Conquering the Monster: Overcoming the Fear of Communicating in a Foreign Language


“Thinking will not overcome fear but action will.”  – W. Clement Stone

I’m scared of Math. It’s a deep, visceral fear, that triggers automatically whenever I’m confronted with the need for rapid and public calculations, and it’s held me back on numerous occasions. Are you familiar with the image of a deer unable to move, even to save its own life, as headlights rapidly approach? Perhaps you can relate with a fear of your own?

Fear paralyses us and stops us from accomplishing our goals, from communicating with those around us, and from experiencing life at its fullest. It may eventually take over our lives, limiting our sphere of movement to such a degree that we pull back, retreating into our shell and becoming an incomplete and frustrated version of ourselves.

On a par with Mathematics is the fear of communicating in a foreign language. Over the years, I’ve heard enough stories from my students of their horrific experiences with language-learning to realise that this fear exists in many people who seek support in improving their foreign language skills.  I believe the primary source of this terror lies in negative or traumatic experiences with past teachers, who were either incompetent themselves, or who delighted in torturing their students with ridicule and an abusive red pen. Success in many parts of the world is equated with high marks, which imply the absence of mistakes and the faithful regurgitation of the information supplied by the teacher. But language is alive, in constant evolution, and a beautiful, creative act. It cannot be imprisoned by a wall of conjugations and syntax. 

The natural consequence of this dreadful habit of punishing mistakes is that learners of a language live in constant fear of being ridiculed by their instructors as well as their peers unless their grammar skills are perfect and vocabulary beyond reproach. In persons who tend towards a natural reserve or feelings of insecurity, and for whom spoken communication is difficult, even in their own language, this devastating cocktail of terrors has the power of shutting them down completely. 

The quote that introduces this article encourages us to overcome our fears by taking action rather than by thinking and obsessing over the fear itself; indeed, I’m convinced there is a series of actions we can take to conquer our insecurities as we strive for more effective, stress-free communication.

The very first point concerns ourselves, dear Teachers, and the atmosphere we create around us.  Do our classrooms provide a safe learning space, where the individual is supported and respected, where mistakes are welcomed as experiments and the class works together as a group on their voyage of experience and discovery into the new language? Do we respect the learning pace of individual participants, knowing that each person must find his or her own way into the language? Do we offer a sufficient variety of activities and stimuli within the lesson, so that each person may fully benefit? Do we encourage and support discussion, both in small groups and in plenum, so that authentic communication is practiced from the earliest phases of learning? These are all questions I am fully conscious of in my own practice, knowing that I am not yet capable of implementing them fully at all times, limited as I am by own shortcomings as well as syllabi, marks, and other bureaucratic limitations. But I can, and I do, strive towards this goal. 

What actions can we, as learners, take to move beyond the fear of using a new language? The first point is to take stock of where we are now, at present, and use whatever tools in our possession to communicate, whether it is to address an audience at a conference or simply to order pizza and beer at an Italian restaurant. It is useless and discouraging to withhold our words and fantasise about a future perfection which we may very well never reach. 

Speaking of perfection, it is time to clear up once and for all that perfection in communication is unattainable and preposterous, even in our own mother tongue; misunderstandings, assumptions, and a lack of clarity accompany the messages people exchange every day. This ambiguity is what  keeps our conversations alive and expresses our delightfully imperfect humanity.

Just like in sports, fluency is a result of practice, and not its prerequisite! A serious commitment to practice is fundamental to gain fluency and overcome insecurity, and this may take on many forms, such as enrolling in a language course, finding a tandem partner, travelling abroad and being obliged to survive on one’s limited language skills, or – don’t laugh – dating someone who speaks the language we are struggling to learn. This last point should not be underestimated: when we are in a relationship, we will (hopefully) soon tire of whispering “Je t’aime” into his or her ear and seek communication at a deeper level, thus quickly developing fluency and a feel for the nuances of the language.

And finally, there’s the “back-door” approach to familiarising oneself with a new language: if the idea of spending 4 hours a week of precious free time cooped up in a language course doesn’t sound too attractive, we can explore the culture, history, art, music, cuisine, sports, or whatever else surrounds the language we fear and slowly start experiencing it indirectly. Eventually, we will find ourselves singing along to Ed Sheeran’s lyrics fluently and ordering “Orecchiette alle cime di rapa” (Italian ear-shaped pasta with turnip greens, a specialty from Apulia) without a care in the world. 

Let’s never forget that language is a mere tool that facilitates communication, not an end to itself. Perfect grammar and an encyclopaedic vocabulary, without the self-confidence to speak, will have rendered all our study and memorisation useless.

So here it is, my own imperfect contribution to the discussion about fear as it relates to language learning. I believe there’s a need for a conversation about this issue that blocks us all from time to time and look forward to continuing our conversation in the comments below.  My Math inadequacy has fortunately not held me back all that much, as I chose a career far removed from the realm of calculus and algebraic expression, but it remains a small, private kernel that feeds my feelings of insecurity. 

And now please excuse me while I go and work on my times tables. 

P.S. If you are interested in reading about overcoming fear from a very different perspective, Alex and Bo, respectively my sister and brother-in-law, own and manage a skydiving center in Wisconsin, USA. On their website, there’s a very interesting article on overcoming fear as it relates to skydiving. Fear is fear, whether it’s mathematics or skydiving. 

Top Fears In Skydiving & How To Overcome Them