How to be yourself in another language

I recently read a post by blogger Alisa Jordan, who writes about the experience of living abroad. In this post, she talks about how difficult social situations can be when you’re the only non-native speaker in the group. In the stress of the moment,  she becomes mentally blocked, frantically searching for the words. She isn’t able to just be herself and say what she wants.

I sympathised with her predicament instantly. Not because I’m a language learner but because, for as long as I can remember, I’ve suffered from paralysing social anxiety. 

It’s very odd. I’m a confident classroom teacher. One-to-one you’ll find me to be quite extroverted. But…put me in a group of people I don’t know too well in a social context and suddenly I freeze up like a deer in headlights.

It’s not so bad these days. At some point in the last 10 years I have settled into my skin. The path to being myself involved accepting that I’m more of an introvert, which is a bit like saying that to be myself I have to accept I’m not very good at being myself.

Derren Brown has some interesting insights in his book, Tricks Of The Mind. He points out that confidence is often contextual. Everybody has areas, places, activities and groups which make them feel either more emboldened or more shy. A rugby player might be a brave hero on the field but a chicken on the dance floor.

Alisa Jordan describes how she is normally a very extroverted person but when speaking German (her second language), she feels like she becomes a kind of temporary introvert.

It’s hard to pinpoint the feeling of introversion and social anxiety; two related but slightly different concepts. Part of it is a fear that my contributions to the conversation will be boring or received badly. This fear is certainly present for language learners too.

Another part is a horrible realisation that the person I think I am in my head is not the person I am in reality. I learnt a new word reading up for this blog post. When your ideal self doesn’t match your actual self it’s called “incongruence”…apparently.

I think this often happens to language learners who have achieved an intermediate level in their new language. They’ve gained just enough language skills to have a good conversation in the safety of the classroom. They feel really chuffed about themselves and they go out into the real world and start having real interactions with real locals and suddenly they loose their confidence. It feels like a knock back.

The fluent speaker they thought they were has suddenly vanished. The conversation turned to something obscure and difficult. Everyone is chit chatting away, you have no idea what’s going on and then somebody asks “what do you think?”. Everybody goes quiet and awaits your response (because you’re the quiet one who never speaks) and suddenly all you can think in your head is “I like to go for run at weekend”. 

I remember in my third year in Spain, a Spanish girl I didn’t know so well asked me straight up, “why don’t you ever say anything? Why are you so quiet?” I couldn’t give her a straight answer in that moment. I probably could now.

Have you ever experienced new language anxiety?

How can we get over new language anxiety?

Are you normally extroverted or introverted? How about in your non-native languages?

1 thought on “How to be yourself in another language”

  1. Hi ,Sid. I have Loved your post. I feel anxiety every time I speak English, in the English class too!Normally I am very extroverted, but at the works meetings I try to be invisible or answer always with a few words:”yes, thank you” “no, thank you” and “ I will check”.

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