Do you feel ‘miserable about making mistakes’ or have a ‘terror of errors’ or a ‘fear of failure’ when using and learning a new language? Well, you are not alone.
In this article, we respond to some of the typical concerns language learners have about using the language they are learning and their worries about making mistakes. Click on each statement to see the advice offered to help learners who feel this way. You can also use the activities in our reflective toolkit to help you with your journey to becoming a confident speaker of English.
I’ve always found speaking to be the toughest part – how do I become less self-conscious about making mistakes?
I hate not being able to find the words I need quickly enough. Sometimes the conversation moves on and I have lost the opportunity to make my point. How do I take part in conversations when I don’t yet have enough active vocabulary?
I told my teacher I wasn’t very good at languages. She said there was no such thing as being good at languages, you just have to be brave enough to open your mouth and give it a go. How can I become that brave?
How do I stop myself from worrying that I cannot make myself understood properly when I speak?
If the teacher calls on me in class, I just freeze, and my mind goes blank. Suddenly, I cannot think of anything to say. How do I get to feel more comfortable answering my teacher’s questions in class?
I hate making mistakes and want to get it exactly right if I write or speak when using a language. How can I let go of my need for perfection?
I am finding learning a new language is slow and difficult. It is hard to see progress and I thought it would be easier – children manage ok in their first language!
1. I’ve always found speaking to be the toughest part – how do I become less self-conscious about making mistakes?
Firstly, it is important to realise that everyone makes mistakes, and it is normal to do so. It is only when we make mistakes that we can see we are pushing ourselves into new language expressions and giving ourselves a chance to learn and grow. If we never made any mistakes, we could never expand our language skills. The second thing is to ask honestly what would happen if you did make mistakes. Most people are more interested in the content of what you say and may not even notice any mistakes.
If you want to become more confident in speaking, try to find ways of practising the language – find a partner to talk to in the language such as a friend from class, talk to yourself in your head running through imaginary dialogues, talk with a family pet, or try using a chatbot as a partner to have dialogues with! All practice in using the language helps you improve and makes you more comfortable in using the language no matter who you talk to.
Focus on your success in communicating and don’t worry about perfection. Be proud of your adventurous spirit in using a new language! Think of yourself as a brave, strong person who is boldly learning a new language – what a warrior! Be proud of all you have already achieved and remind yourself of all the progress you have already made and what you can already do in the language. Celebrate being someone who can communicate (even if it is sometimes with mistakes) in another language – that is something really special to appreciate and value.
2. I hate not being able to find the words I need quickly enough. Sometimes the conversation moves on and I have lost the opportunity to make my point. How do I take part in conversations when I don’t yet have enough active vocabulary?
There are many ways to get your message across even if you don’t know the exact words you need – for example, think about describing it in different ways, miming the word you need, using objects or pictures, moving your arms or hands, or conveying an expression through your face movements. However, why not simply tell your conversation partners you need some more time? Most people are impressed when you try to communicate in a language that is new to you. Often people have tried learning new languages themselves, and so they know how difficult it can be, and typically, many are very sympathetic. Either before you start the conversation, tell them you may need some more time to ensure you can take part and ask them to please be patient or even address you directly from time to time. Or why not prepare some phrases you can use during conversations to give you a little more time, e.g., ‘I would like to say something. Can you please give me a second?’ Or ‘Please slow down. I need a moment to find the right words’, Or ‘This is interesting. Can you please wait a minute as I want to say something too?’ People will be impressed at you taking control and they want to hear what you have to say, so you have nothing to fear!
3. I told my teacher I wasn’t very good at languages. She said there was no such thing as being good at languages, you just have to be brave enough to open your mouth and give it a go. How can I become that brave?
Everyone can improve when it comes to learning a new language. Some people may find some aspects of it easier than others, but everyone has the potential to get better. You need motivation, time, and a willingness to use the language as much as you can. Try to relax and enjoy any chance you get to speak. Have fun and feel a sense of pride in communicating with someone and watching them understand – what a feeling of success! Thinking of the future, imagine all the positive experiences you could have using the language and don’t worry about what mistakes could happen – realistically, the chances of success and enjoyment are much greater than the chance of failure, so just give it a go. Try to find as many opportunities to practice as possible so you become more familiar speaking the language and feel more relaxed when you do. You have nothing to lose but a lot to gain! Speak, speak, and speak some more!
In specific speaking situations, you may want to do some breathing exercises to help keep you calm. It can also be helpful to think of a situation or place where you feel happy and calm. Think in detail of this place before you speak to get you into a calm mood. Talk positively to yourself and remind yourself that the more often you speak, the better you will get and the easier it will become. Imagine yourself in the future speaking successfully and fluently in the language – this future vision will motivate you to keep practising and moving yourself towards that goal. Finally, sit or stand in a confident, strong way and this can boost how you actually feel!
4. How do I stop myself from worrying that I cannot make myself understood properly when I speak?
Communicating successfully in a language is easier than you think. When we try to communicate a message, more happens than you think. We do not just use words, but we also use visual signs such as gesture (movement of hands, arms, or head) and our facial expression (when you show an emotion on your face using your eyes or mouth). These nonverbal signs can help convey some of our message. In addition, we can use specific strategies to help ourselves such as finding other words or describing something if we cannot think of the word we want. You could also use words from any other language you know – perhaps your partner can recognise the word from that language or a similar one. Depending on your context, you may also be able to find pictures or objects to help you with your message. Try to view any chance you have to speak as an opportunity to be creative in how you communicate with your speaking partner.
Indeed, remember that communication is actually a two-way process and the person listening typically makes efforts to understand what you wish to say. This means they may be able to fill in gaps when you do not know or word, or they can ask questions to check their understanding. Perhaps ask them directly to be patient with you if you are finding it difficult. Many people are pleased you are using a foreign language at all and they will be happy to support you while you speak.
5. If the teacher calls on me in class, I just freeze, and my mind goes blank. Suddenly, I cannot think of anything to say. How do I get to feel more comfortable answering my teacher’s questions in class?
When we get nervous, our minds can go blank so that it is difficult to think clearly or say what we want to say. This means that communication is not a language problem but a problem with our fear of using the language in that situation. There are a number of things you can do. Firstly, outside of class, you may want to quietly explain to your teacher how you feel. Language teachers are very familiar with this kind of fear and anxiety, so they may have some strategies they can use with the whole class to help you and others feel more comfortable. You may be surprised to learn that there are likely to be others in class who feel the same as you.
Another strategy for you individually is to do calming breathing exercises to keep your head clear. When the teacher asks other students, think what you would say in response – even though you were not asked, this is like extra practice so you will feel more comfortable when they do ask you something. You could also try to practice speaking outside of class as much as you can starting with easier speaking tasks and building up the difficulty. Maybe you can find someone else in class who needs to become more confident in speaking just like you and you could help each other or perhaps there is a chance for an online exchange.
If your mind really has gone blank, you could prepare this sentence in advance: “I’m sorry I can’t think now. Can you please give me a minute? Thank you”. You can even tell the teacher about this strategy, so they know when you say this that you are feeling especially nervous. Hopefully, next time, you will feel calmer, better prepared, and you will know nothing bad is going to happen and you have a support strategy prepared just in case!
6. I hate making mistakes and want to get it exactly right if I write or speak when using a language. How can I let go of my need for perfection?
Wanting to be perfect is an impossible and unrealistic goal in any area of life, and it makes no sense in respect to learning a language either. Even in your first languages, have you never noticed how you sometimes make mistakes in speaking and also writing? It is normal to make mistakes, and it is healthy to accept mistakes as a regular part of life and language learning specifically. You have to give yourself permission to make mistakes, stop worrying about getting it right, and focus your attention instead on what you can learn from mistakes. Mistakes are not a problem, they are a wonderful opportunity. Mistakes offer us the chance to learn new things about the language, find new ways of expressing ourselves, and improve our skills. Rather than aiming for perfection, we can aim for improvement. What matters is we have the chance to practice using the language, the opportunity to make mistakes that we learn from, and the chance to have a lot of contact with the language in any form – all language use including reading and listening leads to improvement. In speaking and writing, teachers often say they worry that if a learner is not making mistakes, they may not be trying hard enough to expand their language skills and try out new language. Be a language adventurer and boldly use the language in ways you have never used it before! Let go of your perfectionism, embrace your pioneer spirit!
7. I am finding learning a new language is slow and difficult. It is hard to see progress and I thought it would be easier – children manage ok in their first language!
There is a well-known expression that learning a language is like a marathon and not a sprint. It is indeed a slow and long process, but that is normal and the same for everybody! But what an amazing thing to be able to communicate with different people even after only a short time. You can learn about their lives, and you can share your own experiences. You do not have to wait until high levels of proficiency to have those moments of success using the language! It makes all the effort worthwhile.
And, of course, learning a new language is a quite different process than when children learn their first languages. Just imagine how much language surrounds a child every single day when it is spoken at home – what would your language skills look like if you had that many hours of practice every day? The amount of language contact you have makes a difference. You are always making progress every time you hear, read, speak or write in the language – any language encounter is practice, and every bit of practice helps you to improve. Even a marathon is completed one step at a time.
Perhaps one problem is sometimes we fail to notice the progress and do not recognise just how much we can do already, which can be demotivating. If you are working with a coursebook, look back at where you started and where you are now. Alternatively, take a text from your current class and underline all the words you recognise – you will be amazed at how much you know. Maybe also keep a portfolio of your language use (if you make a digital portfolio, you can keep texts but also recordings of your speech). Every so often, look at your portfolio to see how far you have come and all the different things you are able to do in the language. Focus on your achievements, keep practising, don’t worry about perfection, and the progress will happen automatically with time and effort. In a marathon, you have to keep going and keep putting in the miles to reach your goals!
Want more help and advice on becoming an effective language learner? Our toolkit has self-reflection tasks to prompt you to think about language learning and you as a learner.
Sarah Mercer is a Professor of Foreign Language Teaching at the University of Graz, Austria, where she is Head of ELT methodology. Her research interests include all aspects of the psychology surrounding the foreign language learning experience. She is the author, co-author and co-editor of several books in this area including, Exploring Psychology in Language Learning and Teaching), and Teacher Wellbeing, both with Oxford University Press.