“Never Take Counsel of Your Fears”
General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, circa 1860
With almost 2500 classes on Verbling in the last 3 years I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen the effect of fear. You can call it different things, “nerves”, “I froze”, “panic” -- some even give it a fancy name, “Foreign Language Anxiety”. Whatever you choose to call it -- the bottom line is this: fear. Sometimes we may be practicing the speaking section of the IELTS, the TOEFL, or a Cambridge exam, and after I ask the question, the student may hesitate or even tell me, “I feel so nervous.” I’ve had students tell me things like, “I don’t say much around my coworkers because I’m afraid I’ll make a mistake [in English].” Or the student may come to me for the first time after already taking an exam, and when they show me the speaking and writing scores, I ask them, “Did you get nervous?” I can see that they can speak or write at a higher level than their scores would indicate. One student told me, “I don’t get nervous with you; it’s in those other situations when it happens.”
If your visa depends on an exam score, or getting into a university depends on it, then it’s natural to be nervous. You absolutely must remember that fear is just an emotion, and emotions come and go. Generally speaking fear paralyzes -- some little voice may say, “If you do this… then this terrible thing will happen!” If there are any English students reading this, then let me share a great expression. He had that “deer in the headlights look.” For anyone who has had the misfortune of surprising a deer at night in the middle of the road, the car headlights will often temporarily blind and paralyze the deer. So when someone is shocked or scared and doesn’t know how to respond, standing there mute, we use that expression. But this doesn’t have to be you when it comes time to speak English around native speakers, or time to take the exam. A key might be to acknowledge the emotion, but don’t let it dictate your decisions or behavior. In the words of the notable general, “Never take counsel of your fears.” I am not talking about common sense -- leave a burning building --- fears. Of course, you listen to common sense. But letting the fear of making a mistake, or looking silly or failing dictate your decisions will hold you back in learning another language. You are going to make mistakes, you will look silly, --- yes maybe some might even laugh at your blunders when you say one thing but meant to say another. Accept it; it comes with the territory.
As for reducing the fear that depends on each person. Some meditate, some pray, some listen to classical music before an exam. Some go running for 10 km to relax and chill. Some might imagine their husband is sitting next to the IELTS speaking interlocutor to bring their blood pressure down. Different methods work for different people. But to expect that you will never feel at least a bit nervous before a difficult situation may be unrealistic. So, from my own experience and that of hundreds of students, the best advice I can give you is don’t pay any attention to the fear of failure, making a mistake, or looking stupid. You won’t get anywhere if you let those fears paralyze you. Years ago in Haiti I saw people who seemed to live by the credo, “If you feel the fear, walk right into it.” The only real failure would be letting fear paralyze you. You’ll get a lot farther in your language studies if you just accept that making mistakes and looking silly are just part of the journey. Just never give up or give into fear, and you’ll be much happier in the long run when you see how far you’ve come. Enjoy the journey!