Everyone has something they're most afraid of.
Some people have a fear of animals, like spiders or snakes. Others hate flying, heights, or being stuck in tight spaces.
All of these are common fears, but there are two more fears that are the most common of all:
Death, and public speaking.
Death is something permanent that will happen to all of us, while public speaking is something temporary that may not happen to you very often in your life, if at all.
However, between death and public speaking, do you know which event people are afraid of the most?
Despite being a completely harmless activity, there's something about speaking in front of a crowd that instills fear in people, and makes it a fate worse than death.
Maybe it's the fact that all eyes are on you, the speaker, as you attempt to give your speech without making mistakes. Maybe it's the fear that if you do make mistakes, people will judge, and laugh at you.
All of these concerns that people have about public speaking are the same concerns that I hear from language learners who are too scared to start speaking their target languages—they're too shy, too unready, too afraid of judgement. In many cases, they'd rather die than have to use their target language with a real person.
And that's a shame. As an experienced language learner, I can say that talking with people in a foreign language is probably the most rewarding part of the whole process—if you can handle it.
Today, I'd like to teach you a key set of strategies you can follow in order to overcome your fear of speaking in a foreign language.
Know What You're Really Afraid Of
Just like nearly everyone has a fear of public speaking, I've found in my experience that nearly everyone shudders at the thought of speaking their target language with another person.
Despite this, I've noticed that different people fear speaking for different reasons.
Here are some of the most common concerns that make up someone's fear of speaking in another language:
These are all very different factors, which affect all language learners to different degrees.
I'd like you to take a moment and think of which of these factors contribute most to your fear of speaking.
You can even take the above list and modify it, if you’d like. Add any fear or concern that you feel is relevant to you, personally.
Once you've done that, take a pen or pencil and rank each of these factors according to how scary you think they are. Number them in descending order (1 = scariest, 10 = least scary).
You should end up with something like this:
When all your fears have been listed and numbered, you can then move on to the next section.
Identify Your Weakest Skills
Take out your list of fears and look at it again.
What are these things, really? Why are you afraid of them? And why does your fear of these things contribute to your fear of speaking as a whole?
I'll tell you: you're afraid of these things because they are your weaknesses. Just as our strengths give us the confidence to take action, our weaknesses sap our confidence, and give us anxiety.
All of the things on your list represent a skill that you believe you are not good at, an inability to perform that keeps you from wanting to take risks.
With this in mind, let's rewrite our list to highlight the skills we believe we're deficient in:
Try that now with your list, especially if you added any elements. Try to really zero-in and identify the specific weak points behind each of your concerns.
Now, I know it's not comfortable to dwell on your weaknesses, but this activity serves an important purpose: once you know where your weaknesses lie, you can organize a plan to systematically overcome those weaknesses, one by one.
Work on Strengthening Each of Your Weaknesses
Let's take one of my fears—appearing stupid, or unskilled with the language.
This is something that always bothers me at the early stages of language learning, and something that can keep me from speaking as much as I should.
Looking at it from the perspective of weakness, my fear of appearing stupid really has to do with a lack of foundational language skills. As a beginner, all of my grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary skills are quite poor, so speaking is quite difficult.
With that information in mind, how can I plan to overcome this weakness, so that it is no longer a barrier to speaking my target language?
Well, if my foundational skills are poor, I know I'll need to work on improving all of them to an acceptable level before I feel more comfortable speaking.
This is exactly why, unlike some experienced language learners, I don't worry about speaking right away. Instead, I work on building a proper foundation of skill before I focus on having conversations with natives.
Specifically, I always start learning a new language by using my own Bidirectional Translation technique. Following this technique takes me three to four months, and usually brings me right to the low-intermediate level of a language. This gives me a solid base in grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary skills that I would not have if I tried to start speaking any earlier in the learning process.
What I want you to do now is take your list of weaknesses, and do the same.
Organize a study plan that will help you specifically address each major weakness on your list.
Here are some suggestions to get you started:
Working on each of your skills sequentially in this way will help you feel much more confident once you really do begin chatting with natives.
Set a Deadline to Start Speaking!
As I give you all of this advice on how to identify and improve upon each of your weaknesses, I'm realizing one thing: all of this planning and practice can easily be mistaken for procrastination.
It may even seem like that in my case. Since I don't like speaking a foreign language until I have a certain level of skill in it, what's keeping me from holding off forever?
The answer is easy: a built-in deadline.
When I organized my plan to overcome my weakness and build all of my foundational skills in a language, I also incorporated a hard deadline.
Specifically, I use my Bidirectional Translation method for a maximum of three months. Once those three months are up, I start working on my speaking skills, regardless of whether or not I feel ready.
This three-month deadline keeps me from falling into the trap of perfectionism. Although I do give myself time to improve on my weaknesses, I don't wait until my fears are completely gone. Instead, I work just long enough to make a serious improvement, and then I work on my real goal—speaking to natives.
In your case, I suggest you do something similar. Now that you've got the list of activities that will help you improve upon all of the weaknesses that prevent you from speaking, give yourself three months to try to improve those skills.
Three months is just enough time to see an improvement in whatever skill you're working on, without running the risk of wasting unnecessary time.
Time to Face Your Fear of Speaking a Foreign Language
Though speaking a foreign language can often seem like a fate worse than death, much of the fear we have is a result of how we view our own language skills.
In most cases, we don't speak our target language because we don't feel confident. We worry that we're missing important words, or grammatical concepts. We worry that we sound foreign, or just plain stupid.
When we have those worries, what we're really doing is putting our weaknesses front and center. We're saying that these specific things are the obstacles that keep us from being good speakers.
Most people are content to leave it at that, and let the weaknesses stay as they are. If you someday want to speak a foreign language well, however, you'll need to do something entirely different.
Identify your weaknesses, and organize a plan to eliminate them, one by one. With each success, your confidence will grow, and you'll soon have the confidence to speak to a native, one-on-one.
Once that happens, you can truly face your fears head on, and continue your journey to becoming the poised, confident language speaker you've always wanted to be.