The Fear of Speaking a Foreign Language
Even after learning Portuguese for a long time, many still struggle with “freezing up” in real conversations.
Why does this happen? They know the grammar rules and verb conjugations, they have a decent vocabulary, and they may even understand most of what they hear. When it comes to speaking, however, they’re blocked by uncertainty and perfectionism.
The vulnerability and ambiguity involved in practicing a language can feel overwhelming. Sometimes this is related to generalized anxiety, but it can also be situational anxiety, specific to speaking Portuguese (or any foreign language). It’s often due to fear: of not being understood, offending someone, sounding stupid, or making a bad impression.
Part of the reason that language is so poignant is that it’s deeply tied to who we are as individuals. The way you communicate with others is how you represent yourself to the world. You are not just learning Portuguese; you are trying to incorporate Portuguese into your life and persona.
The words you choose, the tone of voice, the level of formality: these components of language can be studied and understood, but applying them in the real world is more complicated. As a beginner, you don’t yet have the subtleties that help you to be tactful, polite, or show concern. In your native language, you know how to be firm without being aggressive, friendly but not flirty, serious but not boring, funny but not offensive, and so on. Thus, communicating in a second language begins more like an act, rather than self-expression.
How Anxiety Affects Communication
Anxiety surrounding this disconnect causes a shift in brain activity, which in turn affects the ability to communicate effectively. It increases activity in areas involved in responding to danger and suppresses the parts of the brain needed for processing language. So instead of clearly formulating a response, your brain is busy trying to avoid an imaginary threat. Consequently, you run into problems with attention, short-term memory, word-finding, and sometimes even coordinating the mouth muscles to produce speech.
Luckily, there are many ways to approach this problem, ranging from a change in mindset, to stress reduction techniques, to building specific skills, to using the right communication strategies. Start by thinking about which fears cause you to freeze up? Then explore the suggestions below to help you face those fears.
Shift Your Mindset
To start, there are some realities to accept:
- You will be confused.
- You will say the wrong thing.
- You may accidentally offend someone.
- You won’t sound like “you” at first.
That’s okay, if you can remember that:
- The majority of people will be understanding
- Most people are willing to help if you are calm and respectful
- Mistakes are teaching moments. You can’t simply go from a beginner to a fluent speaker without a lot of errors. Try to appreciate mistakes as a memorable way to learn, rather than seeing them as failures.
- It’s okay to laugh at yourself. Approach the conversation with a lighthearted and friendly attitude. A smile goes a long way in making your conversation partner react patiently.
- It feels much worse than it truly is. Imagine the worst case scenario. If you remember that the worst possible outcome is just that someone misunderstands you or laughs at you, it can be easier to view your fears as temporary discomfort, rather than real threats.
Find ways to reduce your stress in general. What works differs greatly from person to person. Here are some ideas of ways to calm yourself before a conversation, as well as habits that contribute to improved mental regulation:
- simple breathing exercises
- regular exercise
- healthy eating habits
It’s easy to feel like giving up when you continually find yourself freezing up. However, maintaining your motivation and continuing to build your skills is one of the best ways to start reducing your anxiety. Over time, this increases your confidence and reduces the cognitive load on your brain in those tense moments.
The approach is two-fold: learning skills that will help you “get by” as a beginner, while continuing to train skills that are above and beyond what you actually intend to use. This raises the ceiling on what you’re capable of, so that even on your worst day, you’re performing at an adequate level. It’s normal for there to be a gap between what you know and what you can use in real life. It takes many years of continued practice to start closing this gap, so don’t be discouraged in the meantime.
Suggestions for boosting your conversation skills:
- Memorize some go-to phrases to help you through tough conversations
- Build your conversation comfort level slowly by speaking Portuguese to yourself. You can start by speaking out loud as you practice with flash cards, or you can repeat what you hear in these audio episodes. This lets you start training the connection between your thoughts and your speech and is a great stepping stone toward talking more in public.
- Build confidence by improving your pronunciation skills. Nobody expects you to have perfect pronunciation as a beginner, but for some people, knowing more about the pronunciation rules for vowels and consonants makes them feel more capable of approaching a conversation.
- Build recall speed using Smart Review. Over time, this reduces the brain power needed to remember what you want to say as the vocabulary, phrases, conjugations, etc. become more automatic.
- Immerse yourself in situations where you are forced to speak the language. Sometimes we just need a little push! Having real reasons to use Portuguese will give you the motivation to keep putting yourself out there and facing the fear of speaking.
- Start with one-on-one conversations, instead of group conversations, to reduce the amount of information you need to process and respond to.
- Start practicing in more predictable conversations, such as the brief exchanges that come up when you go to the grocery store, order at a restaurant, or go to the post office. This gives you some expectations for what kind of vocabulary or phrases you will need to use or listen for.
- Learn phrases to ask for repetition and clarification
- Learn shortcuts that help you get by
- Don’t rush! Speak slowly and take your time by listening first instead of trying to formulate your next sentence.
- If you’re afraid of making a bad impression, start by talking to people you don’t know or don’t have to interact with regularly. You won’t have to see them again, so the stakes are lower if you embarrass yourself.
- On the other hand, if new people make you more anxious, start by talking with a trusted friend who you feel comfortable making mistakes in front of.