Assuming you have ample opportunity, practising your newly acquired language can present challenges that extend beyond simple skill acquisition. Classroom environments (should) provide a comforting security blanket under which our errors are understood and expected, thus learner anxiety is managed under the wing of the empathic teacher. It is understood that tentative blunders are part and parcel of the learning process.
The potential for unmanaged learner anxiety arises, however, when the learner, either through choice or necessity, finds him or herself in an environment in which the target language is the common language. The learner may view such a situation as an opportunity to practise the target language, where there is little pressure to do so and thus the focus is on the experience of practising the newly acquired language. In contrast there will be the learner that deems their ability to communicate in the target language a necessity as opposed to an opportunity. Within this sense of necessity lies the potential for the manifestation of a sense of urgency; an urgency that potentially, if left unmanaged, may transform into anxiety, both economic and social. Contributing factors to this anxiety will, of course, be dependent on the learner’s goals and objectives and their reasons for being in the environment.
No better way exists to learn a language than placing oneself in an environment where one is surrounded by native speakers. Yet with this comes anxiety and fear. Fear of making mistakes (outside of the classroom comfort blanket), fear of not being understood and even fear of ridicule from locals. These are normal fears, yet fear can be crippling.
As a Spanish learner, at beginner level (A1), living in Mexico City I can attest that these fears have the potential to interfere with the learner’s confidence, particularly when the desire to integrate is strong. Yet it is far easier (when the man serving tacos in the street corner can speak English) to revert to your native language; as you eradicate the possibility of being misunderstood. You eradicate the potential for ridicule at your confusion between ‘este’ and ‘ese’. Yet the locals enjoy watching the learner make the effort and will often assist and engage him or her in jestful, yet friendly conversation.
Practising language within everyday social situations is ultimately an issue of confidence, which can be overcome by changing the way we think about it.
Here are some tips for overcoming your fear of practising your new language in a new country:
- Don’t take yourself too seriously! Most natives are happy to help – particularly if they see you making an effort to speak the language.
- Smile while engaging and speaking with the locals. Smiling relaxes us and the other person.
- Combine real-life practise with structured language classes.
- Learn a few stock phrases for situations you’re likely to find yourself in on a regular basis. In fact – over-learn them! Over-learning a new skill helps to re-programme our brains so that they become automatic responses.
- Join forces with a language partner for a language exchange.
- Enjoy the language! You’re far more likely to learn the language if you enjoy speaking it, rather than seeing it as a chore or something you have to do!