13 Ways To Beat Your Fear And Start Speaking A Foreign Language

Speaking in a foreign language for me, is everything.

Speaking and communicating with people from other countries and different cultures is what got me into learning all my languages in the first place.

First, it was so I could chat to that lovely Italian girl in the café where I worked in London.

Second, it was so I could learn Spanish quickly, travel to Spain, and not have to go back home to the UK!

Later, it was so I could communicate with all those amazing people I kept meeting in Brazil and try to figure out why they were so happy, and how I could be that happy too!

Later still, it was so I could escape that foreigner bubble in Tokyo and actually meet some real Japanese people.

Speaking, for me, is, basically, what it’s all about.

And for most people, it’s what they want to be able to do, too.

Which is precisely why it sucks that speaking is the hardest part of learning a foreign language! If you find yourself asking “How can I start speaking?”, this post is for you.

Why You Find Speaking So Hard

Speaking is tough because it happens in real time.

You need to have all the language you need at your fingertips, use it in a way that makes sense to the person you’re talking to, and do it fluently and coherently enough that the conversation isn’t hideously painful for them.

To make matters worse, 50% or more of the speaking game is actually… listening! Having got your words out in a good-enough order and hopefully made some kind of sense to the other person, you then have to understand what they say back to you.

I’ve found over the years that, as a beginner in a new language, focusing a lot on speaking (using activities like this) can get you talking quickly, but can leave you woefully unable to understand enough of what the other person says in a conversation.

On the flip side, working a lot on your listening ability will always help your speaking, because you’re learning new words and phrases all the time, which you can deploy in your speaking right away.

So, if you’re just starting out, and you’re not in any mad hurry to start speaking, my best advice for getting mad speaking skills in the long-run is… you guessed it… work on your listening!

But that’s not why you’re reading this post. 🙂

You want to speak, you’re ready, you know a decent amount of vocabulary already and you just want to get out there and start talking! No problem, I’ll tell you how to do it.

What Stops Us Speaking In The First Place?

Typically, I find that five things  prevent me from speaking when I’m learning a new language:

  1. I don’t know what to say
  2. I don’t know how to say it
  3. I’m worried about not understanding the reply
  4. Impostor syndrome – i.e. “Who am I to be talking to that person? I’m just a stupid foreigner who can’t speak their language properly! Why are they going to want to talk to me? I’m going to embarrass the hell out of myself!”
  5. Procrastination masquerading as common sense – i.e. “I’ll just practice a bit more, so I can get that opening line just right, and then I’ll go and talk to her!”

Do you recognise any of these feelings?

#1 and #2 we can do something about right now. #3, #4 and #5 are very real, but they’re all in your head.

I’ve found that by consistently working on #1 and #2 – getting into a habit of speaking regularly in safe and non-threatening ways, your confidence grows and the inhibitions that seem like such a big deal at the moment start to gradually fade away.

Here are 13 ways to get started, build confidence and start speaking the language right away. Some of them you can do from home, others are more relevant to those living abroad. Either way, there’s something here for you.

13 Ways To Start Speaking

AT HOME

      1. Join a language community. Head to a site like italki.com or lang-8.com and write a full, thorough and honest profile. You don’t have to do anything right away, but as you start browsing the website, maybe leaving a comment or two, you’ll start to connect with people and get friend requests. Why is this important? When the time comes for you look for a language partner to practise speaking, you’ll  have a ready-made pool of people right there, and it’s a lot easier to do that with someone you have a connection with.
      2. Write a monologue about anything under the sun in your target language. Head to lang-8.com and ask someone to correct it. Take the text to rhinospike.com and have someone do an audio recording of it. In the meantime, record yourself reading it aloud. Compare your version with the recording you get back. Practise and refine.
      3. Use the audio from your textbook. You know all those recorded dialogues you’ve been listening to? Don’t just listen! Record yourself reading them aloud and compare it with the audio recording – play them in sync. Practise and refine.
      4. Use your SRS flashcard app to prompt your speaking. Copy a dialogue you like from your textbook into SRS flashcards – one full sentence per card, with the English translation on the back. Set app to display the English side of the card first. When it comes up, speak the translation aloud (don’t mutter it under your breath – belt it out!). This is powerful because it uses a stimulus in English to get you producing full sentences in your target language.
      5. Get a language partner. Remember those connections you’ve been forming on italki.com or lang-8.com? Reach out to someone you like and ask them if they’d like to do a language exchange on Skype. You’ll never be short of volunteers. To make faster progress, I suggest finding a tutor on a service like Verbling. Make sure you set up the language exchange well – read this post for advice on doing that.
      6. Learn the lyrics to a song. It might take a few weeks, but it’s one of the best things you can do to start speaking, as you’ll be really focused on pronouncing the words clearly. When you’ve learnt the lyrics, vary it. Try “speaking” the song rather than singing it. Try reciting the song with the sentences in reverse order. Challenge yourself, mix it up, have fun with it!

        1. Become a child again. As you walk around the house, say what you see! “There’s a cup on the table.” Yes, it’s trite, but it’s better than not speaking at all!
        2. Get WeChat for your smartphone. This app allows you to send and receive bite-sized audio messages. Remember those people who you connected with earlier? (Them again!) Swap WeChat IDs and start sending random message over the airwaves. It’s a lot of fun, kind of silly, but it’s just another thing to get you speaking. This one’s also good for people who might feel too shy to jump on Skype – you can always prepare what you say before you hit record.
        3. Try Mr & Mrs Smith. Learning Japanese and feeling brave? This crazy app connects you to some random person in Japan for a live chat! Is this app available for other languages? Tell me if you know of one!

ON LOCATION

        1. Invoke the 3-second rule. I remember this from reading that high-brow work of fiction, The Game (by Neil Strauss) back in the day! The concept is this: Want to talk to someone? Give yourself 3 seconds to make the approach and start the conversation. Any more than 3 seconds and your self-defence instinct kicks in. You overthink, worry about what might go wrong, and bottle out.
        2. Ask for directions. Yes, I know you know where you’re going, but ask anyway! Asking for directions is the most universally valid excuse to stop and talk to a stranger – they’ll never question your motives!
        3. Learn to develop an interest in anything! When I lived in Japan, keen to start connecting with people, I’d see something that caught my eye in a shop, restaurant or gallery etc. and think to myself: “If I was back home, it’d be totally normal for me to just ask someone what that is.” So I’d invoke the 3-second rule and just ask someone: “Hey, do you know what this is?” Conversation ensues. I get nervous too, just like everyone else, but when you remember that you always have permission to talk to people if you have a genuine interest in something, then you have nothing to fear. Even if you fall flat on your face, it’s genuine and the other person won’t mind.
        4. Learn stock phrases for everyday situations. This is the “phrasebook approach”. You know what it’s like – once you actually get a conversation started it’s easy, right? Like summing up the courage to approach that girl across the room, it’s the conversation opener that’s the hardest part. Think about situations you often find yourself in, and intentionally learn phrases you can use in those situations. If you can start off the conversation with ease, the rest is a piece of cake. Think: specific, everyday situations where there’s a chance of striking up a conversation: “Do you mind if I take this chair?”; “Are you waiting in line?”; “Can you help me understand this label/sign/thing?”; “What time do you close tonight?” Learn them, practice them, use them at every opportunity, then follow up and start the conversation proper.

Just Get Started

Do you remember reasons #3, #4 and #5 above that typically prevent people from speaking?

Conquering those fears and becoming confident with speaking is a matter of starting small, and integrating speaking into your daily life in a small way, and gradually working up from there, until it becomes so normal that all those doubts and fears you’re having start to become less real.

So, let’s make this happen!

There are 13 ideas up there, all of which I’ve used myself over the years to get started on the road to speaking a new language.

Hopefully at least one of them piqued your interest!

Pick one.

Do it.

Do it again tomorrow, a little better.

Then again the day after, better still. In the words of David Storey…

Enjoy this post? Go ahead and Like it on Facebook using the buttons around you! Then leave me a comment below to tell me which one of these ideas you’ll try, or if you’ve got something to add to the list!

Image: lukedecena

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  • Great advices. It’s usually eassier that people think

    • Thanks Jakub. I completely agree!

    • Thanks Jakub, I completely agree! Getting started is always the key.

  • Jerry Bauer

    Great post! Very usfull because it gives specific suggestions on improvingg your language skills!
    !

    • Thanks Jerry! I always try to write stuff that people can actually use, so I’m glad it was useful!

  • Keny

    Some awesome suggestions all of which just come down to doing it. I think the biggest thing is just being humble and realizing your going to mess up all the time and say things strangely but that’s apart of the process. One of the big things people always bring up is how children are better at learning languages which honestly I don’t really believe to be true.

    The only thing I find children to have an advantage in spades is time, since they really don’t have commitments as adults do, and are generally not self conscious so they don’t care about making mistakes and hence progress faster. When you are learning a language you are essentially a child so don’t worry too much at first about speaking correctly and always being grammatically correct just speak and you will gradually fear to speak less.

    • Hi Keny. Yes, I totally agree with you. Those things that children have – plenty of time and low self-consciousness – they’re a big deal. But it’s more down to circumstance than age, I think. Stick an adult in a big group of friends and come back 10 years later – he/she will be fluent too!

    • Hi Keny,
      Yes, I’m with you on all of those points. Objectively, it really does come down to “doing it”, but it’s so much easier said than done sometimes. Our mind plays all kinds of tricks when social interaction is involved. I often think it would be so much easier if I were a 6 year old again who didn’t care about going up to someone and making an idiot out of himself (and believe me, that happened all the time!) 🙂

  • I always come back to writing monologues for Lang-8… when I start writing, I find I know more than I think, and I am able to put down anything at all, because “anyway it’s just a draft and a native will correct it”!

    • Isn’t it great? It helps to avoid perfectionism as well – just get something out there and it will be corrected later! 🙂

  • mike

    Very inspiring post.. Getting new things.. Learning and applying makes us live always..iphrasebooks will guide you for knowing phrases of foreign language with better way..

  • Hi Olly I’m really enjoying reading your blog. I like suggestion 13. I think it naturally paves the way to learn even more. After you’ve been in the situation you can look up any words you weren’t sure of or anything the other person said that you didn’t understand. Thanks for that.

    • No problem Carol! Thanks for the feedback. It’s a good approach to open doors to even more exposure!

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  • Chaudhry Usman Sanaullah

    Hi Olly. This is a great Blog. you are right, as through chatting with native foreigners, it gives confidence and less hesitation.I am a native English speaker and Tutor at Preply http://preply.com/en .Also, I have learned Spanish through communicating with different Spanish natives at http://www.italki.com platform.

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  • Bonjour Olly! Great article! Being a French teacher, I often notice that most people get very self conscious when speaking French outside the classroom. As adults we do think too much : Is it right? Do I say it correctly?or I’m going to embarrass the hell out of myself ? So, invoking the 3 second rule is a fantastic idea! Also, learning spanish at the moment, I find that learning stock phrases for specific situations is great and it does really boost my confidence in speaking the language!

  • glt630

    I like to share a tool to speak a foreign language, try this voice translator app:

    https://appsto.re/i6Yx9zX

    You speak to it and to see if it recognize your voice, it also return a recognition confidence of your speech. In this way, you can learn some basic speech at home. Then go to talk with a foreigner, or use this app to talk for you.

  • LucyHeartfilia07

    Hello,
    In my school, there is a male Korean exchange student and I have a crush on him. I really like Asian cultures and stuff like that. I am currently learning Korean (although I don’t know much) I get very nervous and shy around him and we have never talked before (because he is a senior in highschool and Im a freshman). His English is very poor (he barely speaks) so I have been wondering if I should walk up to him and start talking to him in Korean. I’m terrified because I dont know a lot of Korean and I’m afraid I’ll mess up and not understand anything. Please give me advice!!!
    -Lucy

    • Start with a smile, and go from there! 🙂 One thing’s for sure… if he doesn’t speak much, he’ll be delighted to have the opportunity to talk to you, in Korean, English, or sign language!

      • LucyHeartfilia07

        Thank you so much!!