How to Overcome Your Fear of Speaking a Foreign Language in the Workplace
The perception of how good we are at speaking a foreign language can vary wildly from one day to the next. Relaxing with friends, you feel almost as good as a native. The next day at the team meeting you’re unsure if you can even remember how to say hello.
Communicating in a second language at work is a daily source of stress and anxiety for many expats. It can undermine their confidence massively, make them tend towards timidity and be a big barrier to progression.
In my time working as a teacher I’ve seen usually strong and competent adults reduced to tears in the days before they had to make a presentation in a foreign tongue. I’ve seen emails come in from all over the world asking for help with how to overcome nerves in the workplace. I do my best to reassure and encourage.
Why Do Languages Make Us so Afraid?
The first thing to say is that nobody is alone with this problem. Nerves about speaking foreign languages in pressure situations is something almost all learners experience. In fact, the fear of speaking languages is a researched syndrome complete with its own Ancient Greek name, “xenoglossophobia”. Anxious learners suffer from mental blocks during spontaneous speaking activities, lack confidence, are less able to self-edit and identify language errors, and forget previously learned material.
I’m sure all but the most confident learners can identify with those symptoms to some extent. The cure is harder, however. Even for those who achieve a reasonable level of fluency with friends or in a classroom, transitioning those skills into the office environment can seem a frightful prospect.
How Can I Overcome My Fear of Speaking at Work?
So what to do? I’ve dealt with a lot of nervous students over the years, but perhaps more importantly, I’ve been there myself, having to use my German in the workplace. I know it’s not easy, but I also know that it always improves with sustained effort. Here are some tips:
“The only way to get rid of the fear of doing something is to go out and do it”- Susan Jeffers — Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway
Bravery is most easily found in the moment. If we think about anything too long we can find a way to chicken out of doing the tough stuff. Don’t wait to start trying your language in the workplace. Take every opportunity you get right from day one to practice. The longer you wait, the higher your barrier to trying will get. The linguistic over-achievers are always those with a hunger to learn from the moment they step off the plane or walk into the office.
Concentrate on Your Pronunciation as You Practice the Language
Often it’s the small things that can make a big difference. If, when you open your mouth and speak up at the team meeting, you get giggles for mispronouncing a word or two, it can really knock your confidence and potentially make you mess up the rest of what you had to say. Often learners feel swamped by the enormity of the volume of vocabulary to learn and don’t read words properly. Less is more: learn one word, and learn it well!
There are a lot of pronunciation tools to help you learn, including one offered by Rosetta Stone. It makes students speak every single syllable of the words they learn in the tool and won‘t let them progress until they have done so. I found that this was especially helpful for German vocabulary where the words can be very long sometimes.
Speak Out Loud When You Practise at Home
Also when you are reading or learning vocabulary, do it vocally! Speaking the words out loud is another way to make yourself get every syllable and to focus, but equally importantly, it familiarizes you with the sound of the language and the sound of you saying it. The more you hear yourself say it right, the more likely you are to have it at your fingertips when needed.
Choose Your Battles
On the other hand, for some learners, baby steps are more appropriate. Those who are more anxious can do well through thorough preparation, keeping quiet in the toughest situations like team meetings and then scripting everything else as best they can. Presentations are a particularly good opportunity to practise a well-prepared speech in a foreign tongue.
Roll with the Punches
Most importantly of all, you have to keep trying! Learning languages is very hard and it’s very easy to give in to despair at the enormity of it all. A bad moment in the workplace can really knock students’ determination and tempt them to headlong retreat. It’s at these testing moments that you have to battle on, get yourself back into a positive conversation as quickly as possible and repair the damage done. The worst thing you can do after a knock is to quit and avoid speaking for a few days – or weeks!
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