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by Aggie Chapman

When it comes to speaking a foreign language, many people complain about feeling completely blocked. So much so, that the term “speaking block” is commonly used in the context of language teaching and learning. It’s a bit sad, when you think that the main goal of learning a language is communication not being able to communicate as well as we would like to surely doesn’t help.Let’s have a look at why it happens and what there is to be done about it.
Why may we suffer from this mental language block, at least occasionally? We want to say something, but our mind goes completely blank… Or we know more or less what we want to communicate, but we still don’t say it aloud.

Culprit number 1 – perfectionism. We are so worried about not making mistakes that the risk of saying something inaccurately prevents us from speaking altogether. Well, let me break it to you – mistakes are part of learning – full stop. There isn’t a person who’s learnt something without making mistakes, you will make mistakes while you speak, until you get better and… you won’t. Sadly, there is no shortcut between the two. Do you remember learning to write, back when you were a child? What did your letters look like? You didn’t start by producing beautifully calligraphed script. Perhaps your handwriting is not beautiful even today, mine sure isn’t, but it doesn’t look like it did when you first started. It didn’t happen immediately, though. You practised, got it wrong and then got better at it. Remember that when you are practising speaking.

But what if people don’t understand me? I’m learning – my vocabulary is limited, and I may make some mistakes, and I speak with a foreign accent. I’ll make a fool of myself… Really? First of all, does the fact that something is not 100% correct make it incomprehensible? If you hear someone say “I go to the cinema yesterday” you know exactly what they meant. There are mistakes and mistakes – yes, some make the message hard or impossible to understand, in which case the other person can try to clarify or ask you to explain what you meant. Remember, there are at least two people taking part in a conversation, misunderstandings happen even if people speak the same language, and most of the time, the person you are talking to will appreciate the effort you make to speak a foreign language.So, OK – I’ll speak, but how to say it… Should I use past simple or present perfect? Is it better to say “stunning” or “gorgeous”? Or maybe just go for the good old “beautiful”? I know a new phrase, but is it really suitable to use here? Time flies and you stay silent with thoughts running through your head. Some people say that using the language gets worse the more advanced they become – the paradox of choice proves right here. Don’t over-analyse, just say it, you can correct yourself if you realise you’ve made a mistake, or the other person might. There really is little worse than a person constantly haltering the conversation or repeating “how to say it…?”. Just say it, and worry about it afterwards, or… not!

Some people, especially when they start learning, seem oblivious to the fact that languages are different. You can’t translate  from your own language to the language you are learning word-for-word. Different languages work in different ways, and what sounds good in one doesn’t make sense in another. You need to start thinking in a foreign language, and no, you don’t have to wait until you are fluent, or at least “intermediate” – each time you speak in a foreign language you should aim to do it thinking in that language too. Initially it will be translating phrases and sentences, which will later become the foundations to build on.  

If you learn in a group, you’ll see that some students are stronger than others. As a result, some people avoid speaking because they are not as good as someone else. Right, so you are hoping to get better by avoiding doing the very thing you want to improve… interesting.

Perhaps, I’ve got a better plan. Some of the suggestions there are more conventional than others, but as no solution fits all as far as learning is concerned. Try and test what works for you – it may be tough, but it works!

1.       There is no other way to get better at speaking than to… speak! Can you learn to drive a car by reading theory or observing other drivers? I hope your answer here is no! The best option is to find a situation when you can speak with someone who doesn’t intimidate you. It may be a teacher, another student, or a group. The key is you need to feel at ease around them and not worry about making mistakes in front of them. If you are in a group where you feel that some peers are “too strong”, work with someone else, someone more “at your level”. Hopefully with time, your confidence will make you want to learn from the better students and you’ll be happy to speak with them too.

2.       You may look for language exchange – you can find other people who want to practise the same language as you, or you may offer to help someone practise your language in exchange for practising the language you are learning. If you want to find a study-buddy online, try: https://conversationexchange.com/ or https://mylanguageexchange.com/ .

3.       Have some prepared “stock phrases” that you can use in many situations. Short comments to show interest, ask for more details, say you enjoyed something etc. I used to fool people into thinking that my Italian was a lot better that it was when I first started learning it. I would pick phrases from TV shows and magazines and used them whenever I was talking to people – it worked magic! Even today I keep thinking that I’m just pretending, but actually this is how we speak, even in our own language we have our favourite words and phrases that we use more often than others. The trick is to do the same in the foreign language.

4.       Apart from phrases, learn vocabulary to talk about the topics you enjoy discussing with people. If you like reading – learn how to describe books and their plot, compare different writers and styles – and you can talk to someone about it in a foreign language. It’s way easier to learn the things we are interested in, plus they are also one the most likely topics we will try to talk about with people. Then, you can add different topics and learn vocabulary connected with these, just to be prepared.

5.       Speak to yourself! Everybody does it, not everybody admits it. Every time you learn something new – vocabulary or grammar structures, say a few sentences aloud with them. If you are learning past simple – talk about you last weekend or holiday, if you’re studying money vocabulary – say how you earn money, what you spend it on, how it compares to other people, etc. If you are brave enough, you can record yourself and see how good you are, or you can just speak to the mirror! 😉

6.       When you’ve had enough of talking to yourself, try talking to your pet in a foreign language. It won’t bother them, as animals react to our tone of voice and body language rather than the actual words we say to them. Tell your pet about your day, plans for future, or whatever else it is you are learning at the moment. They usually make a good listener and you’ll feel more confident when it comes to speaking to humans.

7.       Think in the foreign language. If you are walking down the street, look around and try to describe what you can see in your thought. Then add more details. Next, create some “stories” about the people, things and places that you can see – all in a foreign language. It’s almost like speaking, but no one can hear if you are making mistakes!

I know, it’s not exactly a walk in the park, but that’s the thing with learning. We only ever do, if we leave our comfort zone and push ourselves to do something new. Sometimes it’s difficult, it may be scary, but it’s also incredibly satisfying when you do it.

The last thing I don’t really recommend is drinking alcohol to feel more “confident” (it’s called Dutch courage 😉). I’ve heard from many people over the years that their speaking gets better when they’ve had a drink or two. You might feel that way, but in reality it’s that being out and having a good time just gave you the push to start communicating with others. I hope I’ve outlined other things you can try that won’t punish you the next day!

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