How to Overcome Language Learning Anxiety

Note from Kris: This is a guest post from Jonty Yamisha, creator of OptiLingo – this topic is really near and dear to me, as performance anxiety is something that I've always struggled with, and continue to struggle with to this day.

Take it away Jonty!

3 Tricks to Avoid Performance Anxiety and Achieve Fluency

Being nervous when trying to speak a different language is more common than you think. Many people who’ve had bad experiences trying to learn a language often recall a significant fear when it comes to speaking:

“What if say the wrong thing?”

“What if I make myself look dumb?”

“What if offend someone?”

The list goes on and on…

Learning a new language is stressful, but speaking it can create a plethora of problems. And if you’re not careful, you could derail your progress toward fluency altogether. But fear not. Once you understand where the fear comes from, you can easily use a few easy tricks to move past it. 

The Role Memory Plays

There’s a reason multiple-choice tests are easier than essay responses. Aside from the hand cramps and need to proofread, essays require us to have a different grasp on the knowledge. A deeper grasp. On the other hand, multiple-choice tests trigger reminders (when we know the information) that guide us toward a proper response.

This is known as active and passive recall: 

  • Active Recall: the ability to spontaneously use a word or phrase in natural conversation
  • Passive Recall: the ability to see a word or phrase in your target language and understand its meaning.

We can’t use active recall without first having developed passive recall. But it’s also important to realize that it is neither a linear or permanent process. When speaking naturally, we float between active and passive recall naturally. We remember and forget words all the time (even though we “know we know them”). 

As a new speaker, you’ll have access to passive recall from your language learning programs. The goal with practice is to move more and more of that information from passive recall into the active recall. And the more of a language you have in the active recall, the closer to fluency you are. 

Anxiety is a problem because it creates a huge roadblock.

It basically stands in the way and prevents you from moving freely back and forth between active and passive recall. It makes people stammer and freeze. Fail. All while screaming internally because deep down they know they know the language. 

Luckily, with the right tricks, you can sidestep this roadblock and sprint faster toward fluency. 

3 Tricks to Avoid Anxiety Roadblocks

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 in your new language.

Trick 1: Open Up and Use Your Words

Language learners tend to give very limited responses when talking with native speakers. “Yes” and “no”, “good,” and “bad,” etc. This usually happens because the language learner lacks the confidence to use the words they know. As a result, they let anxiety shut them down and limit their responses.

When learning a new language, the person trying to speak may be too worried about saying the wrong thing that they don’t realize how the native speaker may see them. And most people get agitated by those who appear uninterested, standoffish, or worse, hostile when they try to talk to them. 

At the same time, the language learner feels more and more pressure to respond, especially as the questions become longer. It’s a negative cycle that ultimately stops conversations and reinforces anxiety around speaking. 

The reality is that getting nervous and shutting down puts you in a worse position than if you stumbled through trying to speak. 

To combat this pitfall, you should avoid the temptation to provide one or two‐word responses. Don’t worry if you’re not grammatically correct or using full sentences. The goal is to be as verbose as you can using the vocabulary you know. 

Here’s an example:

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.

The conversation may start stilted at first, but it will slowly warm up in tone and interest. You don’t need to be grammatically correct. We’re not looking for Oscar-level performance here. You may even sound like a toddler. But it’s genuine. And it’s understood. And it keeps the conversation going.

As a result, native speakers pick up that you’re not familiar with the language. They also respect the fact that you’re trying. And often, they will either adapt their language to meet your level. 

Flattery goes a long way. You won’t be grammatically perfect at first and you won’t be able to have deep, philosophical conversations either. But most people are delighted to hear others trying to learn their native language. And most are flattered that an outsider appreciates their country and culture. 

So when engaging with native speakers, making your responses longer can do a lot to warm up your interactions and help you avoid anxiety. Even if they’re not perfect. 

And to make this easier, you need talking points…

Trick 2: Memorize Talking Points

This is one of the few times I advise anyone to consciously memorize anything. But talking points go a long way to helping you get through conversations in your target language. 

These are a few I used when learning my native language, 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. 

These talking points were starting points. Something I could lean on when I felt the language learning anxiety creep up. And they became anchors that I used to build more complex talking points. 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.

Although I developed the talking points above to cope with my specific circumstances, most of them are generic enough for nearly anyone. You can adapt them to fit your target language and use them to regulate the conversation without appearing rude or freaking out when the conversation goes outside of your comfort zone. 

The beauty of the second point is that you’re still speaking in the target language, allowing you to continue using Trick 1 as well. And as you grow more comfortable in the language, you can build on these talking points so you’re able to carry out most casual conversations without much difficulty at all.

Trick 3: Sidestep and Loop

Sometimes, no matter where you are in your journey to fluency, the conversation flows to an area beyond your comprehension. This might be an uninteresting subject or a topic that you don’t have enough vocabulary to discuss it.

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. Plus, your talking points are guardrails to help you on your journey to fluency, not a crutch. You still need to find opportunities to expand your vocabulary, speech, and listening comprehension. That’s where Sidestep and Loop comes in handy. 

Here it is in action:

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? 

If you blinked, you may have missed it. 

Instead of answering the question, simply turn it back towards the native speaker. It frees you from the pressure of answering and buys you time to think and understand. Plus, you’ll keep the conversation flowing. And that’s what fluency is about.

Gain Fluency By Playing Your Strengths

Is this cheating? After all, these are “tricks” and you’re not being clear about your ability to speak in your target language. Will this actually help you reach fluency in a foreign language?

The best language learning programs focus on getting you to speak. So many of the ones out there now put too much emphasis on note cards, textbooks, and playing games. Sure, it’s fun, but you’ll never reach fluency if you don’t speak. 

Performance anxiety is real, and if you let it take center stage, you’ll never stand in the spotlight. Think of these tricks as small “nudges” that get you closer toward your goal: speaking with confidence. Once you start talking, you’ll find it gets easier and easier. 

Now, go out there and break a leg. 

Author Bio: Entrepreneur and Linguist, Jonty Yamisha created OptiLingo after his efforts to protect his native language, Circassian, from extinction. Using scientifically proven strategies such as Spaced Repetition and Guided Immersion, OptilLingo has helped thousands finally achieve fluency.

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