How to get brave enough to speak to a local in a foreign language

Some people grow up knowing two or even more languages and thinking nothing of it. In fact, lots and lots of people in the world grow up this way. But in English-speaking countries, we tend to be a bit limited in our language thinking. After all, the “world language” is English (or so we think – and in many ways it kind of is) and lots of English-speaking nations are physically a bit isolated from others – the United Kingdom, most of the United States and Canada, Australia and New Zealand – so the need to speak another language is really not that urgent.

But that means if you’re an English speaker and you learn a foreign language, it can feel really, really difficult to try speaking in that language when you’re travelling. We barely get any practice, we often don’t get particularly good language education because it’s not something that’s prioritised, and we are just plain terrified of making silly mistakes or not being understood.

Being brave enough to speak a foreign language

Germany: the villages look just like you imagine but speaking German to a local is STILL HARD!

My experience with learning German – before travelling and during travelling

I was kind of lucky for an Australian going through school in the 1980s and had quite a lot of exposure to foreign languages – mostly German, which was taught in school to me from the age of about seven. (Not many hours a week – but better than nothing.) I had a year learning Italian around age ten (I forgot it all!) and then in high school I added Mandarin for a couple of years but found the pronunciation crazily difficult. I continued with German all the way through to university, though.

But then when I got to Europe and had increasing opportunities to speak in German, I found myself totally tongue-tied. Basics were fine but nothing more than that – certainly nothing approaching a real conversation. When I lived in Bratislava, I found a German teacher who gave me weekly lessons and got me finally talking at a basic conversational level (hi Elisabeth!). And then I moved to Germany.

You’d think living in a country would really help improve my language skills quickly, but it wasn’t anywhere near as effective as I’d hoped! Because I was working as a business English teacher I was expected to only speak English at work. It was kind of hard to make local friends, or if I did they were my students who expected to speak to me in English, or I met other ex-pats from other countries and our only common language was English.

Being brave enough to speak a foreign language

Having the confidence to speak another language is tricky. Even for me in Germany.

Also: I was scared to speak German to real Germans!

Most of my daily interaction in German was very standard stuff – paying at the supermarket, asking directions, ordering beer. The stuff that we had practised numerous times from textbooks. (So, kudos to language textbooks, some of the stuff in them is spot on.) I was nervous about these kind of short conversations at first, but I had them often enough without much mishap that I got used to it. Plus these were always just based on a short transaction, not building a relationship.

But the idea of speaking to someone about a more interesting topic was a big hurdle. The neighbours in my building in Germany were not the friendliest – most were old and perhaps a little unwelcoming – but there was one really lovely man who would always stop me for a long chat. The problem was, I could barely understand him. He didn’t seem to mind, or possibly he didn’t even notice, as he talked a LOT and was good at filling in any blanks, but I walked away often having very little idea of what we’d actually just talked about. He used a lot of local dialect words, had an accent AND talked quickly, so yes, your basic nightmare for a learner, but he was such a nice fellow (hi, Herr Mantsch!).

Finally, I met the man who’s now my husband and after moving in together with him, my German improved. Phew! Obviously with him I could speak without fear of too much ridicule or failure and I knew he would help me get my point across, and I was helping him with his English at the same time, and he felt the same.

These days, although my German grammar is way less than perfect (I usually just speak quickly to skip over the grammatical endings I’m not sure of), I can sound basically fluent and the ultimate compliment is when I meet new German parents at our German playgroup and they assume I’m actually German. But that has taken thirty years of work!

How to get braver when speaking a foreign language

All of these tales go to show that for most of us it is NOT easy to speak another language, or even to try to speak it. I’m a generally confident, outgoing person who likes to chat so it’s not that which holds me back – it really is a fear of not saying the right words, of not being understood and of making a fool of yourself.

I’m still not great at it. I know a reasonable amount of Japanese, for example, but I’m crazy-scared of using it – I still order in English at our local Japanese restaurant even though I can hear them all speaking Japanese to each other.

But for what it’s worth, I totally encourage you to take every opportunity you can to speak with the locals in their language, even if you only know a few sentences. And if you’ve learned even more of a language, then do your best to get brave enough to have a real conversation. It’s such a great feeling to converse in a foreign language!

Above all, I guess, you have to give up the idea of looking silly. It seems logical enough but it’s harder to put into practice. The very, very worst that can happen is you’ll end up saying something totally different to what you’re trying to say, and that will either make the person laugh really hard or just scratch their head and not be able to understand you, and neither of those are really so bad, right?

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  1. Yes, you just have to throw caution to the wind and dive in at the deep end when speaking a foreign language. What’s the worst that can happen? When trying to converse in French one time, I told someone that my sister ‘liked’ them. ‘Elle t’aime’ I said, meaning she thought he was a nice person. But of course, ‘aimer’ in French means romantic ‘like’ and he thought I meant she was in love with him. Took a bit of explaining …

    • Oh dear Louise, that’s an unfortunate mistake!!!! But hilarious 😉 Poor fellow!!

    • Ha ha. This reminds me of my travels in Morocco. I spent a few nights over mint tea learning basic Arabic with a local. I started with numbers and moved onto phrases. I am happy, Are you happy? I am hot, Are you hot?, I am tired, Are you tired?. I used these in the souks for weeks with some very friendly Moroccans, until I encountered an English speaker on a bus in my last week. When I told him my acquired vocab, he replied, Oh you are a very passionate woman! OMG. Apparently I had been telling men up and down the country that I was feeling frisky, do they want to be frisky with me?!

    • Oh no – that’s hilarious Kali!!!!

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