This article is about speaking German, because German is my second language. When learners tell me that they ar worried about speaking English, I know how it feels, because I used to be so nervous about spontaneous conversations in German.
My first ever telephone call to Germany was not an easy experience for me. I wrote down everything I wanted to say, read it to the friendly lady who answered the phone, and then had to say it all over again because she was the receptionist and not the person who could answer my question!
I’ve sat in German meetings and had ideas about what I wanted to say. I understood everything, but by the time I’d put my well-structured ideas together, the moment had passed and I’d said nothing.
I’ve sat next to people at dinner and wanted to chat to them, but not plucked up the courage to start a conversation, so everyone thought I had nothing to say.
It was frustrating.
However that isn’t the case now. I have meetings entirely in German. If someone talks to me, I don’t hope that the floor will open up so that I can crawl away. I do say what I think, and I feel comfortable being myself, and showing my true personality, in German.
Sometimes people ask me when that happened, and the truth is, I don’t know. I didn’t wake up one day full of confidence and a desire to speak German to anyone who would listen! I didn’t stop caring about my mistakes – they still annoy me and although I don’t let thinking about them prevent me from speaking, I still always have a nagging sense that I should have known better. I think my perfectionist tendencies keep me focussed on quality and not getting sloppy, but perhaps I’m better at ignoring that little voice that tells me I can’t do it.
I can’t even tell you how long it took. It was a gradual process and I only realised the progress that I’d made by looking back and seeing how far I’d come.
So I can’t give students exact answers about how long it will take to stop feeling nervous, because everyone is different, and fear of speaking a language affects people in different ways. Also, the speed at which you progress depends on how much of a priority it is to you, and how much time you put into working on your language skills.
Having said that, these are a few things that definitely helped me.
Reading and listening
Getting a clearer understanding of the spoken and written language are not only good for vocabulary, although the more words you know, the more rich your own sentences will be. Doing these activities also helps you to see how native speakers put the language together to form their own sentences. If you are used to reading and listening to a language, your brain will start to notice patterns, and incorrect sentences don’t fit these patterns, so it’ll become easier to spot that something is wrong with them. You’ll find out how people use the language in real life situations, what they do when they need time to think, what words they use to link their ideas, and how they show agreement or disagreement.
Observing how others use language can be a fantastic way to empower you to use it as well.
Take the plunge
Yes, at some point you’ll have to jump into the pool and start using the language yourself, but that doesn’t mean you have to dive from the highest diving board into the deepest part of the pool. Start at the shallow end, or even in the children’s pool! Make it easy on yourself! Don’t try to describe a complicated concept in a meeting of 100 people before you’ve had a chat over coffee with an English-speaking friend.
A lot of the confidence that I gained in relation to speaking German was through one-to-one conversations with friends that I’d made online or locally. Sometimes they were face-to-face, but other times they were online. I spent hours talking to friends about all kinds of things. I didn’t really feel as though I were practicing my German, but that is what I was doing. The more I did it, the less scary it became, because I got faster at reacting to questions or ideas in German, without having to translate everything in my head first. I understood jokes and wanted to tell my own stories. I felt safe, and feeling safe is key when it comes to developing your confidence.
These conversations helped me to prepare for times when people wouldn’t be as nice to me as my friends were, or when my getting or losing a contract depended on my ability to speak German.
Showing up, even when you don’t feel like it
Anyone who’s been around on my blog for a while will know that I don’t think much of courses that say you’ll be able to speak like a native in 2 weeks! Learning a language is a long-distance run, not a sprint. I’m not “lucky” that I can speak German. I’m definitely fortunate, because it’s fun, I can converse in multiple languages, and it’s important for my business. But I’m not lucky, like someone who won the lottery. I’ve worked hard to get where I am.
So these are three tips that I’d give to anyone who wants to get over their shyness around speaking.
- Surround yourself with the language – the more words you know, the better you’ll be able to understand and respond.
- Take little steps and make life easy for yourself by practicing in low-key situations so it doesn’t matter if you make a mistake.
- Keep showing up and learning – even when you don’t feel like it, because I think the earliest stages of learning a language are the hardest. Once you get past the initial frustrations of communicating on the level of a child again, you can really start to have fun!
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