Can you speak a second language?
According to the website Preply, “There are approximately 3.3 billion bilingual people worldwide, accounting for 43% of the population.”
How many people are bilingual in the US?,1 in every 5 adults. 20%
What is it about Americans that makes us less willing to learn and speak another language? There are lots of reasons. I’d be willing to bet anxiety is one of them.
There’s even a word for it!
Table of Contents
What is it?
Xenoglossophobia is "the feeling of unease, worry, nervousness and apprehension experienced in learning or using a second or foreign language." It’s actually a thing! It’s not just you.
I spent most of my life trying to learn a second language.
- 3 years of French in high school
- a crash-self-course in German before I left on my honeymoon
- endless hours listening to Spanish language classes on my long commute to and from my teaching job.
At the end of all of that, I wound up a person who was able to speak…ready for this? Nothing.
That bothered me, because I really had a hunger to learn another language. I wanted the skill, I wanted the security of knowing I could communicate if I traveled in another country, and I wanted just to not be afraid.
My biggest and best attempt came as I and my family planned a trip to Italy. I spent the year before the trip researching how to best learn another language, doing everything I was told, and studying like mad.
It was fun being able to speak a little Italian! Once I got home, I kept going. I’ve been studying now for 6 years, and I’m finally at the point where I can understand an extended passage in Italian and can speak without sweating!
What kept me from being able to learn before? What’s keeping you from doing it?
What Causes It?
There’s a lot of good research on language anxiety. Several interesting ideas are summed up in this paper by N. Eleni Pappamihiel. In case you can’t download it or read it yourself, I’ll tell you the main points.
- Fear divides your attention. If a particular situation threatens you, like talking to a speaker of another language, it will be harder to learn.
- Some people find learning languages difficult because they are anxious about everything (Trait anxiety)
- Other people find learning languages difficult because attempting to speak them matches another situation that they find stressful like public speaking or test taking (State anxiety)
It’s important to know which of these scenarios you’re in. Knowing yourself provides you the opportunity to find the right solution to your problem. The alternative? You could be swinging a baseball bat at a mosquito. <crash!>
Some people are in the habit of telling themselves they’re “no good.” These thoughts all by themselves can get in the way of learning. You end up with a self-fulfilling prophecy - you told yourself you couldn’t learn, and therefore you didn’t.
What Can You Do About It?
Maybe more than you think!
The first thing is to recognize that, yes, there is a way you can improve in your language acquisition. The second is that there’s more than one way. Just like marketing, you have to find what works for you through trial and error, and you get better and better at that.
Anxiety is the thing that tends to stop people from going on that journey in the first place. Not only anxiety about learning a language. Anxiety about having uncomfortable feelings at all!
This may be the thing you have to overcome to get started. I can help you with that particular piece. In my coaching sessions I get people just like you over the fear-barrier and into the thing they want.
I tell my clients to begin by looking at themselves. What exactly are you afraid of? For me it was worrying about what the other speaker thought while I was struggling with their language: how stupid I was, what a waste of their time.
It took me a lot of conversations with actual speakers to begin to realize that wasn’t the case. They were fine correcting me, even happy to do it, just like I was happy to help them speak English. The best way you find these things out is by going through them.
There are also so many resources available to start you on your language journey. One of the most interesting I ever found was a book called The Loom of Language, which is very old but had some powerful and sensible advice.
- Language study is different from language acquisition. The first is memorizing rules, and the second is putting those rules into action. You have to speak a language with someone to get good at speaking a language!
- Find the simplest way to say whatever it is you want to communicate. Save the fancy speech for later, when you’re great at it!
- Learn the trickiest things in a language early. My favorite things are “false friends,” words in one language that you think mean the same thing in another. Preservativo in Italian doesn’t mean “preservative”…it means “condom”…so that’s a good one to have in the memory bank.
I’m living proof that even the most terrified person can learn to speak another language, given the right help. If I can provide that help to you, either in this blog or in my coaching practice, I’ll be happy. Please feel free to reach out to me if you want to know more!
Adam Cole is a performance and confidence coach and the Director of Willow Music, as well as the creator of the YouTube channel TruerMU.