I currently live in Brazil and am learning Portuguese. The great majority of the conversations I have are coloured with some kind of anxiety because I’m still learning to speak the language.
Did I say that right? What was that word again? Do I sound stupid?
Because we feel a bit stupid when we’re speaking another language, don’t we?
I often joke that I drop roughly 30 IQ points in Portuguese and that I lose about half of my personality. I’m constantly saying things like, “Eu sou engraçado em Inglês, prometo!” I am funny in English, I promise!
Speaking in another language comes with a lot of awkwardness, self-doubt, and even fear.
But, if you really want to learn, you’re going to have to overcome your fear of speaking English.
In this article, I want to give you 11 tips on how to do that.
1. Choose speaking activities that provoke less fear
There are lots of speaking activities you can do that don’t require another person, such as shadowing or even just talking to yourself. These allow you to practise speaking without having to do it with a real person.
I’ve previously given a big list of activities to improve your English speaking if you don’t have anyone to practise with.
Start with some of these to build up your speaking confidence. Once you’re a bit more comfortable, you’ll feel less awkward when you’re having conversations with others.
2. Start online
A less stressful way to start conversing in English is by doing it through text. If you’re writing, you get a bit more time to think about what you want to say… and maybe even to use Google Translate if you need to!
So start online.
You can use online language learning forums, chat rooms, or message boards. You can even start conversations through social media. These options give you a bit more time and help you practise the rhythm of a conversation without the fear that comes with actually speaking.
3. Join a community
Another effective way to overcome your fear of speaking is to join a community of language learners who are just like you. These communities can be really supportive and can help remove some of your anxiety around speaking English.
There are a number of great communities for English learners, including Facebook groups, Discord servers, and WhatsApp groups. Our favourite is, of course, the Leonardo English community. We’ve got a small but growing and engaged group of people on there and I encourage you to check it out.
4. Choose comfortable language partners
People you know—your friends and relatives—may be less intimidating than strangers. Find partners that you know to help you feel less tense.
Finding a language exchange partner may also be a good option.
In a language exchange, you might speak in English for 30 minutes and then switch roles and speak in your native language for 30 minutes.
The beauty of this is that both people are the “learner” and feel the discomfort that comes with learning another language. And, both people get to feel the comfort that comes with speaking one’s own language. Being able to see your partner struggle and make mistakes may help you overcome your own fear of making mistakes.
Check out our article on how to find a conversation partner in English for ideas on finding a language exchange partner.
5. Develop your other English skills
Sometimes we’re afraid to speak in another language because we know we’re not very good at it. So one way to overcome your fear of speaking English is to improve your skills.
According to Krashen’s input hypothesis, listening to English and reading it are two of the best ways to improve your general English level. He argues that these provide the comprehensible input that is essential for you to acquire a language.
There’s actually quite a bit of research on this. It’s clear, for example, that listening to podcasts can help you speak English better.
So by working your English skills in other ways, you’ll improve your overall English level and eventually feel more comfortable speaking in English.
6. Forget perfection
A common theme in the articles on this blog is that you should embrace your mistakes.
Mistakes are an absolutely critical part of learning—the willingness to make mistakes is one of the superpowers of effective language learners. If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not growing.
Changing your mindset or your attitude is difficult, but it might go a really long way towards overcoming your fear of speaking in English.
If you learn to value the mistakes you’re making and see it as a part of your English learning journey, you might not be so afraid to make them in the first place.
7. Develop methods to get calm
What if you’re already in the conversation and you’re feeling really uncomfortable?
Practise relaxing. There are several effective skills you can practise and use to reduce agitation.
Here are a few of them:
- Take deep breaths. Breathing deeply is a great way to reduce the physical sensations that come with fear—the racing heart, the sweaty palms, etc.
- Use positive self-talk. Remind yourself that you really can have a good conversation in English and that it’s fine if you’re not perfect. Talk yourself up.
- Challenge your negative thoughts. You don’t have to believe everything you think. While you might worry that something you said was embarrassing, you can challenge that thought and remind yourself that it probably wasn’t a big deal and everyone makes mistakes.
There is actually quite a bit of evidence to show that our behaviour can affect how we feel.
One famous study in psychology assigned participants to two groups. In one, they were asked to hold a pencil between their teeth, causing them to smile. In the other, participants were asked to hold a pencil between their upper lip and their nose, causing them to frown. The researchers found that participants in the first group rated cartoons as funnier, indicating that smiling changed how they felt.
This is just one example of how we can change how we are feeling by acting in certain ways. Smiling can help make us feel more comfortable. So, if you’re feeling afraid during your conversation, smile. It could help you feel better.
9. Focus on one-to-one conversations
Parties can be really great, but group conversations can also be the most intimidating to participate in.
Often they go quickly, there are multiple people speaking, often with background noise and sometimes move on to another topic before we have time to jump in.
Instead of looking for opportunities to speak English in groups, prioritise one-on-one conversations. These are usually easier and less stressful.
10. Slow down
Having a conversation more slowly may make it easier for you to participate easily and help reduce your fear.
One way to slow down the conversation is simply to ask your partner to speak more slowly. This often works, although it can be a bit uncomfortable.
But there’s another way to control the pace of the conversation: change the pace of your own speech. If you want the conversation to go a bit slower, slow down your own speaking and rhythm. Your partner will naturally follow.
It’s not a race.
11. Just keep speaking
I have a friend who is a clinical psychologist. I’ve heard her explain that one of the most effective methods for treating phobias and anxiety is called Exposure Therapy. It basically works by systematically exposing people to their fear, little by little. Eventually, patients feel less and less fear.
I’m not saying that you should seek psychological help for your fear of speaking English, nor am I saying that you should try to do psychotherapy on yourself.
But I am saying that the more we do something, the less fear we have towards it. So perhaps my best advice to overcome the fear of speaking English is to speak it regularly. The more you speak in English, the more confident and comfortable speaking English will become for you.
You’re going to feel a bit silly speaking English. Speak anyway.
Probably the most consistent phenomenon that I’ve noticed in my years both teaching English and learning other languages is this: most people feel a bit dumb speaking in another language.
That discomfort is virtually universal. It’s not just you.
But try not to let that fear of feeling silly or of being clumsy in another language keep you from learning.
Yes, you might feel a bit silly, but keep speaking anyway. Use the tips from this article to help you.
Speaking is an essential part of any English immersion course. So try to overcome your fear of speaking and practise it like anything else, even if you don’t live in an English-speaking country.
With consistent practise, your feelings of fear and embarrassment will disappear over time, and speaking in English will soon feel like second nature.
Remember, you’re learning English, you are trying, and you will make progress every time you practise.
That’s a wonderful thing, and there is no reason you should be afraid of this fantastic journey that you are going on.
Onwards and upwards!
Strack, F., Martin, L. L., & Stepper, S. (1988). Inhibiting and facilitating conditions of the human smile: A non-obtrusive test of the facial feedback hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54(5), 768–777. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.118