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How to get over the fear of speaking foreign languages

The onion principle

What do onions have to do with language study? Well, when you cut an onion then you start crying, and sometimes studying another language also makes you cry!

That’s not the point here though.

I want to explore the fear of speaking a foreign language. Linguists even have a fancy term for it: xenoglossophobia.

Now you might say – well, I don’t really have that issue.


But hold on a little bit.

Very often the fear of speaking another language is not so obvious to us. Have you ever caught yourself saying something like:

{eingerückt} Oh, I have to study more grammar before I can start speaking?

Fear in disguise

That is fear in disguise. You’re actually scared of speaking and you’re hiding it behind some rationalisation like „Oh, my grammar is not perfect yet“. And I know many students who have practiced for years, but don’t dare to order a cappuccino in another language, because they „still have to study more grammar“.

However, just like any fear that you’re not ready to face, also this one will keep growing if you don’t attack it in one way or another. So what to do?

How can I be confident when speaking another language?

Hobby psychologists or life coaches will most likely advise you to step out of your comfort zone, you have to be brave and just do it, just speak German! (or whatever language you are learning).

But it’s not so easy. If you’re scared of heights, it doesn’t help when people tell you that you cannot possibly fall out of the Ferris wheel.


Otherwise, a psychologist would not have to go to university for a couple years. So there is, of course, some truth in this „step out of your comfort zone“. But what I believe is very important is that you step out of your comfort zone just a little bit. And that’s where my onion principle comes in, because I believe that our fears of speaking are layered.

What do I mean by layered fears of speaking another language?

Our fears of speaking a foreign language do not have the same intensity in every situation. Obviously, it’s different to give a presentation in front of 700 people – or to talk to a good friend. When it comes to speaking a foreign language, usually, we have very different ideas of how scary it feels: Talking to a stranger, talking to a colleague, talking to a friend, talking to a teacher, or maybe talking to another student who is also learning the language with us.

This is very individual. So some people say, for example, „a stranger, I don’t really care, I will never see them again – but the friend, oh, it’s so awkward when I make stupid mistakes with my friends“. Other people are comfortable with their friends, but have issues talking to strangers.


The same applies to language teachers. Some people say, „Oh, language teachers are professionals, they are used to hearing students make mistakes“. And other people say, „no, it’s a teacher’s job to judge for making mistakes“. So, as you can see, our fears are very individual. And I’d like to invite you to come up with your own onion.

How do I force myself to speak a new language?

Come up with your personal onion!

Take a couple of minutes and think about: What scares you the most? What are situations that scare you less? Put them in the right order into an onion drawing, like in the one below.

Then it’s time to take action – overcome your fear of speaking

Look for situations that scare you just a little bit – and then gradually, move out in the onion towards situations that are a little bit scarier. So for example, if talking to colleagues still scares you, but a conversation with another student is fine – then start meeting other students and talk to them.

Some language schools discourage you from speaking with other students because you’re going to learn their mistakes as well, which is true. But on the other hand, it can be very liberating to talk to people who make similar mistakes, who are also struggling with the grammar, who also have pronunciation issues … So for many people, talking to other students can be quite helpful to overcome the fear of speaking. But don’t get stuck there. Once you feel comfortable, then move out to the next layer in the onion.

How do I force myself to speak a new language if everything scares me?

What you can always do is talk to yourself. Or to your teddy bear, as I often say.

This will actually help you speak a foreign language with more confidence: Just like when you practice playing the piano, you don’t need anybody to listen to you in order to improve. By practicing all alone, you will improve.

Much of what we do in language learning, especially in the early stages, is quite predictable. Take for example the the general small talk:

  • What do you do?
  • Where do you come from?
  • Why why are you learning this language?
  • What are your hobbies?
  • Who do you live with?
  • Where do you live

and so on. All of these questions are very predictable, and you can practice them almost like a theater play – at home.

That way you’re a little bit prepared once you get these questions in real life because you have already practiced the scripts for your answers.

If it then still feels too scary to go from talking to nobody to talking to somebody, you can (after a while) record yourself.

Feels creepy? Then delete the recording right after you have finished it. Speak, record, delete it. When you’ve done it 25 times, maybe, maybe, you dare to listen to the recording yourself. And then delete it. And then, maybe, one day, you dare to send the recording to a friend.

Or maybe send it to a friend first and then listen to it yourself. That depends, again … on your personal onion.