This article is by Sila. She lives in Barcelona, Spain where she teaches English and does translation work. Sila lived in England for five years where she realized that most Spanish speakers’ level of English is very poor, and having struggled with English herself, she wanted to help solve this problem. Her blog (Aprende Inglés-Sila) aims to make learning English fun, practical, and entertaining. For more information, check out Sila’s awesome blog!
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How many of us have died of embarrassment when given the opportunity to speak English in class or in front of a stranger?
Many non-native English speakers cut themselves off when they start speaking Shakespeare’s language because of shyness and fear, because they might make a fool of themselves, or because they feel insecure, uncomfortable, or even frustrated. And even though these fears are common among English students, such fears shouldn’t stop you when it comes time to express yourself in English.
Fear of Speaking in Public
In many psychological self-help books that are dedicated to helping you overcome “the fear of speaking in public” tell you that, first, you should figure out the exact reason why you feel shy. They ask you, for example, whether you get shy in front of strangers or when trying out a new skill that you haven’t mastered, yet (like a new language). In some of these books, they recommend that you try to identify the thoughts that pass through your head just before you become paralyzed with shyness, and that once you discover the reasons, you tell yourself “I can do it,” or something else that helps you overcome insecurity.
However, as I’ve found with my students, although the techniques suggested by self-help books can be very useful, in reality when the time comes to speak a language that’s not yours, there are other variables that can condition us towards self-confidence, which we can call “idiomatic variables.” “Idiomatic variables” are the imperfections specifically related to language that explain one’s hesitation when it comes time to express himself in English. These often have to do with many factors.
Those that seem most relevant are:
- A lack of vocabulary: simply that you don’t have the necessary vocabulary to express yourself as you would in your native tongue.
- Problems with pronunciation: You’re scared of pronouncing a word wrong and making a fool of yourself. For example, if you confuse the long e sound in “sheet” with the short e sound in “shit” it could create one of those situations in which you wish the Earth would just swallow you whole.
- Ignorance of English grammar and syntax: if you confuse the verbal forms or the order of the words in English, it might happen that no one understands you, or that they understand the opposite of what you wanted to say. I’ll give you a clear example. It’s not the same to say:
For no reason, John would beat his wife.
As to say
For no reason would John beat his wife.
The order of the components of this phrase is essential to express one thing or the opposite. Notice that when comparing the two phrases the only difference is the order of the modal verb “would” and the subject “John.” However, the first sentence means that “John hits his wife for no reason,” and the second sentence means “For no reason would John hit his wife.”
How do you overcome fear?
Small accomplishments, huge results
First, I recommend that you don’t establish overly difficult goals. By this I mean, concentrate on small challenges. Set yourself a daily goal, for example, “Today I will learn to pronounce five regular verbs in the past tense.” And pronounce these five verbs in front of the mirror, little by little, increase your audacity and challenge yourself to pronounce these verbs in front of someone you know, and later dive in and use these five verbs with a stranger or in class or in a bar… because you’ll master your pronunciation and that’ll create the necessary confidence and the motivation required to continue learning.
If you find yourself in a mess and you’re obligated to speak English without being able to practice, let’s see what you can do:
When you have to speak English and you feel immensely embarrassed, smile and maintain eye contact with the other person. Why? Because a simple smile to a stranger can make you forget about constructing sentences in English and help you focus on the content of the conversation. Your smile is your content.
If you’re in the middle of a conversation and you want to say a word in English that you don’t remember or that you don’t know, rephrase the sentence. For example, if you want to say “I bought a chair,” but you don’t remember the word “chair,” you can try to describe what a chair is, “a piece of furniture that you sit on.” If you don’t know how to say “furniture,” rephrase and paraphrase the sentence over and over again until you are able to describe what you wanted to, even if it takes you two hours to say, “I bought a chair.” The important thing is that you can express yourself so that they understand you.
Don’t translate literally
Don’t try to translate literally what you think in your native tongue to English. This doesn’t work, and, furthermore, imagine the valuable time you waste between thinking the sentence in your native tongue, translating it to English, thinking about how to pronounce each word, and finally verbalizing it. You should think directly in English, not translate from your mother tongue.
In order to start thinking in English, try to always use simple constructions. By this I mean, instead of trying to blurt out (say all at once), “What I want most is for Ana, who is married to my cousin, the one that lives outside of Medellin, to come visit me once in a while,” try to say, “I’d like to see Ana.” Once you’ve gained confidence and linguistic skills, you can take a risk and try to form more complex sentences. The most important, as I told you above and I’ll repeat a thousand more times, is that you be able to express yourself so that people understand you.
Have private classes via telephone
There are teachers that offer English classes via telephone and these classes are very successful precisely because the student doesn’t have to physically show himself, he remains somewhat anonymous. These “blind” classes can be a great method for people who feel tremendously embarrassed when speaking English.
You can even create a character for yourself. Tell yourself that you’re Penelope Cruz or Bo Derek, it doesn’t matter who you choose, the most important thing is that you speak English.
Don’t compare yourself with others
The more that you compare yourself with others, the more you’ll feel that you’re not as good and the more intimidated that you’ll feel… which is totally counterproductive because your embarrassment will only increase. Instead of comparing yourself to others, compare the “yourself” of now with the “yourself” of the past. Compare that which you knew before and that which you know now, the mistakes that you made in the past that you don’t make anymore, the words that you’ve learned to pronounce well or the new vocabulary that you’ve acquired in a certain amount of time. This comparison will be fruitful because it will inspire you to obtain more confidence in yourself and, above all, the motivation necessary to continue improving.
Don’t ever stop practicing your English. As I explained in my article, “12 Tricks to Practice English” (12 Trucos para Pacticar Inglés), speak with native English speakers, listen to the radio and the television in English, read books in English (if you don’t have money to buy them, your local library will surely have some), listen to music in English and sing your favorite songs, don’t stop yourself, you can dance in front of the mirror too. If you’ve just seen a dubbed movie, then watch the original version. And, if you can afford it, travel as much as possible. The necessity to be understood will make you lose you’re embarrassment.
Speak out loud
This part is highly related to the part before. Practice, practice, practice… but always out loud. When you read a book, read an entire chapter out loud (or two pages, whatever). Sing out loud in front of the mirror so that you can see how you move your articulation organs (lips, tongue, etc.) to pronounce certain sounds in English.
Create a dialogue with yourself in front of the mirror: speak to yourself, answer yourself, dispute the answer, convince yourself, scold yourself, lecture yourself and then say goodbye. If you can, record this conversation to listen to later and assess yourself to see what you need to improve, or give the recording to someone you trust so that they can correct you.
But make sure that when you speak to yourself that you’re home alone… if you don’t want them to come looking for you with a straightjacket (picture to the left).
Who cares what other people think?
Don’t worry so much about whether you make mistakes when speaking English. Mistakes are an essential part of the process of learning a foreign language. Remember that many native English speakers don’t speak another language. So, the fact that you are able to speak a second language (pretty well… for the time being) says everything.
Every day (I mean every single day) feel proud of your improvements in the English language. And don’t always think the worst of people. The truth is that most people appreciate your efforts to communicate in their language… they already know that you’re learning and that you weren’t born in London! In fact, many native English speakers will respond to you with a positive attitude, and will even help you to speak English well by correcting your small pronunciation mistakes or by finding the words that you have on the tip of your tongue.
You’ll also find rude people and those that want to ridicule you, but the problem is that these people are insolent by nature; their attitude doesn’t have anything to do with you. Forget them and concentrate on what really matters: learning English.
Take it Easy
What’s the worst that can happen if you mistake the syntax or if you don’t know a word in English? Nothing, nada, time and time again. It doesn’t matter, you’ve made a mistake, and you’ll learn… don’t try to control every situation… Go with the flow. Let your hair down.
Just speak. Don’t listen to yourself, don’t analyze your own words while you’re still saying them, don’t try to plan what you’re going to say beforehand.
They say that the students that don’t worry so much about their mistakes learn much faster than those that over analyze themselves.
Follow the rules, but don’t go too far. Forget your big “ego,” what does it matter if someone thinks you’re a klutz? Do you really care what strangers think of you? Furthermore, strangers will definitely be more worried about what you think of them.
Remember that trying to control the situation in which you’re speaking a language that isn’t yours is totally ridiculous. Control is a fantasy, an illusion. Accept and welcome chaos, learn to live with it, and enjoy imbalance, linguistic bipolarity, and idiomatic schizophrenia that learning English involves.
You’ll see that little by little, with resolve and motivation, you’ll improve. You don’t need to criticize yourself because you’ve mistaken a verb again, keep practicing and you’ll see that in the end you’ll reap what you’ve sown.
Don’t be embarrassed to speak English, be confident!
Don’t miss “Stage fright and linguistic embarrassment” (El pánico escénico y la vergüenza lingüística) by professor Sevi.
If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out Sila’s awesome blog!