Table of contents
Years ago when I was teaching English in London, I had a very interesting student in my beginners’ class. His name was Marcos and he was from Brazil. Although he had very little English, he had plenty of confidence.
As weeks passed, I was amazed at how quickly Marcos was improving his English compared to the rest of the class. I asked him to share his secret, and I was amazed when I found out.
Every day, after class, Marcos would go to the pub and chat to complete strangers. He would use the topics we discussed in class.
If we discussed pets in class, he would talk to strangers about their pets. If our topic that day was “my house”, he would talk to people about their house.
Marcos made many friends and improved his English quickly - all because he had the confidence to go out and use his English in the real world.
Not everybody is as naturally confident as Marcos, and I’m certainly not suggesting that you need to go up to strangers in a pub and speak English.
However, Marcos is an example of the progress that you can make when confidence is on your side.
The good news is that you can learn ways to boost your confidence in English, even if you think of yourself as “shy”.
Confidence is a skill, therefore if you work on it you will improve.
In fact, you can be a confident English speaker without necessarily being an incredibly confident person in your native language - a new language gives new opportunities.
So let’s look at ways that we can all be a little bit more like Marcos and become more confident English speakers.
Why is confidence important in English?
Imagine that there are two people who are learning English. Let’s call them Marcos and Rafael. Their English level is exactly the same when they take a written test.
However, Marcos is a confident speaker and Rafael is not.
Marcos looks directly at the other speaker, while Rafael looks down at his shoes. Marcos smiles when he speaks. But Rafael looks like he is worried.
Marcos makes mistakes when he speaks. But when Rafael is not sure of his grammar, he stops speaking, even in the middle of a sentence.
When someone meets them, they will probably (mistakenly) say that Marcos has better English.
Imagine if they were taking a job interview in English. Marcos would be more likely to get the job and Rafael would lose out!
There is another reason why confidence is important.
Confident English speakers tend to speak more, meaning that they improve more quickly.
When you are more confident in your own abilities and you learn that your mistakes don’t matter, speaking English becomes more enjoyable, and you’ll do it more.
This is a virtuous cycle, because the more confident you can become in your English, the faster you will improve and the greater still your confidence will be.
What is stopping you from speaking English confidently?
What are the “roadblocks” to becoming a confident English speaker?
From my years of experience in teaching English (and learning other languages), these are the ones I often hear about:
”I know a lot of words, but I always forget them when I speak. Then I feel nervous.”
This is a normal part of learning any language; it’s nothing to worry about. For any learner, the number of words you understand will be much larger than the words you are able to remember when you speak. That’s completely normal.
In fact, this is true for native speakers, too. For example, I know the word ‘reprehensible’ (terrible or morally wrong), but I never use it in conversation.
Remember, Marcos was able to make friends with only a beginner’s level of English.
”I can understand so much better than I can speak.”
Again, this is a normal part of learning any language. It is easier to receive language (listening/reading) than to produce language (writing/speaking).
What’s more, for many people writing is easier than speaking because you have time to think when you write.
If you worry about the gap between understanding and speaking, remember: everyone is in the same boat. Everyone who is learning a language faces this issue.
“I’m afraid of making mistakes.”
Don’t let mistakes hold you back.
Mistakes are part of the learning process, and nobody expects you to have perfect English. There are plenty of world leaders, for example, who make English mistakes in their speeches to the UN or NATO.
If they can make mistakes, so can you!
English grammar is complex and difficult to master. This means that mistakes are a perfectly normal part of learning - not only for English, but for life.
To quote the former US President, Franklin Roosevelt: “The only thing we have to fear is...fear itself.”
How can you improve your confidence?
Know that your English is (probably) better than you think!
It’s a common trait of intermediate-advanced English learners to believe that their language level is lower than it actually is. I know this is true with many members of Leonardo English.
Simply by adopting a positive attitude, you can increase your confidence. Don’t say, “My English is so bad, I wish it was better.” Instead say, “I remember when I didn’t even know one word in English. Now I can hold a conversation with people and read this article in English!”
Always try to have fun with English. Perhaps you have just learned the idiom, “in the same boat”. It’s a cool idiom; now try to use it in a conversation.
Do the things that confident people do.
If you want to be more confident, do things that confident people do! Here are some examples:
Volunteer for things. If your teacher asks someone to come to the front of the class and present, raise your hand. If your boss wants someone to greet overseas visitors, be the one to do it!
Speak up whenever you get the chance. If you attend classes where English is used, always speak as much as possible. Raise your hand whenever you can. Always sit at the front of the class, just like a confident person would do.
Use confident body language when you speak English. Lean forward, smile and use hand gestures. You will be amazed at how much this helps.
Set confidence goals
Do you give short responses when people speak to you? If so, set a goal to give longer responses.
Do you wait for other people to start a conversation? If so, set a goal to start conversations yourself.
Have you learnt some useful words or phrases recently? Set a goal to use these new phrases in your conversation.
Simple language confidence goals like these can help you improve little by little… until you are a confident English speaker.
You don’t need to speak quickly
Do you feel that you speak too slowly and you want to speak faster, like a native speaker? You can speak English slowly - it’s not a problem.
In fact, by speaking slowly, you have more time to think and you can use some of those phrases that you have recently learned.
Martin Luther King, during his “I Have A Dream” speech, spoke at 92 words per minute. If you ever feel the pressure to speak more quickly, just slow down.
You don’t need to speak perfectly.
Remember, speaking in the real world is different from speaking in English class.
If you attend an English class, you may notice that the teacher spends a lot of time correcting mistakes. Your English teacher is trained to spot your mistakes and point them out to help you.
In the real world, people will rarely notice if you use the past tense instead of the past continuous. They don’t care about your grammar mistakes, and many English native speakers make these mistakes themselves.
The key is to communicate the idea that you want to get across.
While you should still try to speak correctly, you shouldn’t let being afraid of making mistakes hold you back. It is better to speak confidently and make mistakes than to speak fearfully in perfect English.
How To Improve Your English Speaking Confidence
If you want to improve your speaking confidence, you'll need to speak.
Here are some low-stress ways that you can find opportunities to speak in English, both with other people and on your own.
How to improve your English confidence with other people
Find a conversation partner who will practise with you. If you’re lucky, you can find a partner who lives near you. If not, you can find a conversation partner online.
Sites like Conversation Exchange connect you with a person who wants to learn your language. You practise English with them and, in return, they practise your native language with you!
If you’re looking for tips on how to do this, we have an entire guide on how to find a conversation partner in English.
Find an English tutor online. Did you know that there are many websites where you can hire a personal English tutor for as low as $5 per hour? Our review of English tutoring websites can help you to choose the best one.
Use English whenever you can. For example, if you need to call up a customer service line, see if they have an option to use English. If so, that’s another chance to practise.
Join English-speaking communities. You don’t need native-speaker partners to practise with. In fact, practising with other non-natives is a great way to practice in a low-stress environment.
There are plenty of speaking groups and communities on Facebook, Clubhouse and WhatsApp. Or become a member of Leonardo English and take part in our speaking sessions.
How to improve your English confidence on your own
You may feel that you are not yet ready to practise English with other people. That’s okay, too. There are plenty of ways to practise and gain confidence on your own.
Listen to podcasts. Podcasts are short and informative and you can listen to them anywhere. With over 2 million podcasts available, and hundreds of podcasts for English learners, you will surely find one that is both interesting and appropriate for your English level.
If you can, find a podcast with a transcript. English Learning for Curious Minds (yes, that’s our podcast) is a great option for this, and also provides subtitles and key vocabulary for every episode.
Try the shadowing technique. With this method, you repeat audio while listening to it. Your confidence will increase as your intonation and rhythm become more natural. Learn more about this technique with our guide on Shadowing.
Record yourself speaking English. This simple technique becomes powerful when you do it regularly. You’ll be able to spot your mistakes more easily and your confidence will increase when you compare your recent recordings with your older ones and see the improvement. Learn more about this technique with our guide on recording yourself in English.
You can record yourself reading the transcript of a podcast, then compare yourself to the original audio and review your pronunciation. As this exercise becomes easier, you will enjoy a boost in confidence.
Conclusion - confidence is a skill
When we think of English skills, we think of speaking, listening, grammar, writing or reading, but don’t forget that confidence is also a skill. Because it is a skill, you can improve it - even if you are a naturally shy person.
Just like other skills in English, improving confidence takes time and hard work - but it can be done using the techniques we covered here.
In fact, confidence may be the most important skill of all. By improving your confidence, you can learn faster, enjoy speaking English even more and even be more successful in your career or studies.