Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

How to Overcome Your Foreign Language Anxiety

anxious woman - Gamesforlanguage.comDo you ever get a little anxious when speaking a foreign language? Foreign language anxiety knows no age and can bubble up in anyone. It doesn't matter whether you're speaking formally in the classroom or office, on the telephone with someone you don't know, or informally "on the street." 

So, why do some of us get anxious when speaking to someone in a foreign language?

Well, we sometimes imagine all kinds of mishaps. The thoughts are all in our head but the fears feel very real. We worry about:

  • making a fool of ourselves
  • saying an utterly wrong thing
  • being badly misunderstood
  • making mistakes
  • being embarrassed

On top of that, our anxiety itself may have all kinds of effects on us:

  • we blank out in the middle of what we're saying
  • we forget words and phrases that we thought we knew well
  • we start to stutter or get visibly flustered
  • we start to feel nauseous or otherwise physically uncomfortable

Worst case scenario: As a result, we avoid situations in which we could use our foreign language. Ultimately, we find it hard to continue learning the language.

But it doesn't have to go that way!

A second or third language is a huge personal and professional asset. If you want to make that new language your own, it's totally worth dealing with your anxieties.

Below are 3 situations in which the fear of speaking in a foreign language often pops up, even in people who are outgoing and used to being assertive.

SPEAKING UP OR PRESENTING IN anxious student in front of blackboard - Gamesforlanguage.comCLASS, or in another formal context

Holding your own in a foreign language when you're being evaluated by a teacher, a superior, or even peers can be particularly anxiety-provoking. Before and during your speech, all kinds of additional emotions may come up, including jitters about standing in front of a group.

  • You may feel anxious about:
  • looking foolish
  • not being prepared
  • suddenly losing concentration
  • feeling self-conscious and shy
  • feeling unable to explain your ideas
  • getting stuck and/or losing your thread
  • going completely blank

Dealing with anxiety about speaking in front of a group starts the moment that you know you'll be doing it. But curious as it may seem, you have quite a bit of control over such an event.

Because you're anxious, it's easy to avoid thinking about the presentation. Thinking about it also means worrying about it. However, the key is to start early and not to procrastinate.

A Few Tips For Acing That Speech

  • Put your speech or presentation together as soon as you can, and don't try to make it perfect.
  • Practice your speech out loud, in front of a mirror, and if you can, before a partner or friend. Practice again and again until you have your speech pretty well memorized; then write down a few key words, and practice your speech again, this time talking more freely.
  • Look up and write down a few phrases that you'll need when you should lose your thread during your presentation, phrases such as: "what I meant to say ...", "okay, that's not right", "let's go back", etc.
  • Practice your speech, this time "blanking out" a couple of times. Use your phrases to get back on track. Don't forget to chuckle at yourself as you do this.
  • During your presentation, focus on the here and now. Find a kind-looking face in the middle or back of the room and from time to time use that person as a focus.

woman speaking on phone - Gamesforlanguage.comSPEAKING WITH SOMEONE ON THE TELEPHONE, or Skype, camera off

If you cannot see the other person, you don't get important visual clues from the other person. So, you have to focus exclusively on the person's voice.

This makes a telephone call in a foreign language with someone you don't know or don't know well, particularly difficult and anxiety-provoking.

In such a situation, you may be be concerned about:

  • misunderstanding what the other person is saying
  • not being able to formulate what you want to say
  • sounding scared rather than confident
  • saying something stupid
  • starting to stutter
  • having the other person hang up in exasperation

As with a presentation, preparing yourself is crucial. Even if your language learning goal has been only to "speak" in the foreign language, it's worth mastering some writing skills.

The good thing about speaking with someone on the telephone, is that you can have your "cheat sheet" right in front of you to help you along. If you're polite, relaxed, and smile as you talk, you'll be just fine.

A Few Tips For Dealing With Telephone Anxiety

  • Write out a couple of typical phrases for greeting someone on the telephone, and for starting and concluding a conversation.
  • List the items of information that you want to ask or to communicate.
  • Write down how to ask questions politely and how to confirm, "yes, that's it."
  • Learn typical phrases to help you get through the conversation, such as "Sorry I didn't understand," or "Could you repeat that, please?" or, "Did I get that right?"
  • Practice your phrases out loud, several times.
  • On the telephone, always repeat the information the other person gave you, just to make sure you fully understood.

SPEAKING WITH SOMEONE IN PERSON, woman speaking - Gamesforlangiage.comalso on Facetime, or Skype, camera on

Let's say you're lucky enough to know native speakers you can chat with in person. Or, also nice, you're in the country or in a region where your new language is spoken. All I can say is, go for it!

While having a real conversation may seem a little scary, you have the huge advantage of getting immediate feedback beyond the other person's responses and tone of voice.

You also get lots of visual clues: gestures, body language, and his or her facial expressions - especially the eyes. 

When talking with native speakers you know or meet, you would typically talk about yourself, your interests, things that you do, and ask about the other person.

If, however, you are visiting or living in a country where the language is spoken,
you'd have additional opportunities for applying your new language with daily tasks:

  • buying something at an outdoor market
  • asking for directions
  • ordering in a restaurant
  • asking for the check
  • purchasing a train ticket
  • looking for a specific item in a store
  • resolving an ATM issue in a bank (see our experience in Seville)
  • starting up a conversation while waiting in a line
  • making small talk at a social gathering

These kinds of language interactions are not quite as limited in scope as the others. Still, they are a great way to confront your foreign language anxiety in relative safety.

As a starter, you could preface any of these encounters by saying that you are just learning the language and that you're eager to put it into practice.

A Few Tips for Conversations

  • Prepare by writing down some of the words and phrases that you'll need, skyping - Gamesforlanguage.combe it for the task you'll undertake or the kind of conversation you're expecting.
  • Memorize and practice these aloud.
  • Write down questions you want ask, and phrases to help the conversion along, such as: "I didn't understand," "Can you repeat that," "What does X mean?", etc.
  • Take a piece of paper with you with a list of words. It can't hurt.
  • When you're in a conversation, pay attention to the filler words or sounds, "uhm", "hmm", "eh," etc. Use them, but cautiously at first. Used correctly, they can help you sound more like a native.
  • Be aware of the cultural context in which you find yourself. Become alert to what is appropriate, what is not. This is often learned through conversation, by asking questions, and yes, also by making mistakes.

When speaking a foreign language, the cultural context is highly important. In her timely talk - based on her book, The Anxious Language Learner: A Saudi Woman's Story - which Taghreed Al-Saraj gave at the 3rd Polyglot Conference in New York (October 10-11, 2015), she stressed how important a role culture plays in communication and behavior.

It also means that the person learning a language is adopting "a new identity ... (and) is learning a new way of doing things. ... What's normal in one culture differs from what's normal in another culture."

Should you indeed say something silly or make a cultural faux pas - you'll probably know this from the other person's immediate, verbal and/or non-verbal responses. When it happens, it's best to learn how to laugh at yourself, say you're truly sorry, and chalk it up to language-learning experience.

Just remember, a little specific preparation can make it easier to speak up in the foreign language you're learning. It's been proven that practice reduces anxiety. Then, when you are involved in a conversation, know in your mind that it's okay to make mistakes and to feel somewhat uncomfortable. With time and practice, you'll gradually learn to deal with your fears.

Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of Gamesforlanguage.com. She is a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada. You can follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact.