Do you want to be good at speaking a foreign language?
Of course you do! You wouldn't be here, otherwise.
It's the number one goal of nearly every language learner. The problem is that many learners go about trying to speak in the wrong way. Or worse, they don't actually try to speak at all.
The hard truth is this: you'll never be good at speaking if you don't cultivate the right attitude.
You need to treat speaking as something that you can do and should do often, regardless if you think you're good at it.
Today, I'm going to share with you specific tips you can use to transform your attitude about speaking so that you can converse with native speakers comfortably and naturally.
But first, let me be clear about the kinds of attitudes that will not help you be a better speaker.
The Wrong Way to Think About Speaking a Foreign Language
Meet Kelly. She's a 30-something English woman that I’ve been coaching in Spanish for the past few months.
On the surface, it seems like Kelly has everything she needs to become an excellent Spanish speaker:
However, despite all of these advantages, Kelly struggles to speak any Spanish at all.
"The problem", she confesses, "is that I can't get out of my own head. I'm always worried about how I sound, how many mistakes I will make, and whether or not people will laugh at me."
Kelly's laser focus on the potential negative outcomes of speaking made it impossible for her to speak Spanish at all, which made her very unhappy.
This was Kelly’s frank confession when we first had a language coaching session.
I coached Kelly for a few months, and helped her transform her mindset and see conversations as an opportunity, rather than a risk. She now speaks Spanish fluently.
Let me share some tips for changing your mindset that will also help you get better results when speaking.
1. Get into the Right State of Mind
Learning does not happen at a constant rate. How well or poorly you learn is heavily dependent on your emotional state.
In simple terms:
This means that you need to be very aware of your emotional state whenever you are about to speak your target language. You always want to aim for the best mood possible before diving in.
A good quick way to get into the right mindset before speaking is to repeat a few short, reassuring phrases to yourself, like:
"I can't wait to speak to my exchange partner today!"
"I'm going to be an even better speaker by the time I'm done with today's tutoring session"
"Even if I make mistakes, my partner and I will laugh about them together"
Go with whatever feels right for you, and gets you pumped to get out there and speak.
2. Make a List of Misconceptions and Fears
Before you can develop a newer, more supportive mindset, you first need to leave behind the old mindset that was holding you back, and embrace a completely new one.
I suggest a simple activity for this. Take a piece of paper and a pencil, and write down all the bad things you think will happen if you try to speak your target language.
When you have your list, go through it and ask yourself how likely it is that these things will happen. If you want, even rank them from 1 (least likely) to 5 (most likely).
You'll soon realize that many of these fears are unfounded. In the real world, few people laugh at language learners for making mistakes, and many people are impressed to see you try at all.
Even if something on your list is very likely to happen (like forgetting words), you can come up with a quick solution to help you in the moment—like asking your speaking partner to translate the missing word!
3. Find a Nice Person to Communicate With
A lot of people struggle when speaking a foreign language because of unpleasant past experiences.
For example, maybe you took a language class where you were forced to perform dialogues with uninterested classmates. Or maybe your teacher often asked you to speak to the class at a moment's notice.
The best way to do this is to practice speaking in the most natural context: one-on-one conversation with a supportive speaking partner.
Look online for language exchange partners and tutors who speak your target language. If you can, find people who you share common interests and hobbies with.
Talk to a few of them, and stick with the partners who are good at collaborating, sharing, and giving good feedback.
4. Talk about What You Want
If you learned a language in school, you might have also struggled with the fact that you never got to choose what you spoke about.
Instead, the teacher always chose the topic for you—travel, family, food, etc.
When you speak now, outside of a classroom, you need to embrace your freedom. When you speak to a native speaker, you have every right to bring up any (inoffensive) conversation topic under the sun.
So, if you have a big passion for German avant-garde cinema, or you've got your very own YouTube channel dedicated to a famous celebrity—talk about it!
With free reign to talk about your favorite topics, you'll soon find yourself wanting to speak, rather than avoiding it.
5. Focus on Communication
In your daily life, when you've got exciting news to share, you don't worry so much about how you explain things, right?
You just say what you need to say, however it comes out!
In situations like this, the message you want to communicate becomes more important than the words, phrases, or grammar being used to communicate it.
This is how you should approach speaking in your target language. Prioritize getting your point across, and don't worry about having perfect grammar, or forgetting the occasional word.
Once you've conveyed the gist of your message (e.g. "I've got a new girlfriend!" or "I'm going to France!"), you can then ask your speaking partners for feedback, so that you can be even more accurate and expressive next time.
6. Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
Want to know the secret to becoming a fluent speaker in as short a time as possible?
It's simple: take more risks.
Most learners stick to the words and phrases they know as if they were life rafts, keeping them afloat in the sea of doubt that is "things I don't know how to say"
That's a fine way to build confidence with a small amount of phrases, but it keeps you from using speaking as a tool to actually learn more language.
The most proficient speakers don't just stick to what they know. They ask questions, they make up plausible-sounding words on the fly, and even switch to English when they forget something.
There's no shame in it. Every time you take a risk, you can learn something new, making you even better than you were before.
7: Speak in a Simple Way
The more language we know, the easier it is to want to show off our skills by making sentences longer, fancier, and more complex.
If you want to be a comfortable speaker, avoid this temptation.
Complexity is good (if you can handle it) but if you're worried about making mistakes, the best thing to do is to speak as simply as possible.
Stick to basic word order formulas, like Subject-Verb-Object in English.
Don't say "I like to collect first-edition copies of the Harry Potter books."
Say "I like books" or "I read Harry Potter".
If you want to get more complex than that, build slowly with simple conjunctions like "and" and "but".
Go straight to the point whenever you speak. You'll feel more comfortable, and make less mistakes.
Unlock Your Speaking Potential
By working with Kelly, my English student, I was able to show her that her attitude towards speaking was the only thing holding her back from making substantial progress.
I trained her to be more observant of the speaking opportunities around her, and to see them as chances to grow and learn more about the Spanish language.
Then, I taught her to see her mistakes as calculated risks that she could use as learning tools in every conversation.
I encouraged her to focus on the messages she wanted to communicate to Spanish-speaking people, and not on which words or grammar structures she didn't know well.
In a few short months, Kelly was transformed from a timid learner to a bona fide Spanish-speaking machine. All because of a few small changes to her mindset.
I encourage you to make these changes, too. Once you do, and you have an opportunity to speak more with natives, please share your experiences in the comments below!
I talk about all this (and more) in a podcast about how to improve speaking that I did with Rob of Spanish Obsessed, if you want to go deeper into the subject.
Get the right mindset, get out there and talk.
It is easier and even more amazing than you might expect.
Good luck and see you soon on this blog!