There are plenty of reasons to begin learning a new language, from enhancing your understanding of different cultures and broadening your horizons to improved job prospects as well as a range of cognitive advantages.
Even so, one thing most learners will agree on is that sparking up a conversation in a foreign language can be a bit intimidating when you’re first starting out.
So how can you overcome this hurdle and ensure you’re making the most of every opportunity to practice your conversational language skills? Here are a few things you can do to boost your confidence when speaking a foreign language.
Listen, Listen, Listen
All language learning starts with listening. As babies and toddlers, we spend most of our time simply listening, observing and taking in information before we attempt to imitate the words and sounds ourselves.
Learning a foreign language as an adult is very similar. Before you can build a good vocabulary and learn to pronounce words correctly, you’ll need to spend a considerable amount of time listening to the language you’re looking to learn.
For example, one study published in Memory and Cognition found that singing can facilitate foreign language learning by encouraging learners to listen and repeat. Other research shows that it’s important to spend some time training our ears to recognise the unfamiliar tones of a new language before we begin building our vocabulary.
With this in mind, if you’re taking language classes and want to speed up the learning process, make sure you supplement your learning with some listening, whether that means listening to foreign language music and podcasts or watching your favorite TV show in another language.
Slow your pace
When speaking conversational English as a native speaker, it’s easy enough to rattle off phrases without too much thought. However, if you’re trying to form sentences in a new language you’ve been learning, you may need to slow down the pace a bit so you can focus on enunciating each word properly.
Interestingly, research shows that each language has its own speech rate, and some are simply spoken faster than others. English, for example, has an average speech rate of 6.19 syllables per second, compared to Spanish which has a syllable-per-second velocity of 7.82.
So, for instance, if you’re learning to speak Italian, you’ll likely need to slow down your pace even further than if you were learning to speak Mandarin Chinese, which is naturally spoken more slowly.
If you’d like to practice your conversational language skills with a native speaker but are worried that things will move too quickly for you, start by learning a simple phrase like “Please excuse my Spanish, I’m still learning.” When others know that you’re still in the early learning stages, they’ll likely be happy to slow down the pace and help you practice.
Don’t strive for perfection
Although your end goal is likely to be able to speak the foreign language you’re learning as effortlessly as a native speaker, it’s important to be realistic with what you want to achieve, especially in the early stages.
In fact, making mistakes and being corrected as you go along is actually an important part of learning a new language. A study from the University of Arizona found that learning is optimized when we fail some of the time, because when something is too easy, we tend to lose the motivation to keep going.
Research has also shown that receiving immediate feedback is important when learning a new language, as it helps us correct our mistakes early on. With this in mind, speaking the language you are trying to learn with people who will be able to give you feedback in real time is absolutely essential to your progress.
Of course, there’s every chance that you will mix up your vocabulary and mispronounce certain words, and maybe you’ll even feel a little silly about it. But the good news is that every time you make a mistake and subsequently correct it, you’ll learn from the experience and will be less likely to repeat it in the future. So, rather than striving for perfection in your language learning, embrace your mistakes and accept that they are simply part of the learning process.
Looking for more tips and advice to keep your language learning on track? Berlitz has lined up lots of advice and inspiration to help you on your language-learning journey, from tips for speeding up your learning to vocabulary guides. Ready to start learning a new language? Find out how Berlitz can help.