Are You Afraid to Speak?


Are you afraid to speak English?

Are you worried about making mistakes?

Are you embarrassed if someone asks you to repeat something?

Well, join the crowd!

Just about everybody I know who has tried learning another language has been afraid to speak.

The most common reason to learn a language is to be able to communicate with others in that language. I’m not saying it’s the only reason. Some people might just want to be able to read English literature, watch American movies without subtitles or understand songs in English, but usually, a person who devotes a significant amount of time to learning a language, generally wants to use it.

In fact, you may even need to use it – for school or for a job.

So, that’s a given.

Let’s agree that this is why you are learning English – to speak it!

You want to use English as a way to communicate with friends, family members, colleagues, potential clients and customers.

Speaking is the number one goal of language learning, and yet it is usually the biggest hurdle learners face.

There are several reasons why even the thought of speaking in English terrifies some learners, but in this post I want to focus on one of the main reasons it is difficult to feel confident as a speaker and give you some tips on how to overcome this problem.

One reason English learners are afraid to speak in English is because they think they HAVE to speak BEFORE they are actually ready.

When is it the right time to speak?

What many English learners don’t understand is the need for a long silent period –  a period of JUST LISTENING to English, without trying to speak. In language-learning circles, the act of listening is known as the INPUT phase and speaking is known as the OUTPUT phase. You need a lot of INPUT before you are capable of having any really decent OUTPUT.

I’m not saying you can’t learn how to say some basic things in English without a lot of input, such as “hi”, “bye”, “my name is…” and “thank you”, but to really be able to hold a satisfying conversation with someone in English, it is essential to have many hours of listening under your belt.

Some researchers have suggested that it is necessary to have about 800 hours of comprehensible input before you can begin to use the language you are learning for real communication. Before that, there are other ways of communicating without a lot of speech, including showing pictures, making drawings, using body language, hand movements, and facial expressions.

I can hear you saying: “800 hours!!! Wait a minute! I want to learn English in 3 months!! Are you saying I must listen to English for 10 hours per day for 80 days? That’s impossible!”

I understand!

Adult language learners don’t often have the luxury of simply listening to hours and hours of comprehensible input in English. You may attend an English class for two or three hours per week, during which time you are mostly reading from a textbook, and the textbook mostly explains the language to you using grammar rules. Pretty boring! Not to mention the fact that you are learning English while you are also attending school full time or working full time.

Your life is already busy! I understand that!

However, the importance of the silent period must not be overlooked, and if your goal is to become an excellent SPEAKER of English, then you must put in the time and listen as much as possible. 

A person who is serious about learning English to fluency will need at least 1 hour per day of focused listening for at least three to six months, depending on the current level of English, in order to begin to have enough vocabulary and understanding of grammatical structures and expressions to be able to speak with confidence and ease.

What Should I Listen To?

1. Comprehensible Input: The most important thing about the time you spend listening is that it must be COMPREHENSIBLE. Something is comprehensible when you can basically understand it. You don’t have to understand every single word, but you must be able to understand what is being talked about. This will allow you to reinforce vocabulary and grammatical structures that you already know, as well as allow you to pick up new ones within a meaningful context.

I have listened to hundreds of hours of music from various countries in Africa, and I still don’t speak any of those languages. Passive incomprehensible input did nothing to help me understand what the heck they are saying in those songs. I was only listening to them for pleasure, because I liked them. I wasn’t trying to learn a language.

For the purpose of learning English, if you are listening to something that is too difficult, STOP, and find something that is easier. Move to more difficult texts, movies, songs, and programs as you progress.

2. Interesting Input: Even if you can understand something (it is comprehensible to you), it will not help you improve your English if it is totally boring. Instead, find something that is interesting to you.

Do you like movies? Watch movies you like (over and over again) and listen to interviews with the actors and the directors. Listen to my podcast on the Golden Globe Awards.

Do you like sports? Listen to sports news. Watch videos of interviews with athletes.

Do you like music? Listen to songs. Listen to interviews with musicians and singers. Find the lyrics and read along as you listen.

Do you like history? Find a good podcast that talks about the time period you are interested in or watch historical dramas.

Do you like business? Listen to audiobooks of successful business people reading their books. Watch videos of business presentations.

Are you open to anything? Do you want to be able to talk about a wide variety of topics? Listen to my podcasts. They cover a wide range of topics.

The point is to listen to something that is interesting and engaging, as well as comprehensible.

When Do I Speak?

When you are ready! Don’t rush yourself! Take your time!

If you have spent enough time listening, you will surely have enough vocabulary and a good grasp of grammatical structures and expressions that will enable you to speak.

If you find that you are still too afraid to speak, ask yourself why.

If it is because you don’t know how to say what you want to say, then you need to do more listening.

If it is because you are continuing to translate in your head, instead of thinking in English, then you need to spend more time listening.

If it is because you are worried about making mistakes, then you must spend more time listening.

If you like to read, but fear speaking, practice reading out loud, not just in your mind.

If you are scared and have fear of speaking, in general, even though you know what words to say, then you need to find someone whom you trust, someone with whom you feel safe – a teacher, a tutor or a coach – and work with him/her until you feel more comfortable speaking out loud and then you can move on to speaking with others.

To combine massive amounts of listening with speaking, use the Success with Stories audio program. It is a powerful way to help you spend hours listening to interesting and funny stories, while gently leading you into having more practice and confidence in speaking, in the privacy of your own home, and in your own time. 

Take-Away Points

In order to be a confident speaker of English, you must:

1. Listen, listen, listen – the silent period will vary in length from person to person, but everybody needs one.

2. Listen to interesting content that is comprehensible to you.

3. Speak when you are ready. Don’t think that you must try to speak when you don’t yet know what you want to say or how to say it.

4. Combine listening with reading (transcripts) and practice reading out loud.

5. Use the Question and Answer Lessons from Success with Stories to give you confidence with speaking.

Once you begin to speak, you will make mistakes, but that’s totally normal and it is just a part of the entire process of becoming fluent. It is not something to be worried, embarrassed or ashamed about.

Learning a language is a simple process. Just listen as much as possible and when you are ready, start speaking, and have fun!

Please feel free to post a comment and share with your friends!

Thank you!