Wednesday, May 5, 2010

How to overcome your shyness when speaking a foreign language

Reader youmetal asked in the comments on an earlier post how to overcome his shyness when speaking a foreign language.

My quick answer is to ease into it slowly, building up confidence as well as the amount you say when speaking in your foreign languages.

A proposed way to do that, using free, online resources, after the jump.

Start with some recordings of yourself speaking. Take these recordings and get them corrected by native speakers. You should gradually increase the difficulty of what you're recording. Start with simple sentences or even words that you're reading off of something. Then move up to longer texts that you're still simply reading aloud. Here's an example of me reading a Japanese text (that I wrote and had corrected on Lang-8 as part of the workflow I described earlier). The link at the top is my recording, and there are many helpful comments below from native speakers.

Once you start to feel pretty comfortable with reading things, continue doing that, but also start doing the same for you simply speaking on your own. Start small, with perhaps just a simple sentence or two, and gradually work to longer and more complicated thoughts. Again, get native speakers to correct you. Here's an example of me doing that in connection with the text I read above, and again you'll see helpful comments from native speakers below that.

Then, whenever you feel comfortable, find people to voice or video chat with online. The people who have been helping you correcting your recordings are good people to start with, as they'll already be pretty familiar with what your weak points are, but you can find lots of people to speak with on italki or Livemocha as well.

From there, it's just a matter of keeping at it.

So that's my suggestion for youmetal. What other ways would you suggest or what other suggestions would you make in response to youmetal's question?


  1. My language exchange partner has been more helpful than I expected. I didn't feel ready to try speaking Japanese much, but after I agreed to help her, she insisted that I speak Japanese and get something from it. Rather than try to argue in Japanese (which would be a loss right from the start lol) I just went along with it. A couple months later and I'm a lot more at home speaking and listening to Japanese than when I started. And she's much better at English!

    We've even gotten to the point where we're starting to teach each other words that we didn't understand, rather than rely on a dictionary. Some words are surprisingly difficult to explain... Usually due to having implied meanings.

    For instance, the other day she asked me what 'so far' meant, as in "I've enjoyed the show so far." Obviously, it means 'until now', but it's implied that I am making no judgement about the rest of the show that I haven't seen. Usually that would be because I'm not sure it will continue to be good. That's hard enough to explain in my first tongue... In my second, it's a nightmare. :D

    I used to recommend waiting until you were ready to speak, and then finding a partner. Now, I think I'd change that a bit: Wait until you can talk about basic things like what you did today, your family, and the weather. It doesn't seem like much, but it's enough to get started and you'll quickly grow.

  2. I think having realistic, but challenging, expectations helps has well. Don't try to be perfect at first. As Michel Thomas says, "Just try to get the ball over the net." With time and consistent effort you can set new goals. To extend the tennis metaphor: learn to serve over hand, back hand, foot work, etc.

    Problems happen when people go to the extremes: they either expect too much too soon, set themselves up for failure and inevitable give up or they set the bar low and never raise it as time goes by.

  3. Vincent, you are so right with your advice. I took German for four years in high school and I was never confortable speaking in the class. My classmates were so inmature, that if I pronunice a word wrong, they would laugh and talk behind my back on how I said a word or sentence wrong. This is why I did not like going to my German class my junior/ Senior
    year and started not doing well, even though I pass the class with a B average. A year later, I have been learning Italian with Busuu and Livemocha, and I am doing well.

    I have new confidence in learning a new language, which has help me trendmously. The community learning really does help. Most of the native Italian speakers who have help me are so helpful and I really appricate this. I really do hope to not only learn Italian, but speak it well and right.

    Before, I would hate going to German class, thought that I can never learn a new langauge, but now, thanks to Busuu and Livemocha, my attitude with langauge learning has changed very dramticly. I am pushing myself very hard and my devotion to learning Italian has help me alot too. If I get something wrong, I want to make it right.

    I understand and know that I have a long way to go, but I am ready for the journey. I want to succeed!

  4. @William: Your comment goes to the heart of my disagreement with Steve Kaufmann on when to get into output. I think output is necessary, early and often, while Steve thinks we should stick with output until we reach some particular moment when we deem ourselves to be "ready". Had you waited until you felt ready, rather than getting pushed forward (and rightly so) by your language partner, you might still eventually reach the same level of proficiency in speaking, but it'd very well take longer.

    @Ryan: I agree with you completely. I'm all for setting ambitious goals, but you've gotta be realistic on the time it'll take to reach those goals. I think you should keep the ambitious goals but adjust the time as necessary. If you wanted to learn 1,000 words in a month but are finding that it's going to take closer to two months, keep the thousand word goal and extend it to two months. Etc., etc.

    @Ashley: Your enthusiasm is certainly spilling over in your comment! It makes me wanna get out there and learn a new one (of course, it doesn't take much to stir up that inclination in me). In any case, I'm sure you're doing great in your language learning, so keep up the good work! (And your classmates sound like a bunch of jerks. I'd be willing to bet some good money that their German was something less than impressive...)

  5. The advice from Ryan,Vincent and Ashley, that one should start talking in the language you are learning and place less emphasis on correct grammar, has inspired me to "jump in" and start talking. Thanks guys.