listen to English daily, copy native speakers on TV, in films, on the news. Attaching an image to words or sentences will help you remember them.
And remember: Just get out there and give it your best shot!!