When you hear that a friend or acquaintance knows a foreign language, what’s the first thing you ask them?
If you’re like most people, you probably ask “Can you speak it?”
There’s something about seeing someone speak a language you don’t know that’s a bit like magic. It’s just so mysterious, and cool!
I’m sure you agree, at least to some extent. That’s why we’re here, right? We want to speak foreign languages so we can be mysterious and cool too, among other things.
Jokes aside, most learners start the journey wanting to get to a point where they can speak a language easily, and fluently. They want to communicate with confidence.
But confidence is not a thing that can be bought, like a course book, or the latest mobile app. Instead, you need to earn it. And once you earn it, you need to work hard to keep it.
Today, I’m going to show you how to do that. If you want to learn how to speak a language more confidently, buckle your seat belts, and read on:
Learn Every Single Day
Do you know how to play the piano? If you do, imagine you don’t, just for a moment. If you don’t, you’ve got a head start.
What if, one day, I told you that you had to go up on stage and give a piano performance in front of a crowd? How would you feel?
In that moment when you’re sitting up on that stage, looking out over the sea of expectant faces, in front of a piano you legitimately do not know how to use, what emotions and thoughts would be washing over you?
In that moment, do you think you would feel confident?
I doubt it. On that stage, you’d likely feel fear instead of confidence, and a lot of it. The performance, as a whole, would likely not go well.
But why? Why wouldn’t you be confident in a situation like this? Why would you be unlikely to perform well?
It’s not because you’re genetically predisposed to be bad at piano, or that you are just generally an unconfident person?
No, not really. There’s just something missing.
To be confident and succeed in this example, you need something that you don’t have. And that something is knowledge.
Think about it. If you were in the same situation, and I could magically download five years of piano-playing experience into your brain, do you think you would be just as confident as you were without any experience at all, or more confident.
Of course, you’d be more confident. Probably a lot more confident, at that.
If, instead of five years of experience, I could download ten, twenty, or even fifty years of dedicated piano playing experience into your brain, you’d probably be a lot more confident than you were in the original example.
You’d probably be so confident, in fact, that giving a piano performance in front of a crowd wouldn’t be a big deal. In fact, you’d probably enjoy it!
What’s my point here?
My point is that confidence of any type generally only comes from two places: previous knowledge (for facts) and previous experience (for skills). If you don’t have either or both of those two things, you’re unlikely to be confident.
This is just as true for language learning as it is for piano. If you don’t know anything about the language you’re trying to speak, you won’t speak it confidently. Full stop.
So, if you want to be a confident speaker of a foreign language, the first step is to put in the work and regularly spend time learning that language.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that you to have a C-level, academic knowledge of Brazilian Portuguese before you have a five-minute chat with your friendly next door neighbor from Rio—all it means is that the more experience and knowledge you have of the language, the more confident you will be, and the better you will speak as a result.
Work on Your Listening Skills
My next piece of advice is perhaps the most counter-intuitive:
If you want to gain confidence when speaking a foreign language, you need to improve your listening skills.
“Why is that necessary?” you might ask. “Aren’t speaking and listening two different skills?”
Though yes, speaking and listening are two very different language skills, they are skills that are often used at the exact same time.
For example, unless you’re talking to yourself, your cat, or your pet goldfish, most of the daily time you spend speaking is probably spent in conversation with another person.
Conversations generally imply an exchange of information, a back and forth flow of words. People in conversation don’t just talk over one another until they’ve said what they need to say; instead, while the other person talks, you listen, and while you talk, the other person listens—most of the time, anyway.
If every conversation can be considered a chain of spoken statements, one after the other, it is the skill of listening that gives structure, order, and direction to that chain.
Think about it. If you’re chatting with a friend, and he asks you a question, how can you be confident you’ll give the right answer, or the most appropriate answer you can give at that point in time?
Simple. By understanding what has been said to you. And that understanding, first and foremost, comes from listening. If you didn’t listen, or for some reason couldn’t understand what was being said to you, the chance of you giving a confident reply to the question would drop significantly.
So, as a language learner, if you want to speak confidently, you need to continually work on your ability to listen and understand what native speakers say to you. If you practice listening early and often, you’ll be less likely to thing your conversation partner said one thing when, in reality, they said something completely different. The occasional miscommunication will happen from time to time, of course, but they’ll occur less frequently the better your listening skills are, and you’ll be much more comfortable in conversation as a result.
Practice Your Pronunciation
Good listening skills are important in successful conversations because they help you to be sure of what is being said to you.
But what about the other side of the coin?
Can a conversation be considered successful if the person you’re talking to has no idea what you’re saying?
Certainly not. Just as you need to be able to understand what’s going on, the other person does, too. And if your speaking partner can’t determine whether you’re asking them about their mother or their horse (a common occurrence among learners of Chinese languages), the entire conversation will fall apart, and I can guarantee that you won’t feel very good about it.
Confidence in speaking, then, also comes from the knowledge that your conversation partner can understand most or all of what you say.
If you pronounce poorly, or intone words or sentences incorrectly, native speakers will struggle to interact with you. They’ll slow down, mishear things, and accidentally misinterpret the information you’re giving them. In extreme cases, they might even stop interacting with you at all simply because they can’t follow—or find—the thread of the conversation.
To prevent these breakdowns in communication and build your confidence when speaking, you need to prioritize pronunciation as early as you can.
When you hear words or phrases spoken aloud, try to repeat them back to yourself. Does your pronunciation or intonation sound exactly like the native speakers? If it doesn’t, how does it differ? Are there any sounds or sound combinations you’re struggling to imitate?
If you do find that your target language has some sounds or sound combinations that are hard for you to pronounce (most languages do), make it a priority to learn how to make those sounds properly. The quickest way to do this is to work with a native. Practice the sounds (or words with the sounds) in front of them, and have them give you feedback until you get them right, or as close to right as you can manage. You can also talk to other language learners who have learned to make those unfamiliar sounds, and ask them how they did it.
It may take a lot of time and effort to improve your pronunciation. If it does, don’t worry! If a sound exists in a human language, you (yes, you!) can learn it. You just need the right knowledge and practice to help you build the proper physical habits that will help you pronounce the sounds correctly, every time.
As your pronunciation improves, you will find that conversation with natives is easier and easier, as instead of asking you “What did you say?,” they’ll spend much more time asking you “What do you think?”.
Visualize Success Before It Happens
Up to this point, we’ve examined the knowledge and the skills that are essential requirements for conversational confidence in any foreign language. Any learner who speaks well needs to have these foundational elements.
Now, let’s move on to something that can vary widely from learner to learner, even those with similar skill levels. Something that’s more unique to you as a person.
Let’s talk about your mindset.
Your mindset, simply put, is the way you react to or interpret specific situations.
In this article, the specific situation we’re looking at is speaking a foreign language with another person.
It is, generally speaking, something that language learners do a lot; or, if they don’t do it a lot already, it’s something that they would like to do, a lot.
Yet, if you were to ask a group of language learners what they think or how they feel about the idea of conversing in a foreign language, you’d get a glimpse into a few vastly different mindsets.
Some learners love chatting away in a foreign language, and will do so whenever they can.
For other learners, it’s a situation that is worthwhile, but challenging. They want to do it, and try to do it, but it takes preparation, and effort. With time, and practice, they know they will improve.
For still other learners, it’s the most anxiety-inducing situation they could ever conceive. These learners don’t just fear conversation—they actively avoid it. Most, however, still say they would like to conquer these fears and become quite good at speaking, though they’re unsure if that’s even possible.
Each of these three groups represent a certain mindset towards speaking a foreign language: a positive mindset, a neutral mindset, or a negative mindset.
Your own mindset towards speaking probably falls within one of these three groups. If you’re reading this article, you most likely have a neutral, or negative mindset, and are looking to cultivate a more positive one.
To have a positive mindset about conversing in a foreign language, you need to have positive thoughts or experiences tied to actually doing just that.
Like in our piano example from the beginning of this article, it’s difficult to have positive experiences when you have no experience at all. If you’ve only ever tried to speak a foreign language with another person once or twice, you probably only remember how difficult and scary it was, and not much else. And that makes it difficult to want to try again.
But if you want to speak a language well, you have to try again. You need to try again.
So you need a way to motivate yourself to want to try again, even if your past experiences were less than inspiring. And you can do that through an activity called visualization.
In its simplest form, visualization is just imagining yourself doing something. As humans, we do this instinctively. If you’ve ever been anxious or nervous about practicing your language skills, you were likely visualizing a poor outcome, like mistakes, laughter, or embarrassment. That’s a negative visualization, but a visualization all the same.
But visualizations can be helpful, too. Even if you’re typically anxious about speaking a foreign language, you’d be surprised how much better you would feel if you regularly imagined all of the positive outcomes that can result from it, instead of the negative ones.
So, to gain the confidence to speak a foreign language before you actually do speak, follow these easy steps:
- Sit in a quiet place
- Close your eyes
- Imagine what it would be like if your attempts to speak a language went really, really well.
Try to conjure up as vivid an image as you can. For example, you can:
- Picture your conversation partners smiling, laughing, and generally having a good time with you.
- Imagine yourselves speaking on detailed, interesting topics for hours on end
- Envision yourself really developing a close, supportive friendship with this person, all because you took a chance and decided to speak!
With visualization, there are limitless ways to imagine how well things could go, so just practice visualizing often, and any negative thoughts you have about speaking will start to fade away.
Speak as Often as You Can
This last tip is the easiest:
To speak a foreign language more confidently, speak as often as you possibly can!
As we covered in our piano performance visualization at the start of this article, one of the main sources of confidence is previous experience. Namely, it comes from knowing you already can do the thing you’re currently trying to do, and knowing you can do it successfully.
So practice speaking whenever you can, wherever you can.
If you’re unsure where to find people to speak to, you can try:
Paying a teacher or tutor on italki to meet and chat with you regularly.
Starting a free, in-person language exchange using resources like HelloTalk and ConversationExchange.
Looking for Meetup groups dedicated to practicing your target language.
Searching for nearby stores, restaurants, or other establishments that might be run or frequented by people who speak the language you are learning.
While the other tips in this article lay the foundation for proper conversational confidence, the confidence you build upon that foundation can only, truly, come from actually speaking with another person in a foreign language, and doing it again and again, and again.
So speak early, speak often, and no matter what happens (good or bad) keep speaking!
When setting out upon the journey to learn a foreign language, the first goal most people have in mind is the same:
I want to speak it fluently.
While the meaning of fluency is vague and open to interpretation, it’s safe to say that a big part of anyone’s definition of fluency is having the confidence to speak the language with native speakers.
These language learners want to communicate well, and clearly, without anxiety or frustration.
And that’s easier said than done. Confidence can’t be bought, and instead must be built over time, through gradually taking the right actions and establishing the right habits.
To help you speak a language more confidently and find the success you’re looking for, I’ve presented a list of five such actions and habits that will help you get there. These are:
- Learn every day
- Practice your listening skills
- Refine your pronunciation
- Visualize your future successes
- Speak as much as you can
Do these things, and the confidence will come. Do these things every day, and the confidence will stay!