Speaking in a second language can be a daunting task. Most learners lack the confidence to speak at various stages of their language learning journey. Should you speak the language from Day 1 or should you wait until you are confident? This is an ongoing debate in language education research. My advice would be to follow what feels right to you. Don’t force yourself to speak from Day 1 if you don’t feel comfortable to do so. That being said, if your main goal is to communicate orally in the target language, you should try to speak as early as possible.
Confidence is an important aspect of speaking, but it is not necessarily related to your competence in the second language. Many of you may feel nervous or anxious when speaking in front of a large audience even in your first language. This is normal. In fact, a little nervousness while speaking in public is necessary because it keeps us alert mentally and helps us pay more attention to what is being said.
Feeling nervous or anxious could also be due to someone’s personality. Maybe you’re a shy person in nature. You don’t feel comfortable interacting with others outside your usual group of friends. This is also quite common. Your strategy for developing second language speaking will be different from someone who is very outgoing. Therefore, knowing yourself and knowing what your preferences are can make learning to speak in a second language a more enjoyable experience.
To improve your confidence, start practising speaking with someone you know, a friend, a sympathetic speaker/listener (someone who understands the difficulty of speaking another language) or a professional language tutor. Be honest about your level and try to speak the target language as much as you can. Initially, you may need to use a combination of your first language, gestures or even photographs to maintain the flow of the conversation. That is fine. As you progress, you will speak more in the target language. The initial hurdle of starting to speak is the biggest, but there is no way around it!
Another reason why many learners are not confident when speaking in a second language is that they are afraid of making too many mistakes. Language learners make grammatical mistakes, use the wrong vocabulary and pronounce the words incorrectly – this is not top secret! Typically, adult learners are more conscious about making these mistakes than young learners. Having the right mindset is key here – you need to know that your mistakes don’t define you – they’re part of your learning process. Rather than dwelling on every single mistake you make, try to shift your attention on repeated or simple mistakes. Start improving your accuracy by making fewer mistakes like these.
If you don’t want your conversation partner to correct every single mistake, tell them from the start! You can also try using implicit feedback such as ‘recast’ when practising with a conversation partner. This is when you make a mistake, your partner repeats your sentence but say it in the correct way. In case you don’t know, our parents actually do this a lot when we were learning our first language. Implicit feedback such as recast is less face-threatening, and it helps us build confidence.
For intermediate and advanced learners, find a conversation partner to practise speaking in your target language. Prioritise fluency first as it will improve your confidence and sustain your motivation. Be selective about the accuracy areas you want to work on. Focus on one area at a time (e.g. phrasal verbs, the subjunctive mood, the conditionals). Ask your partner to correct your mistakes in that area.
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