How to get rid of the feeling of stupidity

Leonilda Renaldo

…when you speak English

The feeling of not being able to express yourself clearly, especially at the beginning, is a universal feeling that can and does dissuade people from learning a new language. How can we build up our confidence and stop feeling like we’re less than intelligent simply because we’re not able to communicate as freely as we do in our native language?

I still remember very clearly the feeling of frustration and embarrassment when I first started learning French, even after a few years when I was no longer considered a beginner. I knew I had the vocabulary, and could speak at least somewhat fluidly, and yet… I felt that when I spoke French, I was unable to appear as intelligent as when I spoke English.

I felt as though I was speaking like a cavewoman – my French was composed of mixed up grammar, badly conjugated verbs, and mispronounced words. I confessed these feelings to a friend who was learning English at the time, specifically about often appearing as “stupid.” About not being able to understand everything that was said to me. About not being able to express myself clearly.

My friend who was learning English, admitted that she also felt stupid speaking English. She wasn’t sure people even understood her most of the time when she spoke because she had trouble understanding everything they said.

I was caught by surprise, and I realized that my perception regarding her English-speaking skills was completely different from her own:

  1. I knew that my friend was highly capable and very bright, and her not-so-perfect English didn’t deter from that fact.
  2. Most of the time, I could understand what she was trying to say the first time around. Even if she didn’t use the right tense or slightly mispronounced a word, I understood the basics and could fill in the blanks myself if necessary.
  3. If someone could not understand what my friend was trying to say, that person was simply not trying to understand her.

 

This intense feeling of nervousness when speaking a second language has become more researched in the past few decades: it’s called foreign language anxiety. The symptoms include a lack of confidence, a reluctance to speak, and even insomnia. This apprehension might be familiar to many people already. It could also be that you’ve developed this specific form of anxiety in the process of learning a language, for example through teachers who have made fun of their students during class.

This phenomenon is becoming more and more common: approximately 35% of the world’s population experiences foreign language anxiety. It is especially common among people who are required to learn a new language in order to be able to do something else, i.e. among those who do not learn a new language simply for the joy of learning a new language.

So how can you improve your condition? The psychology behind this phenomenon is much too complex to simply point and blame one thing for everything. What is certain, however, is that in order to improve the self-esteem issues and doubts that accompany foreign language anxiety, more participation and practice is required – unfortunately, that’s exactly what foreign language anxiety hinders people from doing.

On the bright side, there are a few ways to help alleviate some of anxiety that occurs when speaking English. Here are a few suggestions to implement if you’d like to take the upper hand on foreign language anxiety and start building your way to a successful English practice:

  • Is feedback to blame for this anxiety (e.g. harsh criticism from a teacher that marks you to this day)?
    • Try to evaluate whether this criticism is constructive or destructive. If you realize that it’s destructive, work on abandoning this false appraisal of your English. You could for example start to build yourself up again through affirmations.
    • It’s also important to realize that not all criticism is bad. Sometimes, it is just the push we need to become better. So, welcome criticism even though it can be threatening.
    • Don’t forget to share the feedback with someone you trust and discuss how improvement can be implemented. It’s better to let all the doubts and frustrations out rather than keeping them bottled up.
  • How do you practice and participate?
    • Start small and work up to where you want to be: first practice speaking English by yourself (alone), then in front of mirror. As you progress, find a language conversation partner who is going through the same situation (that way you have a win-win solution: they learn French, you learn English, and there’s no need to feel guilty for wasting each other’s time as you’re both in the same boat), or if you prefer, with friends or family members.
    • Make sure you stick with it. The more you speak English, the more comfortable you get with it. Try to set aside some time each day, even just 10 minutes, to incorporate English into your lifestyle, just like if you were to go on a diet.
    • Less is more: while you work on expanding your vocabulary use a few keywords, play detective and look for words you like, stick to those words….and practice in a safe and supportive environment!

 

As a language coach with many tricks up her sleeve, I support numerous professionals who must learn and master English in their sometimes, hostile environments. If you want to overcome your fears and dare to speak to English in any professional situation, book your free consultation with me today.

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