Feeling too shy to speak a foreign language is at times a real handicap for me and many other language learners. This post is packed with actionable tips to help you overcome your language shyness.
First, it’s worth taking a moment to get the measure of the enemy!
What is shyness?
Shyness is awkwardness or apprehension around other people, especially new people or in new situations.
Let’s get clear that we’re not talking here about a stronger form of social anxiety that it doesn’t wear off with familiarity. That can be a very serious condition which requires professional help.
We’re not talking about introversion either.
You can work on overcoming shyness, while introversion is a basic personality setting.
As an introvert you could be not in the least shy. You may well enjoy successful social interaction, including meeting new people. You just don’t need that much of it. You prefer people in small doses and need to withdraw to recharge your batteries. Your inner life is your well-spring.
An extrovert is somebody who primarily gets their energy from interaction with a group. Membership of the group is all-important in your life. It’s possible to be a shy extrovert who craves interaction but lacks confidence.
Is your shyness just a language problem?
Are you shy in general or is it just when you have to speak the foreign language?
If it’s part of a general problem, work on that too.
Keep in mind good general advice about shyness:
- Nerves subside after you’ve tried something once. Remember that you can only get better at unfamiliar or otherwise unwelcome social interaction with practice.
- Work on moderating your inner critic.
- Focus on the other person.
- Work on improving your conversation and communication skills in general.
- Have a confident posture and body language.
- Visualise yourself successfully negotiating the situations you’re going to find yourself in.
How can we apply such useful generic advice to interacting with other people in our foreign languages? What foreign-language specific approaches are there to help?
Are your limited language skills the root of the problem?
Let’s face it, some of what’s putting you off may be an awareness that you’re not up to it yet! This could in part be simply a subjective view born or your perfectionism. For a moment, though, let’s stay with your objective standard (rather than how you judge yourself).
In the early stages, don’t feel obliged to “speak from day one” if that makes you anxious.
Focus on the other three language skills. The more listening practice you’ve had, the less anxious you’re going to feel that you won’t understsand the other half of the conversation. You can do more reading and writing to widen your grasp of vocab, phrases and structures, as well.
To speak well, though, you need lots of practice at, erm, speaking. At some point, you’ll have to push through your shyness.
Prepare yourself as well as you can
If you’re ready to launch yourself on the world despite still limited skills, a little preparation can go a long way. Practise phrases that you’ll need. Have answers ready to predictable questions, as well.
With your tutor or exchange partner, work up “islands of fluency”: topics you’ll need often such as talking about where you’re from, your family and work situation, why you’re in the country or learning the language.
Then, dive in without over thinking it…..before you have time to think up all sorts of nerve-inducing catastrophe scenarios.
However well you prepare, though, as beginner or lower-intermediate learner, you’ll keep coming up against the limits of what you can say and understand. It’s unavoidable.
In acceptance of the awkward, stumbling reality of learning to speak, learn tricks to keep the conversation going.
Have your “tool kit phrases” to hand to help you out of trouble: “Could you please repeat that?”, “Could you please speak more slowly?”, “What do you mean by….?”.
Start to programme yourself for success by envisaging yourself having a successful conversation in the language.
An important skill is to learn to describe your way round things you can’t say yet. Have some filler phrases to hand to win a little more time and make you sound more fluent (which will help win the confidence of those you’re speaking with).
Questions can be a good way out of a tight corner and move the conversation on. They are a way that you can make sure you’ve understood. Questions are also a way of showing that you’re interested in and engaged with what hat the other person is saying. A lot of shyness boils down to being too focussed on ourselves, so it really matters to re-centre the encounter away from your own nerves.
I’ve written a whole post (with vids) on tricks like these to “sound more fluent”. Check it out and start using the strategies.
Draw strength from your whole performance
Even if your language is ropy, your overall impact depends the total impression you give. The “presence” that you project can help how you feel inside too.
If your heart is racing, focus on your breathing and try to slow down your speech.
Don’t forget that generic advice to adopt a confident posture to help with shyness. Shoulders back and look your interlocutor in the eye.
It’s worth a try.
Just be sure you’re atuned to cultural differences though.
In cultures where deference is expected and direct eye contact may be impolite, your attempts to appear more confident that you really are could backfire and make the situation more awkward.
Find the right conversation partners
Finding the right person to talk to can make all the difference. Choose somebody you know and feel relaxed with. Shared characteristics or interests could be a great basis for a rapport.
Or, go for the opposite. Maybe you’ll feel more able to try out your language with a stranger you’ll probably never see again?
Put yourself in the right situations for you
Certain situations might make you more anxious and trying to find the right environment to practise should be a priority. If you don’t like an environment in your native language, you’re hardly likely to feel most relaxed speaking your target language in a similar sort of place.
I don’t like pubs, for example. I’m irritated by having to shout. It’s also easier in that environment for me to avoid conversation altogether by staring into my beer or checking my phone….not a very efficient way to get speaking exposure in my target language.
You might feel a noisy place masks your mistakes and – if it’s a bar or pub – you may feel more relaxed after a drink or two.
You might like the predictable choreography of more formal situations such or they may make you feel more tense and less able to speak.
If you like chatting to waiters go to the restaurant or café at a quiet time, when they’re more likely to have time to speak with you. A good place to get chatting could be with the driver when you’re in the back seat of a taxi (and hence able to avoid nerve-inducing eye contact). How about the hairdresser’s chair (look at yourself in the mirror, if you prefer).
Go to a place where the focus is on an interest of yours, such as sports bar (not for me!) or an art gallery (that’s more like it!).
If you think you need a bit of tough love to force you out of your shell, go to places where you’ll be forced to speak: shop at a market rather than a supermarket. Take that taxi again, rather than the bus.
Some shy people like the added protection of the computer screen. Maybe online conversations on Skype or Facetime are the way to go for you as you build up your confidence. If that’s you, and you don’t have anybody to speak to use italki.com to find a teacher or exchange partner.
Others feel even more nervous speaking online. If that’s you, how about turning of the camera?
Don’t get spooked by cultural differences
Beware of cultural and more specifically rhetorical conventions in your target language.
Egypt or Russia are known as places where you’re more likely than not to be spoken too, whether you want it or not.
Russians and Italians may flare up, but maybe get back to normal quicker once the air has been cleared.
In some countries, bartering over prices is good form.
A country may be communicative but very choreographed – like Japan.
Finns – the men especially – are known for its reserved.
There’s an element of stereotyping here, clearly, but trying to find out as much as you can about what’s normal will help you feel better prepared to deal with it. You’ll be less likely to have your shyness reinforced by unnecessary misunderstandings.
Reframe what’s happening
Try reframing your conversation experiences and change the stories you tell yourself about them and about you. You’re not nervous, you’re excited! Adrenaline is at root either way.
Accept how you’re feeling and carry on anyway.
Try and detach. Imagine yourself “out of body” as a by-standing observer.
Focus on what you can do, not what you can’t.
Come to terms with mistake making. It’s inevitable and it’s also one way you’ll learn.
If you are overly worried about your errors in a foreign language, maybe the root cause is fear from school days (text anxiety).
Remember, your new conversation partners are probably going to be more interested in the substance of what you say than in how accurate your grammar is. They’re not there to correct or judge you. It’s all about making a connection, not linguistic perfection.
A lot of communication is, after all, down to non-verbal elements. Learn the local “body language”.
Be less self-critical
As you get better, you may get more self-critical and this could bring on a new wave of shyness.
To counter this, remind your self-critical ego of this dynamic.
I was recently interviewed on Basque TV. I did extra work on the language in advance, which helped with nerves. Still, during the shoot I was very conscious of how stumbling and limited my expressiveness was. When watching the final result, I became aware of a whole raft of mistakes on top of those I’d noticed at the time.
Still, in my self-evaluation I completely ignored what not too long ago would have been big news in my story as a Basque learner: I’d managed to do all the pre-shoot planning over Skype with the Basque TV company. All the shoot – a whole afternoon and evening was all in Basque: on and off camera. That I just took for granted.
This reminds us how subjective our assessment of our own performance can be.
I’ve noticed when recording pieces in English for the YouTube that what I think are interminable pauses which will have ruined a piece are sometimes not really noticeable at all when I watch the clip back.
What they think of you is unlikely to depend on how well you speak
It’s not just you who’s subjective in your assessment of how you’re doing. How you’re coming across to the other person depends on what’s going on inside their head, not inside yours.
You don’t know what’s in there. You can speculate, but you’re probably getting it wrong a lot of the time.
In any case, you can’t control what other people think of you.
You may think they’re judging you.
It’s more likely that they take your attempts to speak their language as a compliment.
On the other hand, maybe they’re too worried about how they come across to you to get round to evaluating you much at all.
An ongoing struggle
I’m writing this from a hotel in Dubai. I’ve just dropped something off at reception. The receptionist was called Ksenia and is probably a Russian speaker. Did I take the opportunity to speak in Russian? No. I let the chance go due to shyness…. 🙁
There’s no doubt it’s easier to give and receive such advice than to act on it.
Thanks to some of the ideas above, I’m slowly getting better with practice at pushing myself out of my shy comfort zone, but I still have a long way to go.
What about you? Do you think these tips will help you or have they done so already? Are there other things we should be doing “to boldly go”?
Let us know in the comments below. Come on, now, don’t be shy! 🙂