As language learners, we all know the experience of feeling like a child again, of not having the words to express ourselves, and the struggle to maintain our dignity in the face of self-criticism.
We often believe that the other person is judging us, that our mistakes and difficulties make us look stupid, and that our inability to communicate the way we hope to or expect somehow reflects our lack of self-worth.
There’s a voice in our head that says “don’t open your mouth, you’ll sound stupid,” and the sad part is that most of us tend to listen. Even worse, we project this voice upon other people, assuming that they are criticizing us.
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But the truth is that you will never get fluent if you don’t open your mouth and use the language you are learning. It’s a hall of mirrors, a labyrinth of self-doubt, and the only way to move forward and become a confident and proficient English speaker is to develop the courage to move past your fears.
You’re not alone. This is what it feels like to learn another language.
And I’m not just talking about beginners. While beginners are more susceptible to this, and their problems are more daunting (intimidating), advanced and highly proficient speakers suffer from this problem all the time.
Here are 7 Tips to Conquer your fear of speaking English and communicate with dignity.
1. Accept that Fear is Normal and You Need Courage to Face it
“Courage is resistance of fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear.”
We walk around with the illusion that fluent speakers don’t feel fear, that one day we’ll learn enough and we won’t be scared. The truth is that advanced speakers, and even native speakers feel fear when communicating.
Fear is a fact of life, and those who have learned to conquer their fear are the ones who go far.
As the Mark Twain quote says, courage is the resistance of fear, not the absence of fear. The only thing that will reduce your fear is to face it, and in doing so you build courage and confidence, and you will realize that the monsters you’ve created are not real.
You may also realize that your biggest obstacle isn’t your English, but the fact that you are paralyzed by fear and have never learned how to face it.
Fear is a fact of life, not just for English, but for everything. For example, job interviews, tests, meetings, presentations, talking to a pretty girl, or guy. You must learn to face it.
“Life Begins at the end of your comfort zone.”
–Neale Donald Walsch
So what can you do to leave your comfort zone and find the courage to open your mouth and speak English? Really, what’s the worst that can happen?
And what positive things could and will happen if you find the courage to open it again and again?
2. Accept That Your Mistakes and Difficulties are an Important Part of Learning
“If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate.”
–Thomas Watson, Sr.
Another illusion that English learners tend to have is that fluent speakers don’t make mistakes. The truth is that we all make mistakes, even native speakers.
Sure, English learners make more mistakes, and beginners make a lot more, but they’re a natural part of the process, and it’s the price you pay to develop fluency. You don’t succeed in anything in life if you aren’t prepared to make mistakes.
It may help to know that very very few non-native speakers speak “perfect” English. You may look at them and think they’re speaking perfectly, but the vast majority of people who learn English as a second language make little mistakes along the way.
Another important thing to understand is that native speakers don’t judge your fluency based on your mistakes. We judge your fluency based upon your ability to communicate and connect with us, which is the true function of the language.
This does not mean that you should ignore your grammatical mistakes, but rather accept them as a part of the process, and take advantage of the opportunity to learn from them.
“Mistakes are the portals of discovery.”
Michael Jordan Says Repeated Failure Leads to Success
3. Master Cultural Fluency and Survival Phrases
Our definition of Cultural Fluency is: the understanding and effective use of the hidden cultural currents of communication. It is an awareness of the ways culture operates in communication and conflict, and the ability to respond effectively to these differences.
Whether you’re a beginner, intermediate, or advanced speaker, here at the RLE Fluency Center, we’ve systemized a group of simple and culturally correct phrases that are of enormous help to English learners. We call these Survival Phrases, and we use them to teach cultural fluency.
One important idea is that sometimes the biggest difficulty learners have is not their lack of knowledge, but rather the fact that they don’t know how to communicate and investigate and what they don’t know in English speaking culture.
Here’s a quick, but very incomplete overview of RLE’s cultural fluency and survival phrase system:
1. Say “sorry?” when you don’t understand something,
2. “Can you repeat please?” and “Can you speak slower?”
3. When you want to know a word or a phrase, ask “What does that mean?”
4. Finally, when you don’t know a word or a phrase, ask “How do you say insert word in English?”
Like I said, this is a very incomplete description, but it is important. To gain a complete understanding of this topic, check out 7 Phrases That Will Drastically Improve Your Cultural Fluency and/or watch these 2 short videos that illustrate this topic:
Simulated Conversation WITH BAD CULTURAL FLUENCY
The Same Conversation WITH GOOD CULTURAL FLUENCY
4. Make English a Fun, Convenient and Practical Daily Habit
Effective learners know that you have to apply what you learn to your life and create authentic experiences with the language. They also know that the best way to do this is to make it fun, practical, and above all, convenient.
The more you get accustomed to using English in your daily life, the easier it will be to find the courage to conquer your fear of speaking. The problem with traditional methods is that learners focus way too much on grammar, and ignore the experience of English.
What are these English For Life Strategies? We talk a lot more about them in 5 Ways to Make English a Fun Part of Your Daily Life, but a few of these are: watching TV & movies, listening to music you enjoy, listening to podcasts that teach English, and meeting people in person and online.
When you start having daily contact with English in your life (English For Life), several things will happen:
- Your automatic reaction of fear when you don’t understand something will relax and you will feel calm even if you don’t understand everything.
- Every other aspect of your learning process will get easier because you will gradually get used to the sounds and rhythms of the language.
- You will become a lot more enthusiastic about your learning process because you will be doing things you enjoy in authentic learning situations.
- Learning grammar will get a lot easier because it will be complemented by authentic learning experiences
5. Master Greetings and Goodbyes
We use them in nearly every face-to-face and even online interactions, and even if you’re only a beginner, learning them will help you feel in control and fluent for few a small moments at the beginning and end of every conversation.
You see, if you can connect with the person and make a fluent first impression, it’s much easier to start your conversation with courage and not get so paralyzed by your fear. And if you know how to say goodbye to a person in a relaxed and confident way, you will leave every conversation with a sense of dignity and confidence that will only build with time.
You may not be able to get fluent in the entire English language in a few days or weeks, but you sure can learn how to communicate confidently and fluently with your greetings and goodbyes.
With a great repertoire of greetings like, “What’s up?” “What’s going on?” “How have you been?” “What’s good?” you are able to connect with people in a natural and friendly way, which is great for your confidence.
And by mastering a small group of dynamic goodbyes like “take care,” “have a good one,” “it was nice to see you,” “have a nice day/week/trip,” and “later,” you end every conversation on a positive note.
This is one of the most dynamic and fun parts of the language, it immediately gives you the tools connect with almost anybody, and with just a handful of phrases, you can start and end every conversation with dignity, confidence, and even fluency.
6. Find People Who Support Your Learning
If your English learning support network is composed of people who are critical and unsupportive of you, it’s going to be difficult to overcome your fears because they are reinforcing them.
As an English learner, you need to find people who encourage, support, and celebrate you in your learning and your mistakes. I’ve met too many people who have a distorted perception of their English ability because they are around people who criticize them and don’t give them the support they need.
If the other person is more advanced than you, it’s often the case that their criticism and resistance comes from their own lack of self-esteem with their English. They criticize others because they don’t feel secure with their own English, and they feel validated if they verify that you speak worse.
This also happens a lot with people who believe that fluency is merely a question of correct grammar and will incessantly criticize your mistakes while ignoring the more essential question of communication.
So what kind of people do you need in your life to support your English?
You need people and communities who encourage you to speak, to use your English, and to make lots of mistakes. They will help you understand that your mistakes, difficulties, and frustrations are completely natural, and that the only way to conquer them is to keep moving forward and build courage, to work hard and devote yourself to your process, and to make English a passion and something you do every day.
You can find people and communities online (Check out Ethan’s Speaking English Online article), and you can even meet people in person. Couchsurfing is a good place to start to meet people in your city.
7. Improve Your Concentration and Emotional Balance with Activities Like Meditation
The final piece of advice that will help you conquer your fears and speak English with courage is to work on your concentration and emotional life with meditation.
You see, meditation will improve every aspect of your life and help you develop confidence, courage, and mental equanimity in whatever you decide to do, and you will see quick results with your English.
“If your mind is a muscle, then meditation is a way to take it to the gym. The stronger your control of your mind becomes, the more you’re able to consciously control what your mind focuses on and how it processes new information. Strengthening your mind in this way has repercussions on every aspect of your life: your emotional health and self esteem, your work performance, your discipline, your relationships, your ability to communicate well, your overall happiness, your stress levels, and your physical health as well.”
As we explored in How Meditation Can Improve Your English (and Your Life), meditation will help your self-esteem, your emotional health, and give you the courage to open your mouth in the face of fear.
Most importantly for your English, it will improve your concentration, which will naturally improve your memory and give you the psychological tools to speak better.
Enlighten Your English with Meditation (RealLife Radio Podcast)
Conclusion and Call to Action
I know there’s a lot of information here, but remember that this is a process, and as Lao Tzu (the ancient Taoist mystic) once said, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” This article is an excellent first step.
Another big step you can take is joining thousands of English learners from around the world in the Real Life English international community.
FREE E-Book: 101 Words You Will Never Learn in School
We hope enjoyed this article! We’d love to hear from you in the comments. Where are you from and how did you learn English? What strategies have helped you conquer your fear and develop confidence?