Social Anxiety and Second Language Learning — reduce your fear of speaking with strangers

Photo by ROBIN WORRALL on Unsplash

“Necesito una assessoria.” My request is met with silence. I repeat my statement, slower this time. I had rehearsed the pronunciation before making the call. But still, I am met with silence.

My heart starts to race, my jaw clenches, my hands begin to sweat. I swallow. My mouth is dry. As each second ticks by, my anxiety grows. How else can I explain myself? I thought I would be able to do this by now! Frustration mounts. I take a deep breath, try to calm down, search my brain for another, simpler word, and out comes:“Tengo un dolor en mi pie. Quiero que alguien me ayuda con el dolor.”

“¡Oh! ¿Quieres una consulta? ¿Cuál es tu nombre?

And just like that, she understood me.

My breathing slows as I give her my name, and I double-check what to bring with me to my first appointment — ID, proof of address, cash. I hang up with my heart still pounding 101 bpm. Slowly, my jaw relaxes. I swallow. My fists release. I breathe in, feeling the tension ease. I had done it. I had made the appointment with the physical therapist on my own, just like I knew I could.

Even though I had been on the verge of hanging up and asking someone else to call for me, I didn’t. Unlike in the past, I realized what I needed to do — fight through the barrier, find a different way to express myself, and conquer my anxiety.

Anxiety has often been studied as having a negative effect on academic performance, otherwise known as “test anxiety.” Social anxiety is also well-known as affecting a person’s ability to function in daily situations. But what about the effects of anxiety on learning a second language?

When anxiety extends into a real-life situation of having to communicate in a second-language, similar results seem to be true. Even if you know the words you want to use or what question you want to ask, the moment you have to communicate, you freeze up, your mind goes blank, and you are at a loss for what to say.

Most theorists agree that social anxieties can affect brain function and behavior (Sarason, 1986; Spielberger, 1966, 1983). In the case of speaking a second-language, anxiety can inhibit the brain’s ability to recall needed information. Then, our same fear of not being able to communicate well materializes in the social situation. Our worry about not being understood becomes a reality, and we have entered a vicious social cycle that reaffirms our fears of speaking our second language, so we withdraw even more.

From my own experience learning Spanish while living in México, I know this to be true. Why was I nervous to talk to the bank teller? And the KFC worker? And the greeter at church?

While living in the US, I had presented to auditoriums full of hundreds of spectators without batting an eye. Going from dominating my social situation to feeling like I couldn’t communicate on the level of an 8 year old was a blow to the ego, at least my ego. But I don’t think I’m alone here.

Since moving to México two years ago, my husband and I have started teaching individualized English lessons online. And with a group of more than 150 professional adults, a pattern in our students emerged similar to my own.

Even if you are a confident communicator in your first language, you will face situations along your language journey that turn you back into a child who has yet learned to master speaking to others.

Maybe it will show up when you have to dispute a hotel bill charge or when you want to communicate why you don’t believe in marriage or you need to pitch a business idea or when you want to explain your understanding of God or you need to schedule an appointment.

At some point, we all hit the intersection between what we wish to express and what we are able to communicate. Or, like me, maybe you just have a fear of what strangers will think of you when you can’t speak fluently.

In these stressful social situations, our anxiety levels increase, which also means our brain stops functioning as usual. You may literally forget the words you already know. You may not be able to conjugate a verb like you do during a language class. You may not be able to remember how to answer clearly like you do when talking with a friend.

If anxiety can really affect our communication in a new language, how can we overcome these barriers? How can we pass this social test to gain confidence while speaking to strangers?

Here are my suggestions from living life in my second language:

First, develop an awareness of your own social anxiety levels. If you’re one of many whose mind goes blank when speaking with new people, then you will first need to identify ways to physically reduce your anxiety. Deep breathing is one common tool, which you can do prior to entering a stressful situation. And during the encounter, slow down in your rate of speaking. Doing so gives your brain more time to process what you need to say.

Second, focus on the other speaker (and less on yourself). Mindfulness is a common practice, which means moving the attention off of yourself. You can do so by ignoring negative thoughts such as “I can’t do this, they won’t understand me.” Instead, focus on the other person. “What are they asking me? What do they want to know?” By moving your focus onto the person you are communicating with, you are able to capture more of what the person is saying to you. In turn, when you understand more, you will be able to find a clear response.

Third, practice speaking as often as possible with people you feel comfortable with. Many people are learning a second language because they want to travel, they work with global partners, or they want to attend a new university. Whatever the case, you might already have other people around you who are learning or want to learn the same language. If you don’t personally know someone, try looking online for a language-learning group. You could also search for conversation partners through online platforms. In today’s digital age, teachers can also be found across the globe.

By recognizing your social anxiety in certain speaking situations, choose those situations to role play with your conversation partner. Try to communicate about a variety of topics and problems. And instead of using complex sentence structure or new vocabulary, search for a simpler way to express your ideas when you start feeling nervous. In this way, when you face a similar anxiety-producing situation in real life, you won’t freeze up and you won’t need to speak through a clenched jaw with sweat running down your face. Leave the new grammar for familiar and comfortable situations.

By using these strategies in anxiety-producing situations, you will be able to communicate more fluidly in your second language. Remember, the point of learning a new language is communication. No matter what, keep your focus on the goal of understanding and making yourself known, even if you feel like you’re speaking in simple sentences.

As we keep facing our fears, not only do our language skills grow, but we make ourselves open to learning and growing in a global community.

Born a Midwestern American, now a permanent Mexican resident. Outdoor adventurer, language enthusiast, and lover of classical music.

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