After deciding to take German to fill my high school foreign language requirement in the eighth grade, I spent four years in classes figuring out the grammar, memorizing vocabulary, and practicing short conversations. My teacher’s logical approach to explaining grammar clicked easily for me, and I always got good grades. But that didn’t mean I was anywhere near being good in German. In fact, I was terrified to speak it.
I had chosen German because it had fit me the best of our three choices (Spanish, French, or German), as I explained in a reccent blog. At least, that was one of the factors. The other factor was this: German was the only language in our school with an exchange program, and I wanted to travel. So after three and a half years of classes—in the eleventh grade—I joined about 25 of my classmates in signing up for the program. During our school year a group of German students came to live and attend school with us. We were all nervous to meet our new friends, but when they arrived it turned out that there was a much subtler form of terror: they all spoke amazing English. They had read books in English. We could barely speak in the passive voice. How would we ever get up the courage to speak our broken German to these masters of English? So most of us didn’t. Which was fine while we were still in the United States.
During the following summer, our class group flew to Germany for our turn on foreign ground, and we brought our language anxieties with us. The first week of our trip was spent traveling from Munich, where we’d arrived, to Krefeld, where we’d be spending our exchange time. We visited most of the country’s major tourist sights, and we congratulated ourselves at successfully ordering in restaurants and buying souveneirs in Germany. But as long as we were traveling with a large group of Americans, we didn’t need to speak German in our everyday interactions. When we arrived in Krefeld and each went off to our host familes, it was a different story.
Everyone managed to speak to a varying degree, but besides one or two real language talents, most of us spoke more English than German. I was too nervous to try. Despite the fact that, when I did finally get a sentence or two out, my host sister told me my German was just fine. Even though my host mother couldn’t speak a word of English and not speaking German meant not being able to communicate with her, not being able to tell her that I didn’t really like Leberwurst (which often showed up on the mid-day snacks she sent with me to school) or how much I appreciated her hospitality.
By the end of our month in Germany, I had amassed a few measely hours of German-language time. It was a bit of a waste, language-wise, but I just hadn’t figured out how to let go and babble in a language I couldn’t fully control—one of the biggest fears that keeps people from practicing a new language. So how did I finally get over it?
Let go. Don’t be afraid of sounding stupid. Do you think people who make mistakes speaking your native language are jerks? Probably not. Just like nobody is going to think you’re a jerk for making a few grammatical errors when you’re trying to tell them about your day in German. In fact, my friends have told me (much to my chagrin) those grammatical mistakes are often kind of cute, and most people will appreciate the effort you’ve put in to learn something about their culture. Never underestimate the exoctic appeal of a person with an accent, and never assume that a mistake in a work-in-progress is something to be ashamed of. And if somebody does think you sound stupid? Ask them to say something in your language, and then walk away.
Seek out practice situations that make you comfortable and in which you feel less inhibited. Getting over your speaking fears can take some time, so you might want to start loosening your tongue with other non-native speakers to get the hang of speaking up. For many people a few beers are all it takes to get them babbling comfortably in their adopted language. If you’re shy focus on finding one good friend with whom you can practice. If you want to try but don’t want to humilate yourself in front of colleagues, go to an out-of-the-way bar (or restaurant or cafe) you’d be perfectly happy never visiting again and talk up everyone in the room. You’ll get your practice and no one at work (or in your cirlce of friends, etc) will be the wiser.
Once I reached legal drinking age, I found myself practicing my German more and more—as luck would have it beer loosens my tongue and I started dating someone from my German class with whom I could practice whenever the mood struck. Practicing with him got me used to the idea of practicing at all, and by the time I moved to Germany I had no inhibitions left. Suddenly I was the girl talking to everyone in broken German, stubbornly replying in German when people would switch to English, and getting better and better at it with each passing day. Because Übung macht den Meister (practice makes perfet), as they say.
What has helped you get over fears of speaking a foreign language with native speakers?