You Can't Succeed At Language Learning Without Confidence

Have you ever had a conversation like this?

A: Oh let me tell about this really funny thing that happened yesterday! I was in a store... in a... um, hardware? Can I say that?
B: Yes.
A: Yes, hardware store. I was in a "hardware store", and I saw this kid and he was... um... he had those.... (long pause) rolling shoes? That's not right. What are those things called? .
B: Roller skates? Roller blades? Heeley's?
A: Oh okay. Roller skates. Roooolllllllllller skaaaaaates. That's a funny word. What is a Elise?
B: Not Elise... Heeeeeleeey's
A: Heeeleeey's
B: They're shoes, with a wheel in the heel.
A: With a wheel in the heel. In the "heel?"
B: Never mind. So what happened to the kid?
A: Yes, he was... Um... Not jumping, but... oh, wait a moment.... Can I say bouncing?

And so on.

When you don't speak with confidence, you lose your audience. The story goes nowhere. And eventually, the meaning gets lost. Imagine if I wrote my blog posts like that. I would have no readers!

When every word sounds like a question, it's hard to know the point of what you're saying. And it's even harder when every sentence is interrupted by a vocabulary lesson.

Now, consider how much more smoothly it could go if you just said "he was wearing those shoes with wheels" and let the listener figure out which shoes you're talking about. Often, that detail isn't even necessary to the story, and when it is, your listener can usually figure it out from context.

If you don't know (or remember) how to say hardware store, you can just say store. Or if it's a necessary detail, you can say "store where they sell tools". If you can't remember "bouncing", you can just say "jumping up and down softly".

What's important is to finish telling your thought, and not even because you're making it hard for your listener (even though you are!). The biggest reason that it's important is because you are what you do.

The things you do become your habits. If you make a habit of speaking confidently, you will always speak confidently and your vocabulary will improve on it's own. But when you form the habit of speaking without confidence, you are creating a pattern in yourself of always speaking this way, and you will continue do so — relying on positive feedback from your listener — even after your vocabulary has improved.

Use the words you know, and use them confidently. And really, don't be afraid to confidently use the words you don't know, too!

Knowledge is easy... You will learn more over time. But confidence doesn't come with time — it only comes with experience. Confidence breeds confidence.

So do what you know, and do it well. Use that confidence to feed the things you don't know. Trust me... you'll love the difference.


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Author: Yearlyglot
I'll lead you through a 12 month journey from knowing absolutely nothing about a language to having professional fluency.

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  • I laughed at that conversation because I've been on both ends of it and you captured it really well! But you make a great point too, that you should just speak even if you don't know all the words and aren't speaking perfectly. Great post!

  • I've done this quite a bit. Sometimes it's in order to caution someone that I know I may be saying something stupid or that doesn't make sense (such as with service employees). Other times with friends who work on language with me to signal that I'm not sure of my word choice and I'm looking to be corrected. But this seems to be an imperfect way of practicing speaking because usually they'd just nod and smile saying they got it but then tell me months later that my French is so improved and that I eliminated some mistakes I always made (which in one sense is good since it's a sign I've absorbed correct French but then I'd like to know from people if I keep making the same mistakes so I can try to fix them). Usually this happens with cognates and word for word translations of expressions that I guess at which works a good portion of the time but obviously not every time. I've been making an effort not to totally gloss over learning vocabulary that are cognates so I can use them with more confidence.

  • Thanks. It was easy to capture the essence, because I had just spent the whole day having this kind of conversation. It's exaggerated here, but only enough to reflect the frustration of an entire day of this while maintaining the brevity of a post. :)

  • It's definitely an ineffective way of speaking, because the pain you induce on the conversation makes people work to follow you, and that in-turn makes them less interested in working to help you.In my opinion, people have a limit to the amount of help they're going to give, before it becomes a burden, so I want that limited amount of help to be as useful and relevant as possible.

  • Just go. You can look shit up later. Yup :)

  • Exactly! And if you say something wrong, I'm not going to know until you reach the end of your sentence and I can figure out the context you intended. So just say it, and then let me help you when you're done.

  • I agree with you almost 100% here. The only thing I would disagree with is the part where you say "don’t be afraid to confidently use the words you don’t know, too! " In my opinion using words you don't know incorrectly is one of the easiest ways to make yourself look like an idiot. Just my two pence. Great post by the way. The confident is surely King! I'm a big advocate of that.

  • I think an unfortunate reality of being a foreign speaker of a language is that people are always going to get the sense that you're unintelligent. Not intentionally, of course, but when people use simple words and occasionally struggle with forming sentences, there is a natural tendency for the brain to judge them as less intelligent. And yes, I think incorrectly using words is going to feed this tendency.However, there will also be those people who know you personally, or who give you the credit of being a foreign speaker of the language. These people will look past your unnatural speaking to hear the intelligence of what you say, and they'll recognize and correct you mistakes.I say, don't waste a minute of your life worrying about the people from the first group. Just spend your time with the people of the second group, and speak confidently.

  • I totally do this when I'm trying to speak Spanish to people! I use my spanish rarely and use so many cognates that sometimes I forget which are cognates and which are actually english words with an 'o added on! It didn't help the time I was questioning a patient about her bladder and only realized after I got home that she didn't understand me because I had confused 'vehiga' with 'vecina'! I knew the difference but it had been a long day! Also people are so pleased I am trying to speak to them in Spanish that they often don't tell me when I mess up but just look at me with a vaguely uncomfortable expression and perhaps giggle. I think because I am the nurse in charge, they feel rude correcting me!

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