You walk up, smile, look each other in the eye, and say “hello“.
After “hello, how are you“, then what?
What do you say next? All of these ideas are floating around in your head but you just can’t seem to get them out. You know you should say something… but how can you put it across?
Has this ever happened to you? It happens to people quite often believe it or not. Even in their native language, many people struggle to say the right thing, to the right person, at the right time.
Sometimes it happens in simple conversations, sometimes it happens in important presentations.
It shouldn’t have to be this difficult. After all, it’s a pretty simple action of opening your mouth and putting a few thoughts and words together to express a few ideas. But why does it seem to be so difficult?
First of all, there is the obvious. Practice. If you don’t have the opportunity to practice a skill for a long time, you won’t be able to do it very well.
Think about something simple that you don’t do very often, like riding a bicycle, playing a musical instrument, or playing a sport. Remember how bad you seemed to be when you tried to do it last time? Remember the “good old days” when you used to do it really well?
Now wait a moment. Learning a language uses completely different skills than riding a bicycle, right?
Well, certainly. It’s a mental process that requires careful coordination and organization of thoughts, like a kind of mental acrobatics.
Nevertheless, there is more to improving these skills than just practice.
Understanding your performance
I’d like you to pause for a moment now and think carefully about a time you had to speak about something important.
What’s the first memory that comes to mind? Where were you? How did you feel? Imagine every detail you can remember.
Perhaps it was a “high-stakes situation” where people were carefully watching your performance. For some people, this might be a negative memory: a group of classmates laughing at you, a strange look from a boss, a poor evaluation from a teacher.
This might have made you feel bad, and now, because you believe yourself to have trouble speaking, in the back of your mind, you hesitate to speak…
But can’t I just solve this problem by studying?
There are three main points you should notice before we go on:
- You may have noticed that we haven’t discussed language ability and how it affects your speaking ability.
Of course, we cannot ignore it completely, but it is not nearly as important as you think it is.
- You may have noticed that people with good language ability (reading, listening, writing) have difficulty speaking, sometimes even in their first language (think: fear of public speaking).
- You also may have noticed that I didn’t say you have trouble speaking. I said you believe yourself to have trouble speaking. What’s the difference?
A lot of people do things without even noticing what they are doing.
The speaking process
Now, we all know what happens if you speak without thinking about what you are saying.
What happens, however, if you think too much about what you are saying?
Then you get stuck. Your mind is micromanaging your mouth and preventing it from doing what it needs to do. Then the only sounds that come out are “uhh…” and “umm…”
So what can you do about this? Of course, you need practice and rehearsal to build confidence, and you need language knowledge such as grammar and vocabulary. But for some people, this isn’t enough.
There are some people who spend endless amounts of time and money trying to “fix their English problem”. No matter which teacher, school, or program they try, it doesn’t seem to help.
“I still can’t fix my English problem…”
What I am suggesting here is that the reason why some people have these problems is because they believe themselves to have these problems. And these beliefs are limiting.
Your beliefs affect your performance.
However, a lot of people prefer this explanation:
“Some people are naturally talented at languages.
Well, that’s a belief, isn’t it?
It’s a self-defeating belief. And it’s an easy way to avoid responsibility for your success in language learning.
So what can you do about this? Examine your beliefs.