According to the Collins English dictionary: “If you have confidence, you feel sure about your abilities, qualities, or ideas”.
People have different ways for building their confidence for learning a language. Still, it’s been my experience that there are useful tips from others that help.
Most of us feel confident about some things we do, and less confident about other things. For example, you may feel confident about playing soccer (which you’ve played since grade school) but not so much about playing tennis (which you’ve just started to learn).
Or, with the same set of skills, we feel confident in one situation and less confident in another. For example, speaking Spanish with a Spanish-speaking friend, no problem; but giving a talk in Spanish at a conference, maybe not so easy.
So in part, confidence has to do with having the skills that are needed for a particular situation.
But confidence is also connected to a belief that you can learn what you set out to learn. A person learning a new language needs to quiet that nagging little voice of self-doubt, that little voice that keeps sabotaging his or her progress.
Just to reassure you: Anyone can learn a foreign language at any age. And no, you don’t have to have a special talent for languages. There are many articles that dispel myths circulating around foreign language learning. Here’s a good one: 9 Biggest Myths about Language Learning Busted
So, go for it!!!
You want to set out with the belief (and the knowledge!) that you can learn what you want to learn.
A good trick is to draw on a successful learning experience that you’ve had.
What new skill did you learn as a child, teenager or young adult?
How about learning to bike and drive, figuring out your first computer, tablet or smart phone? Or a skill you use for work or as a hobby?
What got you through the early moments when everything felt a little awkward? Did you accept that making mistakes is just part of the learning?
What motivated you to practice your new skill and stick with it? Apply that self-knowledge to your language learning.
It’s clear that you learn a new language only by engaging with it. You have to practice what you want to learn. And you have to practice a lot.
One way to think about practicing something that is new and difficult is with “optimistic persistence”. You need to stick with it through the ups and downs.
And, banish any negativity out of your mind.
Armed with a good dose of motivation and the belief that you can learn what you set out to learn, you have to find a way to practice that works for you and brings results.
Here are tips that have worked for me over the years, now working on my 8th language.
Practice in a safe space.
An online program that gives you the correct answer as feedback is perfect for that. Working that way, you don’t need to worry about sounding “weird” or “saying something stupid”.
Don’t worry about making mistakes.
When you learn something new, you actually learn from making mistakes. Sometimes you’ll automatically make the same mistake many times before the correct form becomes automatic. There are certain mistakes that are typical because of interference from your native language.
For example, it’s taken me plenty of practice to see Danish words that end in “-en”, such as “drengen” (the boy), not as a plural. I get interference from German, which has a large group of plural nouns that end in “-en”: Frauen, Sachen, Wohnungen, Blumen, Taschen, etc.
Focus on what you want to learn.
Are you looking to master so-called “survival language”?
Then it’s enough to learn polite phrases, numbers, and basic phrases to get information, ask for directions, shop at the market, etc.
Or, do you want to engage in conversations with native speakers?
In that case, work specifically on vocabulary for the kind of topics you want to talk about. Plus, add words that are important for a conversational context: connecting words (and, but, or, although, etc.), adverbs of time (last year, yesterday, tomorrow, next week, usually, never, etc.), relevant adjectives, phrases that mark what you say as opinion (I think, it seems, I doubt, etc.).
Stick with it even if some of your practice is boring.
To get words and phrases into your longterm memory, you have to recall them, sometimes quite often. That’s okay, even though it can be a little boring.
Frequent recall helps to make your language production automatic, in other words recall boosts your fluency. It doesn’t matter what recall method you use, it just has to work for you.
The authors of “Peak – Secrets from the New Science of Expertise” (Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool) coined the term “deliberate practice”. That means you should use learning techniques that have been established as being effective – in your case in the field of language learning.
Advice abounds. And you may have already found your own favorite language “guru” – a successful language teacher and learner whose techniques you like.
Still, most language learning experts agree on a number of points:
If you are learning a language with sounds that don’t exist in your native language (such as Asian, Middle Eastern or Slavic languages for English speakers) listening and repeating aloud becomes essential:
Adults’ abilities to hear and discern sounds different from their native language(s) decrease with age. This is the one area where young children have a big advantage over adults.
But practice can even overcome this handicap!
Now comes the most challenging part: engaging with native speakers in real conversations. Even if you’re not in the country where the language is spoken, there are many resources available:
Such conversations with native speakers are a very different kind of practice. In addition to dealing with vocabulary and grammar, you also have to manage your anxiety about speaking up in a foreign language you’re not sure about. (For practical tips check out our blog post:
Prepare for conversations.
Preparation for a conversation in another language is a powerful tool. You can look up words and write them down, practice as much as you want in front of the mirror, and record yourself and play back.
Get used to hearing your voice in another language.
Hearing your own voice speaking a foreign language can be a little startling. And it can make you self-conscious about opening your mouth.
A good way to get used to hearing your voice speaking French, German, Italian, etc. is to record yourself reading short pieces of text that you’ve been learning. The more you do it, the more natural your own foreign voice will seem.
Don’t worry about your accent.
It’s easy to forget that you can be quite fluent in a language even if you have a “foreign” accent. Think about people speaking excellent English with an accent: German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, Former Mexian President Enrique Peña Nieto; Or Americans speaking other languages: Bill Clinton (German), John Kerry (French), Jeb Bush (Spanish).
Ask questions while in a conversation.
Don’t worry about appearing “dumb”. You can always ask your conversation partner for explanations, for the meaning of words, for help with pronunciation. And it’s usually okay to ask for feedback, for tips on how to improve.
Build your Conversational fluency with small steps.
A real conversation is much more dynamic than interactive practice online.
So much is going on at the same time. As you listen to your conversation partner and try to understand what the flow of sounds coming at you means, your mind is preparing a possible answer.
Engaging in real conversations is pretty complicated. Preparing for them will help. Start with short conversations, and increase the length and difficulty incrementally. Remember, you are in charge of your learning.
It may sound simplistic, but it’s true: You can’t learn to engage in foreign language conversations unless you have conversations. So, go for it in your own way and at your own pace. But stick with it! The rewards are a more open world experience, a more interesting life, and greater self-confidence.
Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of GamesforLanguage.com. She’s a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada.