When I came to Canada 25 years ago, I was an ESL (English as a Second Language) student. For the first two years, my English speaking skills were quite limited. In high school, most of my classmates were Chinese, which meant I didn’t have many opportunities to practice the language. Whenever I did have the chance to speak English with others, I became nervous and usually spoke as little as possible. Consequently, it wasn’t until my third year in Canada that I gained confidence in speaking English.
It takes speaking to become good at speaking
To become fluent in English, consistent practice in speaking the language is needed. As the saying goes, “practice makes perfect,” this notion also applies to language acquisition. You need to practice speaking in order to become good at speaking. Speaking involves dynamic cognitive skills in language generation unlike reading or reciting something. When speaking, individuals must tap into their knowledge of grammar, vocabulary, and idiomatic expressions, while simultaneously employing rapid decision-making and self-monitoring for pronunciation and fluency.
The cognitive skills involved in speaking a language like English are extensive and intricate. The speaker must listen attentively to comprehend what the other speaker is saying and formulate appropriate responses. Additionally, they must consider sentence structure to convey meaning correctly, select the most appropriate words to accurately express themselves, and tailor their speech based on cultural norms and contexts. Speaking helps an English learner become good at all these skills.
I’ve met many individuals from Asian countries who come to Canada for study or work. Those who improve their speaking fastest are unafraid to talk. One Japanese ex-salesperson, who really loved talking, came to Canada to enjoy its beautiful nature and various outdoor activities. When you talk to him, you can tell that he is an outgoing person. Even when he didn’t know the exact English words, he somehow managed to get his point across by connecting related words. When we first met, his English was broken, and he often paused to think. However, in 10 months, he spoke fluently enough for continuous conversations with native speakers, despite occasionally needing to look up words and making grammar mistakes.
In contrast, a university student who took a year off to work in Canada was often hesitant to speak, fearing mistakes. During language exchanges and home parties, he typically listened to other people’s English conversations. He frequently asked his friends for translations so he can learn words and phrases. After nearly a year in Canada, he still struggled to speak English independently.
What fear of speaking does to an ESL student
Fear of speaking can have a significant impact on ESL students. It often hinders their ability to develop English communication skills and fully engage in their new language environment. Some of the consequences experienced by ESL students when they encounter fear of speaking are:
- A student may avoid speaking English: One of the problems with fear of speaking is avoiding any situation where they might need to speak English. This can include not raising their hand to answer questions in class, refraining from engaging in group discussions or project work, and avoiding social situations with native speakers. This avoidance not only hampers their ability to practice and improve their spoken English but also isolates them from their peers. As a result, they have less opportunities to make friends and build essential networks.
- A student might freeze up while speaking: Even in situations where ESL students are unable to avoid speaking, fear can cause them to freeze up when attempting to speak. This might involve being unable to produce any words, stuttering, mispronouncing words or speaking in a barely audible voice. Their anxiety might also cause them to rush through their sentences, making it difficult for listeners to understand and follow their train of thought. These experiences can be embarrassing for the individual. When they feel like they couldn’t speak well, they might avoid speaking further in the future.
- A student might develop low self-esteem: In many cases, students who experience fear of speaking may possess a strong foundation in English grammar, vocabulary, and comprehension. However, due to lack of confidence in their speaking abilities, they may come across as less proficient than they actually are. When they experience failure in communicating their ideas, they may develop low self-esteem, thinking that their English skill is not good enough or it’s impossible for them to become good at speaking.
Where does fear of speaking come from?
Many learners of English as a second language (ESL) are faced with a common challenge: they are afraid to engage in spoken conversations with others. This fear comes from various factors. Understanding the root cause of this fear can help you identify the right strategies in overcoming it.
- Fear of making mistakes: Many ESL learners worry about making mistakes. They fear that they use the wrong word, make grammatical mistakes, or have a noticeable accent. They are afraid that mistakes would make them appear foolish.
- Lack of confidence: Some ESL learners may not be confident about their vocabulary, grammar, or fluency. They are afraid of not being able to communicate their ideas properly. They may also be afraid of being misunderstood.
- Concerned about cultural differences: Some learners fear that they don’t understand the cultural norm. As a result, they fear that they might cause offense for using a wrong expression or being embarrassed in front of other people.
- Having social anxiety: A common issue among native speakers and ESL learners alike, social anxiety can heighten the fear of speaking in a public setting. The problem of social anxiety is especially deleterious for ESL learners because they are less confident in their speaking ability.
- Prior experience of failure: Prior experiences of failure, such as making embarrassing mistakes or being unable to communicate effectively, can result in a deep-rooted fear of speaking for ESL students. This fear often stems from anxiety about being judged or ridiculed by other people.
How can I overcome fear of speaking when I’m learning to speak English?
There are several strategies you can try to help you speak English in front of others. What works best varies from person to person. Identify what is causing your fear of speaking and choose a strategy to overcome it. It will be a trial-and-error process, so be patient.
1. Know that fear of speaking is common, and use your anxiety to your advantage
Many native English speakers also feel nervous when speaking in front of others. Some individuals may even stress over being stressed. Remember, you don’t need to feel completely comfortable speaking English in order to do so. Try to relax or view your stress as performance anxiety. In fact, one study discovered that when people viewed stress and anxiety as excitement, they actually experienced less stress.
2. Embrace mistakes; mistakes are normal
Have you ever watched a courtroom TV show called Judge Judy? If you have, you would know that even native English speakers make occasional (and sometimes many) grammatical mistakes. Making mistakes is okay and not embarrassing. I have lived in Canada for over 24 years and received high grades in TOEFL, but I still make mistakes when I speak. My native English-speaking friends also make mistakes. Native English speakers are more forgiving of your mistakes than you might think.
3. Don’t try to speak perfect English.
When I was in school, I would get very nervous before any speaking event. Before a class presentation, my palms would get sweaty and my heart would race. One day, I realized that I was nervous because I wanted to speak without making any mistakes. I would try to memorize my entire speech to speak flawlessly, which made me very anxious. When I shifted my focus to simply getting my points across so that my classmates can learn something useful, I became less nervous. I no longer tried to be perfect. From that moment of realization, I became comfortable in public speaking. In fact, I even started to enjoy public speaking.
4. Speak to your family or close friends, first.
If you feel nervous about speaking in front of strangers, classmates, or colleagues, start by talking with friends, relatives, or close friends in English. Practice speaking English in low-pressure situations where you are more at ease making mistakes. Once you feel more comfortable with your English speaking, try talking to other people.
5. Speak in one-on-one settings, not in a group setting.
Some individuals are introverts and may feel social anxiety in group settings. If this applies to you, consider engaging in one-on-one conversations. In this way, you can avoid feeling anxious about when to join a discussion or worrying that your input might be less interesting than others’. Many introverted people find one-on-one conversations to be more comfortable.
6. Practice speaking with an app.
If you feel uneasy speaking English with others, even one-on-one, consider practicing with an app like ALULA. This app uses AI to teach grammar and engage in conversations with students, allowing you to practice speaking while learning grammar and vocabulary simultaneously. Since you’re not talking to a real person, you don’t need to worry about making mistakes or your pronunciation.
7. Do language exchange.
A language exchange is an arrangement where you teach someone your native language, and they teach you English in return. This often happens in a conversational format, with you and your partner taking turns speaking in English and your native language. Since both of you are learning, there is less pressure to be perfect, and you can feel more comfortable making mistakes. To find a language exchange partner, you can use social media platforms like Facebook or online classified websites. Alternatively, you can look for a language exchange group that pairs you with a suitable conversation partner.
8. Find someone with similar interests.
Try to find someone who shares a similar interest or hobby with you. For instance, if you enjoy baseball, look for another baseball fan to chat with. You can mention to the other person that you like baseball and see if the person also likes baseball. If you and your conversation partner have a similar interest, you’ll likely feel more engaged in talking and may even forget about feeling anxious. Additionally, having shared knowledge of a topic can make it easier for both of you to understand each other.
9. Practice a lot.
One of the most effective ways to conquer the fear of speaking English is simply to practice more. As with any skill, the more you practice, the more confident and proficient you become. Engaging in regular conversations with native speakers or fellow ESL learners, or even practicing alone by talking to yourself, can help reduce anxiety associated with speaking English. When you are more comfortable and fluent in speaking, the fear will gradually dissipate.
10. Immerse yourself in the English language.
Another way to overcome your fear of speaking English is by immersing yourself in the language. Surround yourself with English media, such as movies, TV shows, podcasts, and music. This will help you improve your listening skills, expand your vocabulary, and familiarize yourself with various accents and speaking styles. As you become more comfortable with the language, you will gain the confidence needed to speak without fear.
Overcoming the fear of speaking English as an ESL learner may not be an easy task, but with the right strategies and mindset, it is possible. Constant practice, immersion in the language, joining language exchange groups, being okay with mistakes, and reframing stress can all help build your confidence in speaking English. With determination and perseverance, you will not only overcome your fears but also greatly improve your overall language proficiency and fluency.
Richard Zhang, M.Ed., is an educator and a software developer with a Masters degree in education from University of Toronto and an immense passion for education and learning. Until the pandemic, Richard owned an award-winning learning centre in Toronto. For 15 years, he has taught and mentored hundreds of elementary, middle school, and high school students succeed in academics. He is also an app developer specializing in web and mobile application in educational and business sectors.