It's italki’s goal is to help people all over the world achieve their language learning goals, and this includes young learners too! Many parents use the internet to help their child learn another language, and with italki they have access to native language teachers whenever they need them. Sounds great, right?
We think so too, that is until we found out that many young students find it difficult to speak. At first we thought it was because foreign languages can be difficult and take some time to get used to, but we now know that it happens to everyone. Young learners from all over the world with different native languages face the same problem, and even students who have been studying for a long time struggle to speak.
After some research we now have an explanation as to why so many language learners can’t speak, and it’s not because they aren’t studying hard enough or have the wrong materials. It’s because of xenoglossophobia.
Foreign language anxiety (Xenoglossophobia)
The feeling of unease, worry, nervousness, and apprehension when learning or using a foreign language.
Many talented students who study hard and make good progress in their language studies are simply afraid of speaking. When a student is too afraid to speak a language out loud, it stops them finding language partners, speaking to teachers, interacting in class, and ultimately prevents them from reaching fluency. And when it comes to why students are afraid, there are a mountain of reasons.
Welcome to The Foreign Language Anxiety Mountain!
“It’s too hard.”
“I don’t want to!”
“I’m too nervous.”
“What if I make a mistake?”
“What if they don’t understand me?”
“I don’t want them to think I’m stupid.”
“I don’t want people to make fun of me.”
“They speak too fast, I don’t understand!”
“I don’t want to talk to someone I don’t know.”
“I don’t want to speak in front of other people.”
“What if they get angry at me if I get it wrong?.”
“I understand, but I don’t know what to say back!”
“I’ve been studying for ages, but I can’t say anything!”
Have you ever heard your child say anything like this? If you have, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Being scared is normal when learning a new language, and this applies to people of all ages! For many young learners who are used to thinking, speaking, and living in one language, it can be a difficult experience to stand up and be the center of attention in a language they don’t know very well.
So now that you know what foreign language anxiety is, here are three quick tips you can add to your child’s language learning routine to help you build their speaking confidence and hopefully reduce those nerves before getting into a real conversation.
1. Frequent Practice, OUT LOUD
Language learning requires a lot of work, so many parents assume that grammar problems, vocabulary lists, and workbooks are enough, but in reality, speaking is the most important! Reading materials in silence isn’t enough, so the easiest thing you can for your child is to encourage reading out loud.
Reading Out Loud with Younger Learners
One easy method is to take any material your child enjoys and turn it into a game. For example, if your child is learning English vocabulary from a picture book, you can get creative by asking them to read words in a silly voice or make a funny face for each word. Encourage your child to use their imagination when speaking, and make sure the focus of the activity is the game, not the vocabulary. When it comes to mistakes, don’t worry about correcting each one—just wait until they finish speaking and use the right examples to gently to remind them, for example:
“The dog is on mat!”
“Yes, the dog is on the mat!”
Don’t aim for perfection. The aim here is for your child to get used to interacting in the foreign language without the pressure of getting it “right.”
Reading Out Loud with Older Learners
For older learners who are studying a language in school or are old enough to choose their own material, it can be tough to encourage them to speak to you directly, so here's one exercise you can share with them to build their speaking confidence. All you need is a smartphone and some reading material.
How to Practice Reading with a Smartphone
Open the voice recording app on your smartphone.
Press the record button, then start reading your chosen material out loud and try to be as clear as possible when speaking into the microphone.
Afterward, listen to the recording (and get very embarrassed, because everyone does!). Is it clear? Is everything understandable? Are there any words being pronounced incorrectly?
Repeat this process several times with the same materials, and try to focus on problems spotted in earlier recordings. We promise it gets better with each try!
As you become more confident, start having conversations with yourself, or even get creative and do things in a silly voice or copy a script from a movie or TV show. No matter what happens, make sure you’re speaking out loud!
It might sound strange to encourage someone to practice a language by themselves, but once students become more comfortable moving their mouths and actually producing a sound at their own pace, they will really start to understand the rhythm of the language.
2. A Positive Mindset Can Make All the Difference
Before encouraging your child to have a positive mindset, keep in mind that having a positive mindset does not mean being happy and enthusiastic every minute of the day. When we say positive mindset, what we really mean is encouraging your child to acknowledge their past achievements, understand that they can and will improve (and that you’re here to help them) and that they should never put themselves down when they make a mistake. They are language learners, not experts! If you can help your child understand that they are learning to communicate (not achieve a certain grade or pass a test) then they will enjoy language learning much more.
So let’s take some of the fears from the Foreign Language Anxiety mountain and change them into something more positive:
“What if I make a mistake?” There’s nothing wrong with making mistakes because making mistakes is part of learning.
“I’ve been studying for ages, but I can’t say anything!” I know can read and write quite a lot of English now, so now I’m going to focus on speaking.
“What if they don’t understand me?” I will speak as clearly as I can, and if someone doesn’t understand me I will try again or politely move on.
3. Patience is Key
Believe it or not, this is something many people forget. To learn a language well takes a huge amount of practice and everyone learns at their own pace, no matter their age or level.
Let’s say your child has been studying hard and made a habit of learning English every day for the past few months. Their skills have improved and they feel more confident, but there are still moments when they feel nervous and make mistakes, which is frustrating because they want to be an amazing English speaker now. They’re putting in the work, so why aren’t they perfect yet? Why are there still moments where they feel scared to speak?
Because they are learning a language, and every language has its own difficulties.
Take English, for example. English is a sneaky language with inconsistent grammar, illogical pronunciation, and silent letters. There are many things even native English speakers get wrong, and these are people who have grown up with English!
If your child is feeling frustrated with their language progress, try to emphasize just how far they have come and congratulate them for their bravery. After all, the best language learners aren’t the ones who are the smartest or know the most words. They are the ones who never gave up.