I often see people who are studying a language pass up opportunities to practice. Maybe they're trying to learn Spanish, but they never say anything in Spanish to their friends from Argentina. Maybe they're learning Polish, but they never use any Polish words with their coworker from Warsaw. Or maybe they're in the same German class as their best friend, but the two never say anything to each other in German.
One very big reason for why many people never seem to make much progress in their language study is their fear of being judged. It's so common for a person to pass an opportunity to speak their study language with a native speaker because they're afraid of getting something wrong and sounding like a fool.
It's common to speak English with your friend, even though you're both in the same foreign language class, because you both know you're not going to make a mistake in English. It's safe, because you don't want to be judged.
Nobody is judging you
But the truth is... nobody is judging you. That fear of being judged is all inside of your head. You see, your friend is also speaking English because he is afraid of being judged too! He's not thinking about how bad your pronunciation is, or the word you got wrong, because he's busy dreading his response to you and hoping he doesn't mess up.
Your Italian coworker... your Phillipino friend... your Japanese neighbor... they're not mocking you and laughing at your for not knowing their language. Think about it! They're talking to you in your language, making a dozen mistakes in pronunciation and stress and grammar every time they open their mouths. And you hear it, and you know it's wrong, but you're thinking about what they're saying, right? So what makes you think that they're thinking anything different when you speak to them in their language?
Don't pass an opportunity
In Canada this weekend, I heard a peculiar accent on the girl at the burger stand, and when I asked her where she's from, she answered Brazil. After our transaction I said obrigado. I honestly don't remember much portuguese, and if she'd started a conversation, I'd have been lost. But so what? I didn't waste an opportunity to use something I'd learned. And I got a warm smile in return.
In Seattle the next day, the guy selling tickets to the Space Needle was wearing a name tag, and underneath his name was written "Phillipines". When he gave me my ticket, I said salamat. It's one of the handful of Tagalog words I learned almost 20 years ago, but judging by the look on his face, I made his day.
These two are just examples of the dozens of people I encounter every day, and I take my opportunity whenever I see it. And guess what: they're not judging me. I know my pronunciation in Portuguese sounds horribly "yankee", but it was understood and appreciated.
Recently, while having a drinks with my friends, I detected a Polish accent on our server, and when I was ready for another beer, I said jeszcze jedno piwo, proszę. I know I said it wrong, because she told me so. But I also know that she heard me speaking her language even though she was serving another customer at the time, and I was the one who got service next. If I'd been worried about being judged, I would have been getting the same service as everyone else. But instead, even through my mistakes, I was now at the top of her list for the evening.
And so what if they do?
Really, though, when you think about it... what difference does it make even if they are judging you? They're not, of course. But even if they were judging you, who cares?
If someone thinks you're stupid because you say a word wrong, that's their problem, not yours! They can't hurt you by thinking judgmental thoughts.
Are they going to kill you, or beat you up, because you can't pronounce their words? Hah! I don't think so. Even if someone did judge you, the worst thing they might do is just tell you to your face that you sound like a fool, which isn't so terrible. But I find that people are just not as mean as that.
So there's nothing to fear. Stop making excuses and just start using what you know. Nobody is judging you.
Want to see my favorite language resources and courses?
I listed them here.