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Find yourself anxious to speak the language you're learning? There's a reason for it.

Social anxiety and language learning often go hand-in-hand – here's what can help.

Tyler Nickerson
Tyler NickersonJul 16, 2021 8 min read

Picture this: you're sitting with your friend in your favorite Japanese restaurant. Your friend leans in and, once again, asks a question you've heard far too many times before:

“So... are you gonna order in Japanese?”

You sigh. Your friend asks this question all. the. time. Like always, you decide to laugh it off...

"Haha um, not this time."

...and, like always, those words sting a bit every time you say them. You know it's not true – you'd love to be able to order everything in Japanese. It would impress your friend, it would impress the waiter, and, most importantly, you would feel great about yourself. At least, that's what you'd like to think.

Yet, before your friend even finishes the question, your brain starts firing off with "what if's":

  • What if I don't understand the waiter if he asks a follow-up question?
  • What if I don't know the vocabulary needed to order?
  • What if I mispronounce something and the waiter gets the order wrong?

Or the absolute worst one: "What if I'm so bad that the waiter doesn't understand me and switches back to English and I embarrass myself in front of my friend?"

Just like that, you've managed to talk yourself out of it before your friend even finishes speaking. You leave the restaurant obsessing over the question: "WHY am I spending $200 on Japanese classes? What good is it doing me?"

Ramen, anyone?

Learning a new language is scary, no matter who you are

No, wait... actually, I'd like to amend that previous statement by saying that I'm sure there are those super-extroverts out there that would brazenly burst into a Taqueria, brimming with confidence, and spew out a torrent of mispronounced Spanish, not caring who understands them. I would know, as I'm fairly certain I went to school with a few of these people.

If you're one of those people... congratulations? I guess? I hope it's working for you.

If not, you're not alone. If you're like most language learners out there, you know that the common notion of "just immersing" yourself in a language is much more complicated than it sounds. Just like you can't attain fluency in English solely by watching re-runs of Friends, you're not going to become conversational by limping your way through foreign conversations.

Becoming conversational in a foreign language isn't so much a practical issue as it is a psychological one.

Even if you've never had social anxiety in your life, the tables turn when you're attempting to practice a new language.

In your typical everyday life, conversations are very predictable: you say something, the other person says something, you respond, they respond. If you're both native speakers, you already have the confidence that you can respond to any questions the other person might ask. It's not even a concern that remotely crosses your mind. In general, conversations aren't stressful, that is, as long as you aren't being interrogated about a crime you were framed for or something.

However, when learning a new language, you're constantly betting on yourself and your ability to retain and recall knowledge. You find yourself worrying about how other people may respond and if you even have the knowledge to reply. It's like trying to win a chess tournament and trying to see three moves ahead at all times. It's a stressful experience that's full of uncertainty... and uncertainty breeds fear and vulnerability.

What can you do about it?

Quite a bit. Uncertainty is the root cause for a variety of fears, phobias, and anxiety disorders, so naturally, there are multiple techniques that experts employ to help people overcome it. The most common practice in the world of psychology is called Exposure Response Prevention (ERP for short). ERP aims to expose you, little by little, to your fears so you can gradually grow comfortable with the uncertainty that may be causing that fear.

Let's take for example a woman who is afraid of heights. Let's call her Sarah. Sarah has lived on the ground floor of every apartment she's owned for the past twelve years because she hates heights. She has never gone on a Ferris wheel or rollercoaster, visited the Empire State Building, and has even avoided visiting friends who happen to live in high-rises.

Social anxiety around language learning can be treated, just like all other forms of anxiety

Deep down, Sarah's uncertain of what might happen to her when she's up high. Will she slip and fall to her death? Will she have a panic attack? Will she pass out?

Despite what some people might have you believe, the best way for Sarah to overcome her fears is to not stick her at the top of the highest building in the city and wait for her to calm down. This technique is called flooding, and could very well make her freak out even more, which would result in a negative experience and potentially make her more afraid of heights.

In reality, any therapist would use ERP to tackle her fears via a series of small wins to allow her to gain the confidence she needs to visit higher and higher places.

Maybe she starts out by just going up a single staircase.

Win!

After that, she graduates to visiting the second floor of her apartment complex and looking out a window.

Win!

Maybe she even engages in anxiety-reducing behaviors to help get her through a particularly stressful exposure.

Win!

Eventually, she'll progress from win to win until she's care-free at the top of a skyscraper.

Smalls Wins For The Win

Sarah's struggles aren't unlike the struggles you might face when trying to speak a foreign language. Similar to how it'd be unfair to drop Sarah on top of a tall building when she's afraid of even going up a single flight of stairs, it's unfair to expect you to be excel in engaging in a foreign conversation while you're still learning.

Unfortunately, it's hard to have a "small win" when having a conversation. Even if you're just trying to buy a coffee, you have no idea where the conversation might go, what the person might ask you, and how complex the dialogue might be. To a degree, you are not in control, and that could lead to, what could feel like, a big loss.

Even if you think a "small win" constitutes saying a few sentences, messing up, and switching back to English, you want to leave the conversation feeling good about yourself, not blaming yourself for screwing up. After all, the goal here is to build confidence to help you reach the next level.

Small Wins & Linguistic

Fortunately, Linguistic was built with all those "small wins" in mind. Unlike online video tutoring, where you're being forced to speak your target language on the spot to a teacher, we allow you to have asynchronous voice chats with language partners from all around the world via WhatsApp-styled voice messages.

Unlike any other app, Linguistic lets you digest conversations piece-by-piece via a "slow playback" mode and Learn mode

Yet, unlike WhatsApp, Linguistic's voice messages are built with language learners in mind. Instead of trying to power through a conversation all at once, you can take it a message at a time. If you need your language partner to speak slower, you can just long-press the message and use its slow-playback mode to repeat it 40% slower. If you recognize most of what they're saying but just need to check a few words, the "Learn" feature can transcribe, translate, and tokenize every message to show you exactly what each word means.

With consistent use, Linguistic's voice messages can help you articulate your listening and speaking, as well as help you test out the vocabulary you'll need to actually converse in the real world while already talking to real people. The best part is, it's completely free.

So the next time you're at a restaurant with your friend, you'll be ready when your friend asks you that dreaded question.


Note: The topic of language learning and anxiety is a widely-discussed topic, and there are multiple other resources to check out if you're interested in reading more. I'd recommend checking out:

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