on May 05 2010 05:28 am 0

Fear of Speaking a Foreign Language? Consider This When You Travel

Linguist and researcher Stephen Krashen has a theory that most language learners go through a “silent period” during which they either can’t or don’t want to talk. It could last a day or a month or more.

More importantly, he believes pushing someone to speak before they’re ready will only “raise the affective filter” and make the person more nervous about speaking. In theory, the bad associations formed from being forced to speak can stay with a person and cause long-lasting inhibitions related to speaking that language.

While allowing a silent period might be fine for children in any setting and for adults in language classrooms, a real problem comes up for adults in immersion settings.

Based on circumstantial evidence, I have my own little theory about this scenario: if you don’t start speaking the local language from the day you arrive, it’s only going to get harder. Did I emphasize that enough?


Don’t Let Yourself Get Stuck

Sometimes letting yourself get too comfortable in that silent period only makes it harder to get out. First of all, you slowly discover that it’s possible to get around without using the local language. You get so used to figuring out ways to manage without it that you forget how much harder it is to live that way than it is when you can talk to everyone everywhere. Needless to say, that alone can lower your motivation.

Another problem is that the people you interact with regularly get used to talking with you in a certain language. Switching languages seems unnecessary, and therefore socially awkward. How to you ask them to switch? What if they refuse because it’s too much trouble? What if they forget and switch back? Oh, the wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth! Better just stick with the language we’ve been speaking, eh?

Getting used to an intermediary language puts a psychological barrier between you and the local language that can be very hard to overcome, especially if you’re the type who doesn’t like to rock the boat. If you just go for it right when you arrive, sure it will be awkward sometimes, but you’ll never have to worry about working up the nerve to make a sudden switch.

Instead, you move forward a little at a time. Your first venture into the language doesn’t have to be much. It can be just asking for a kilo of apples from a fruit stand or exchanging a greeting with your neighbor. Grab any opportunity you can to jump in and then move on to more complex tasks as you progress.

Take Advantage of Your Second Childhood

Learning a language is one of the few times you get to be a kid again. Sure, no one’s going to clap and coo when you first utter “Mama,” but you might be surprised how genuinely delighted people will be to see you progressing “just like a little kid.”

It’s fun to watch someone accomplish something challenging like learning a whole new language and people want to contribute to that accomplishment. So they’ll feed you new words and “test” you with mini-conversations to give you a chance to impress them.

When you first move to a country, it’s understandable you won’t know the language. People who know you just got off the boat will cut you some slack as long as you’re putting in some real effort and making progress. So take advantage of that first three or even six months to learn voraciously. [Try this plan for getting conversant in a foreign language in eight weeks at Hubpages.] The praise and encouragement you get for “knowing so much already” will lower your affective filter (nervousness level, that is) more than a few awkward moments will raise it.

Once you’ve been in the country for a year or two, though, the fact that you’ve learned a little of the language is no longer impressive. If by that time you can hold a simple conversation, instead of “Wow, you’re learning fast!” you’re more likely to hear, “You mean, you’ve been here that long and that’s all you know?” Speaking less fluently than you feel you should becomes embarrassing, so you’re less likely to seek out opportunities to practice.

If you’re struggling to find ways to speak the local language where everyone seems to speak your language, check out these tips for talking with the locals in a bilingual culture.

Related posts:

  1. How to Overcome Fear of Speaking a Foreign Language
  2. Improve Your Speaking Skills by Surrounding Yourself with Opportunity
  3. Learning a Language in a Bilingual Culture: Getting the Locals to Talk with You
  4. Foreign Language Learning for Introverts: Speaking Practice Tips for Immersion Situations
  5. Five Myths about Immersion that Can Ruin Your Language Holiday

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