Dealing With Anxiety

One of the most common issues faced by language learners is a feeling of anxiety when attempting to speak their new languages. Sometimes the language learner feels self-conscious. I’ve been there more times than I can recall. What if I say the wrong thing? What if I forget proper grammar? What if I use the wrong verb tense or pronounce something the wrong way? The “what if” scenarios are nearly endless and serve only to create a mental barrier the learner is unable to break through.

We’re always clumsy as we begin to practice a new skill. Being fearful about speaking in your new language can slow your progress substantially and take away the pleasure of putting what you’ve learned to work. Let’s look at why these fears can scare us and consider some tricks to overcome our fears.


Two kinds of memory

Sometimes we can clearly identify our self-consciousness in speaking. On the other hand, sometimes language learners might not feel anxious at all; in fact, he or she may simply feel like there is a mental block that stops the words from flowing. This most often stems from the inability to take passive knowledge and access it in an active manner.

This is due to the difference between passive and active recall. If you see a word or phrase in your target language and you understand its meaning, you have passive recall of that piece of content. If you are able to spontaneously use a word or phrase in natural conversation, you have active recall of that knowledge.

Think back to school and try to recall a test that was multiple choice versus one that asked you to write out your answers in detail. I’m sure you did far better on the multiple-choice test. We all did, because passive recall is far easier to develop than active recall.

It’s also important to note that when it comes to language learning, we all need to develop passive recall before we can advance to active recall. It’s equally important to note that this is not a linear process. You might find a word or phrase slipping back and forth between passive and active recall. You may also discover that words or phrases you think you only know passively will actively and spontaneously slip out of your mouth when you engage with native speakers. This is a perfectly natural part of the language learning process.

Whether you are anxious due to self-consciousness or recall issues doesn’t matter all that much. The result is the same: difficulty in speaking.


Three tricks to interacting confidently

Fortunately, there are a few tricks you can use to get yourself unstuck. In the short term, these tactics can temporarily overcome your speaking anxiety. In the long term, they allow you to avoid speaking anxiety altogether and become comfortable speaking your new language.

Trick 1: Open up and use your words

When engaging with native speakers, language learners tend to give very short “yes” or “no” answers. If you’ve ever tried learning a new language, I’m sure you’ve experienced something like this:

Native speaker: It’s so nice to meet you. How do you like it here?
Language learner: Good.
Native speaker: Oh… good? Ah, you like it here, and you think it’s good. Are you staying for long?
Language learner: Yes. Week.
Native speaker: I see… um, so… are you here for work, or are you on vacation?
Language learner: Vacation.

As you can see in the example above, the native speaker is trying to engage the language learner, asking broad, open-ended questions that provide the learner with lots of opportunities to speak. But due to anxiety, the language learner is giving short one- or two-word answers.

This is all too common among new language learners, and as the hypothetical dialogue above advances, we see a few trends.

The native speaker starts to feel a mix of pressure and disenfranchisement because attempts to get the language learner to speak are failing. On a subconscious level, the native speaker might feel the language learner is being standoffish, hostile, or not interested in speaking.

At the same time, the language learner feels more and more pressure to respond, especially as the questions become longer.

To combat this pitfall, the language learner would be well served to avoid the temptation to provide one or two-word responses. Don’t worry if your responses are not grammatically correct or are not full sentences. The goal is to be as verbose as you can using the vocabulary you know.

Let’s replay the example above and see what happens when the language learner uses a few more words.

Native speaker: It’s so nice to meet you. How do you like it here?
Language learner: Good. Here is good. I like.
Native speaker: Oh, you like it here? Me, too! Of course, I live here. What do you like about this place, so far?
Language learner: People. People here are good. Very nice. You are nice.
Native speaker: Why, thank you! So what brings you here? How long are you staying?
Language learner: I make vacation. One week. Too short.

In this second example, the conversation starts off the same, but immediately becomes warmer in tone and nature. The language learner’s first response is very simple. It is not grammatically correct, and probably no more complex than what a toddler might say.

But it’s a genuine response that is perfectly understood by the native speaker. The native speaker, in turn, realizes that the language learner is really trying to engage, and responds in kind.

Now look at the language learner’s next two answers. Once again, the responses are simple and barely grammatically correct, but they still respond to the native speaker’s questions.

Most native speakers are delighted to hear that he or she is nice, that his or her fellow countrymen are nice, and that visitors would love to spend more time in their country.

So when engaging with native speakers, making your responses longer can do a lot to warm up your interactions and help you avoid anxiety.

Of course, this becomes much easier if you have a set of go-to talking points, which is our next trick.

Trick 2: Memorize your talking points

This is one of the few times I advise anyone to consciously memorize anything. The talking points you decide to memorize are entirely your choice, but here are a few I used when I was first teaching myself my ethnic Circassian language.

  • Whoa! Slow down. I don’t speak that well.
  • Thanks, that’s nice of you to say.
  • I’m still learning.
  • I taught myself.
  • I study every day.
  • I wish I spoke better.

Over time, I also found myself utilizing this much longer talking point:

My mother and father were born in Syria, and they speak Circassian very well. I never spoke a single word of Circassian as a child. One day I decided to learn. I’m still learning, and I love the language.

At the time I stumbled upon this technique, the talking points above just naturally evolved. I used them as anchors when I felt anxious or needed a native speaker to slow down or bring a conversation back to a topic with which I felt comfortable.

Although I developed the talking points above to cope with my specific circumstances, most of them are generic enough for nearly anyone.

Almost any statement from a native speaker, on any topic, can be responded to with one of the short talking points above. For example:

Native speaker: SOMETHING THAT IS NOT UNDERSTOOD.
Language learner: Whoa! Slow down. I don’t speak that well.
Native speaker: Oh, I’m sorry. Actually, you speak very well.
Language learner: Thanks, that’s nice of you to say. I’m still learning.
Native speaker: Do you study a lot?
Language learner: I’m still learning. I study every day. I wish I spoke better.

Did you notice something magical about the above? By using these talking points, the language learner was able to provide longer responses, which instantly warmed up the native speaker. And by using these specific talking points, the language learner was able to bring the native speaker back to a simple topic close to his or her heart: the process of learning a language. Finally, the language learner was able to string several of these statements together, which incorporates Trick #1 above.

So what talking points should you try to memorize? I recommend you consider the generic ones I suggested:

  • Whoa! Slow down. I don’t speak that well.
  • Thanks, that’s nice of you to say.
  • I’m still learning.
  • I taught myself.
  • I study every day.
  • I wish I spoke better.

You might also want to memorize a longer talking point that describes how and why you decided to learn your new language. It doesn’t need to be as long as the statement I shared about my parents, but it will help you build a talking point that will likely swing the conversation back to topics that are interesting, relevant, and engaging to you personally.

(This assumes you’ve picked up words and phrases related to the reasons that drive your motivations.)

Examples might include:

  • I love Japanese culture and anime! I am learning Japanese so I can watch anime without subtitles.
  • I play Xbox with Portuguese speakers. We love listening to folk songs.
  • My girlfriend is Romanian, and I want to surprise her by learning her language.

In each case above, these talking points are likely to push the exchange toward topics that are interesting, relevant, and known to the language learner.

Trick 3: Sidestep and loop

This is a slightly more advanced trick, but it builds upon the first two. By using the first two tricks, you are likely to:

  • Avoid anxiety.
  • Keep your discussions free-flowing.
  • Stay focused on topics that are interesting and relevant to you.

But there will still be times when the conversation flows to a topical area beyond your level of comprehension. This might be a subject in which you are uninterested, or a topic for which you don’t have enough vocabulary to engage.

Even if you are able to swing the conversation back to topics where your talking points are helpful, there may be cases where the discussion moves in another direction.

Once you’ve exhausted your talking points, it might be odd or unnatural to keep using them in order to move the discussion back toward them. At the same time, if you overuse your talking points, you might miss opportunities to expand your vocabulary, speech, and listening comprehension.

This is where you sidestep the topic and loop the dialogue back toward the native speaker. Here are a few examples:

Sidestep and loop example 1

Native speaker: So what do you think about the political system in my country? Is it very different from yours?
Language learner: I don’t know much about that. What’s your opinion?

Sidestep and loop example 2

Native speaker: There’s a new art exhibit by a famous local artist. Did you happen to see it? Do you like it?
Language learner: I’m not aware. Can you tell me more?

Sidestep and loop example 3

Native speaker: You know, we have a number of guided walking tours in our city. Have you been on any of them?
Language learner: That’s so interesting. I never heard that before. What’s it like?

In each of the examples above, the response provided by the language learner sidesteps the need for a topical response and loops the conversation back toward the native speaker. This frees you from the pressure of speaking and buys some time to think and understand.

Since the native speaker initiated the new topic, one may safely assume it is interesting and relevant to the native speaker. This leads to greater engagement with the native speaker, since he or she is now able to expand upon a topic that is enjoyable. Finally, it allows the language learner to broaden and improve his or her vocabulary and listening comprehension.

Another thing to note is that this trick does not require you to memorize any specific talking points. Chances are you’ll have picked up a number of ways to convey the idea of “I don’t know” or “Tell me more.” Each of the responses above is just a variation of that statement.

Additionally, these semi-generic responses don’t require you to understand every word in the native speaker’s original question. So long as you can pick out a few key words and get the gist of the original question, you can tailor your “I don’t know” or “Tell me more” responses.


Putting it all together

You might feel that I’ve thrown a lot at you, but these three simple tricks flow pretty fluidly. Using them is a bit like learning dance steps. It may feel a bit stilted at first, but soon you find your speech flowing pretty well, and these techniques will become second nature.

You may also wonder whether using these tricks count as cheating. After all, I’m explicitly calling them “tricks.” Are you tricking native speakers into thinking you are more advanced in your language? Are you tricking yourself into thinking the same? Are you using these ploys to avoid “real” language-learning efforts?

Not at all.

It’s human nature to play to our strengths. When meeting new people, we often “put on our best face,” get dressed up and pay special attention to our appearance. We try to make a good impression so we can really get to know the new person.

These tricks will allow you to do the same when it comes to getting to know your new language. Taken in total, they decrease the pressure and anxiety new language learners often face, freeing you to better engage in speech with native speakers.

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