We’ve all experienced anxiety while speaking. We try to be confident, but it doesn’t always work.
It goes like this: You’re talking to someone and you feel like your words are stuck. Your words just won’t come out. You start to panic and get stressed. So you use simpler phrases and words (things that you learned a long time ago) or you just stop talking.
Afterwards, you feel disappointed, stressed and annoyed at yourself. Kind of like Eminem in 8 Mile.
This is common…
A study was conducted in 2010 on international students. It looked at the expectations of the students. And if the reality was the same as their expectations.
For example, one participant moved to the UK to study and really wanted to experience real British culture. So, they did what many Brits aged 20-40 do, and they went to a pub quiz.
A pub quiz is a question-and-answer competition held at a bar. People work in teams to drink and answer questions, and usually the winners get a bottle of wine or some chocolates.
So, this student went to the pub quiz hoping to experience the truth behind what it means to be British. But her experience was a bit disappointing. This is what she said:
“For me, it was still very hard to understand the questions, also they were about English and I couldn’t really participate… And the other girl is Rachel but I don’t understand her because she has this Manchester accent.”
You see, not being able to understand prevented her from really experiencing the culture. And as a result, she didn’t go to another pub quiz.
The negative experience made her lose confidence in herself.
But that’s not all.
The article also found that English learners lose their confidence due to:
Feeling a bit shy and nervous is different to feeling anxious.
When you’re anxious, you’ll probably overthink the situation. This means you’ll analyse everything you say and really try not to make any mistakes.
When you’re feeling anxious, you’re more likely to misunderstand the person you’re talking to (which just leads to more frustration).
It might be why you avoid talking to people and don’t feel confident.
I asked the English For Study Community how they felt when they spoke to people in English. I wanted to see if people felt anxious about speaking English. Many of the emails I received reflected people feeling anxious.
One member of the community, Magda, wrote this:
“I like speaking English in front of my students and with foreigners who are NOT native English speakers. I feel quite confident and I know that my vocabulary and pronunciation are ok. However, I would hate to speak in front of advanced speakers as I feel not to be very good at it, I constantly self-check my pronunciation, mistakes, words which have slipped out of my mind and so on.”
Magda feels fine when speaking to English learners because they are at the same level. But, when she speaks to a native English speaker, suddenly everything changes. She feels like she is being judged.
Another member of the community wrote this:
“I feel nervous because I want to speak correctly and I become conscious and that is a turn off part.”
This is another example of ‘analysis paralysis’ – feeling stuck because of over thinking.
Another English For Study reader, Omar, emailed this comment:
“When I speak to someone in English I feel stressed and uncomfortable and I’m always trying to find the right words.”
These are just three of the many people who emailed me with similar stories of stress and anxiety. And, for each person who emailed me, you can bet there were many more who feel anxious about speaking, but never said anything.
However, there is good news. For every four people who emailed me about feeling stressed, there was one person who felt good about speaking English. Let’s look at just two of these comments.
First, Clara wrote to me with this:
“I can truly say that I’m proud of myself when I chat with my friends in English even though I’m just chatting simply. It takes me a while, but I think it’s okay because English is not my tongue language.”
And then there was this email:
“I think it’s amazing when I’m using English to speak. Well, I’d love to speak English even if my English was bad.”
Do you see the important message in those two emails?
That’s right; They want to speak English and they enjoy doing it – even if they’re not perfect.
As we’ve discovered, anxiety can stop you from speaking English. It can make you avoid using the language that you have spent years studying.
But you can change all that with a bit of effort.
In this section, I’m going to show you how to stop being a conversation kitten. If you use the following strategies, you will feel more confident in your communications.
To get over your fear of speaking, you need to feel comfortable speaking. You need to practice speaking even if you don’t have anyone to speak to.
Don’t worry about being too accurate in what you’re saying. Just focus on actually making sense. Don’t worry about making a few mistakes.
Don’t try to start a group conversation if you’re feeling anxious.
And don’t try to stand up in front of a room full of people and talk to them if you have a fear of speaking.
Instead, focus on making smaller steps, such as asking people directions or having short and simple conversations with your friends in English. Start small, and work your way up to the bigger achievements.
Anxiety is what stops you from speaking. But anxiety is usually created from having bad experiences. One way that you can cut down on anxiety is by having an escape plan – a way to end a conversation safely. Try to think of one or two phrases that you can use to end a conversation. Something like:
“Great, thanks for the help. I need to go now.” OR – “It was nice to talk to you, but now I have to go.”
Practice these and be confident when you use them.
One common observation is that people feel more nervous when they speak to native English than when they speak to English learners.
Use this to your advantage and try making more English learning friends to practice English with.
If you can, try inviting these friends on Skype. It’s even easier to speak English that way.
Your working language is what I like to call language that you actually know how to use effectively and automatically.
You don’t want to just learn language; you want to be able to use it well.
To build a working language, you need to focus on using the language that you are learning. This can take a while, but it is definitely worth it. If you want to start building your working language quickly, then take a look here.
So, as we’ve discovered, speaking anxiety can really affect your ability to improve and communicate in English.
But, you don’t have to accept it. You can become a confident speaker.
You can create situations where you feel more comfortable with speaking. The five strategies from above can help you to remove the anxiety and replace it with confidence. My free email masterclass can help you to get started – just click here.
Sam is the founder and creator of English For Study. He's also a lecturer in EAP/Academic English. Apart from making Academic English easy, he likes learning languages, lifting weights and eating good food.