The research is clear: the best way to master a language is to engage with other speakers—the more proficient, the better.
When you’re first starting out, however, chatting with someone who knows the ins and outs of your target language might feel like the last thing you want to do. Who wouldn’t be a little apprehensive about trying to speak with someone who’ll be fully attuned to all of your mistakes? Isn’t it better to master the basics from the comfort of your own home before having to test it out on other humans?
Well, no—not if fluent communication is your goal. Forcing yourself to engage with native speakers is like tearing off a bandaid; the faster you get it over with, the less it will hurt.
The most successful language students are often those that are willing to not only tolerate but fully embrace embarrassment. If the thought of making a language blunder fills you with shame, here are four things to keep in mind to help you persevere.
Imagine striking up a conversation with someone who’s learning your native language. His speech is a bit slow and peppered with words borrowed from his mother tongue, and he asks you to repeat yourself a few times. But he powers through, even after you offer to revert to a language he knows better. Would you react negatively? Would you internally criticize or deride him? Or laugh about him when he was out of earshot?
If you answered yes to any of those questions, you’re… well, you’re probably a bit of a jerk, but you’re also (in our experience) in the minority. If you’re thrilled to hear someone practicing your native language, you can bet that the people you’re practicing your target language with probably feel the same way.
Every language student has at least one language mishap horror story: unwittingly making a pass at your teacher, accidentally unleashing a stream of vulgar language on your host family, referencing your own bathroom habits in the middle of an otherwise innocuous conversation… and in these situations, all you can really do is laugh (and file the story away in your mind to bring up later at dinner parties). If your past errors still make you blush, take comfort in knowing that at least your malapropism didn’t end up on a billboard.
Your teachers haven’t just heard it all before—they’ve likely done it themselves
Many of your teachers will have undertaken their own language studies at some point, and unless they were lucky enough to grow up in multilingual households, chances are they’ve struggled with the same misgivings that you’re feeling now. Everybody has to start somewhere, and for all you know, the teacher who corrected your grammar this morning is spending her afternoon struggling through basic phrases in a foreign tongue (and admires you for doing the same).
Even if your teachers haven’t experienced the particular fear that accompanies practicing a new language as an adult, they’ve made the same kind of errors back in the day when they were mastering their own native languages(s)—the same way that all children do. We could all learn something from the way that children develop language—boldly and without giving a second thought to the mistakes that come tumbling out of their mouths. Children eventually master their mother tongue through necessity-driven practice. By putting yourself into situations where you’re forced to communicate, you can do the same.
The worst thing that can happen after you’ve made a mistake in front of native speakers isn’t that someone will point it out—it’s that they won’t. People spend thousands of dollars on lessons and travel halfway around the world to have their language mistakes corrected, so take advantage of all the free corrections you can get—and make sure you repay the favour whenever you encounter students of your own native tongue!
Your language can only improve from here, and with enough trial and error, you might soon be the one correcting others’ mistakes in your target language.
How do you conquer your language practice embarrassment? We’d love to hear your tips and tricks!