All your hard work and dedication builds to that one moment: your first conversation in a new foreign language. Yet, the second you open your mouth things begin to spiral downward.
The words don’t seem to flow. You stutter. Your mind goes blank. And then you panic. Soon, your conversation partner sees your struggle and decides to “help” you by reverting to English. Or worse: You’re told that your accent or language skills are “bad.”
When starting out in a new foreign language, these are all real possibilities. All your practice at home, listening and repeating conversations from your iPod, and writing to penpals will never fully prepare you for your first foreign language conversation with a native speaker.
But despite the hardships you’ll face, you need to push through and persevere — your language learning success depends upon it.
Not sure how to recover from a low blow? Here are a few tips to repair your language learning confidence (even if it’s been completely shattered).
1. Ignore negativity.
Not everyone will be on your side. If someone has hammered you down a peg or two with a discouraging or hurtful comment, you need to realize: It’s not you, it’s them.
The world is full of wonderful people, but it also has its fair share of assholes. Most well-intentioned attempts at speaking a foreign language, no matter how “terrible,” should elicit smiles, not scoffs or laughter. If you find yourself in a situation where someone has poisoned your confidence with a snide remark or intentional ridicule, simply seek a new conversational partner.
Anyone who puts down or pokes fun at a new learner is — quite simply — not worth speaking with. Find, instead, someone who is supportive of your language learning and will offer constructive advice on how to progress further.
2. Celebrate the small wins.
So your first conversation didn’t go as planned. Maybe you spent more time listening to explanations or English translations than you did speaking, or maybe you think you sounded like a buffoon from a black-and-white slapstick comedy. Chalk it up as a win.
You can’t expect to hit a home run on your first swing. Every small step you make in a new foreign language is a step in the right direction: after all, you just overcame the anxiety of using your language skills for the first time, and that’s a big deal, whether you or those around you realize it or not.
Every time you use a new word correctly in a conversation, understand a long sentence, or even pick out a single word you recognize on the radio, pat yourself on the back and remind yourself how far you’ve come. Each puts you one stride closer to achieving your foreign language goals and should be celebrated as such.
3. Try. Try. Try again.
Even if sputtering out a new phrase ends in embarrassment, don’t stop there. Compose yourself and fashion a new attempt.
Still think you sound like Jabba the Hutt on a bender after a few tries? Go back to the drawing board and review what went wrong. Brush up on your vocabulary and grammar (if that fits with your language learning style), and practice out loud on your own until you’ve nailed it.
Whatever you do, use every interaction as a cue to improve. Figure out what was missing and do all that you can to boost your chances for conversational success next time around.
4. Learn an easier language.
I know you’re not a quitter. But sometimes you can bite off more than you can chew. Never be afraid to switch gears.
If you’ve chosen to learn Arabic, Chinese, or another difficult foreign language, you might feel overwhelmed — complex grammatical concepts, weird foreign sounds, and unfamiliar vocabulary can deter even the most dedicated language learning pro.
Instead of banging your head against the wall, walk before you run: Choose Spanish, French, German, or other easy foreign languages to increase your confidence before moving up to bigger challenges.
Once you have a few successful conversations under your belt, continue with that difficult language you’ve always wanted to learn — I guarantee you’ll find more success on the second time around.
This post was originally published at Treksplorer and is reprinted here with permission.
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Ryan O'Rourke is a Canadian travel writer, amateur photographer, and future polyglot with a sheer inability to control his wanderlust. Almost a decade after his first ill-conceived backpacking adventure, Ryan now staunchly defends minimalist travel planning and shares his travel experiences, photography and failed language learning attempts at Treksplorer. Contact Ryan on Twitter, Facebook.
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