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Block 1: The Fear of Making Mistakes


Do you often keep silent in a conversation because you want to have the perfect response, but by the time you formulate it in your head the conversation has moved onto something else? Or do you sometimes start to say something in English, get halfway through your sentence and just say, "never mind"? Or do you just let other people talk when you're in a meeting or group context, hoping that they won't ask you anything? Don't worry, you're not alone.

 

Block 1: the fear of making mistakes


In my recent survey to my students, more than half of them responded that the most difficult thing for them in English was, in fact, speaking. Often, people are afraid to speak because they are afraid of sounding silly or of making mistakes, which is of course a totally valid fear. Nobody likes making mistakes! But we all do. When I first moved to Spain, I essentially pretended to be mute when I went to parties where people spoke Spanish. I was terrified of sounding like, "a dumb American". So how did I get over that block? I have 2 answers for you and you're not going to like either of them, but they both lead to the same ultimate solution:

  1. I started teaching kids English, so when I had to say something to them in Spanish, I did. I tried. And they didn't judge me. Actually they probably did but I didn't care.

  2. Alcohol. In my defence, I was a university student. So of course, after a few beers, I felt much more comfortable trying to speak in Spanish.

The moral to this story is that the only way to overcome your fears is to face them. So my tips to help you overcome this block are:

  1. Find someone that you can practice speaking English with who you are comfortable talking to, and practice as much as possible! (Nobody comes to mind? Sign up for a free session with me, I might have some options for you!)

  2. Speaking to someone still too scary? Then try this - sing along with a song that you like in English, you can find the lyrics to essentially everything on YouTube, or sites like AZLyrics . This will help you practice sounds and work on your pronunciation, all from the protection of your own personal space, with nobody listening to you!

  3. Same as above, but with books! Try reading (even a simple, children's book) in English, and read it out loud. You can even record yourself and listen to it to see if you might need to make some pronunciation corrections.

  4. If you REALLY want to get out of your comfort zone, then look around your city for some language exchange sessions, many Irish pubs host language exchanges where you can follow my university self's advice, have a few drinks, and start feeling less inhibited speaking English. You might even meet someone nice, or better yet, cute!

 

My language learning story, chapter 2


I left you last week that I had chosen to go and study in Spain for my first year of university, and that I had studied 5 years of Spanish during high school. In the airport, before boarding my flight, I met some other students who were going as well, and one of them in particular (who went on to become my best friend), said that she was half Spanish, so of course she spoke Spanish. I started to worry. When we arrived, we were met and helped by people from the university, and everyone spoke English. There was basically no need to speak Spanish, at least in the university context. The very next day, we left on an orientation trip, the hardest out of 3 options - 4 days trekking in the Pyrenees mountains. All the students spoke English, even though some were actually Spanish. Our guides, however, didn't speak a word of English, so they would explain things to us and then the bilingual students would translate for the rest of us who understood about 2% of what they said. I remember feeling annoyed with myself, thinking, "why can't I understand more?". My only consolation was that I was in better physical shape than most of the group, but this meant that I was often at the front of the group, near the guide. I don't remember if we tried speaking, but if we did I was terrified and probably just limited myself to "si" or "no". I remember feeling jealous of the bilingual students, and wondering if I would ever be able to actually speak Spanish like them.


Once we were back in Madrid, I did what every university student does (besides study, of course), and I started going out, making friends, getting invited to parties, etc. I will never forget the advice of one of my very dear friends (still to this day). He said, "If you want to speak Spanish well, don't hang out with the Americans". I responded, "Yeah, obviously". But to be honest with you, I didn't follow his advice, or at least not right away. I pretty much only hung out with the Americans. Or the bilingual students. I did learn some things, of course. I went to the supermarket, I ordered things at the bar, I did fairly well in my Spanish lessons at school. But I didn't leave my comfort zone. Not entirely, at least. As I mentioned above, the only thing that started to push me out of my comfort zone was trying to communicate with mini humans, the very mini humans that I was supposed to be teaching English to (sorry parents!). But you know what? Something about those basic, childish conversations started to help me to overcome my fear of speaking. And the more I spoke with them (and their parents), the more I was able to communicate with other people as well, people that I had previously been terrified to speak to because I thought they would just think that I was "that dumb American".


Next week I'll tell you about how I went from barely speaking (after a year), to essentially hiding my American identity and getting people to think I was Spanish, or at least from some other non-English speaking country. Stay tuned, and in the mean time, try out some of the tips I gave you above and let me know how it goes for you!

 

Glossary

  • never mind: in this context, it's an expression used to tell someone to disregard something you (or someone else) have said.

  • silly: an adjective for funny, comical, cute

  • to get over: a phrasal verb for - to overcome (a problem, difficulty or illness)

  • to face [one's] fears: an idiom to say - to confront or try to control one's fears

  • to come to mind: an expression used to say, "to remember or think about something"

  • out loud: to speak out loud - to say something with sounds and words (not in your head)

  • cute: puppies are cute. Another word for "adorable"

  • to worry: to stress about something

  • annoyed: adjective - to be irritated by something

  • to go out: to meet friends, often used to talk about meeting at night for drinks, etc.

  • advice: guidance or help offered by someone "more knowledgeable" on a subject

  • barely: only just, almost not


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