Fear of Making Mistakes – A Language Learner’s Worst Enemy

Does any of the following sound familiar to you: You’ve studied your target language a lot but it keeps happening. You may feel confident for a while but when you try to speak your new language with native speakers, your brain has a black out and you suddenly stop mid-sentence, unable to go forward. Why? Didn’t you study enough? Did you suddenly forget everything? Have you got an undiagnosed cognitive issue!? Surely not! It’s all the fault of a language learner’s worst enemy: the fear of making mistakes!

Fear can affect almost anyone

The scenario described above happens to almost everyone trying to learn a new language at some point. Try to remember how many times you yourself felt confident enough to speak a foreign language until you started thinking that the words you were using maybe were not correct. From there, it’s often a downwards spiral: you can start feeling insecure and your speech becomes more unclear and grammatically incorrect. In situations like this, a lot of people give up their studies, because they falsely think that they have surpassed the years when they could still successfully learn a language.

The human brain can learn everything at every age

But there is good news to people who fear that their window for language learning is closed. According to didactics and neuroscientific studies, the human brain can learn every subject at any moment of our lives. So, what then stops the learning process and the performance of the student? The answer is simple: It’s the fear of making mistakes.

Fear is a lot of what sets adult and young language learners apart. Why do children learn a language seemingly so easily? They are naturally curious and enjoy learning new things without being afraid of making mistakes. Mistakes for them is a natural part of the learning process, as it is for everyone. The difference is only in the attitude towards the occasional slip up.

Dave Featherston, who has been a neuroscience professor at the University of Illinois, wrote that adults are just as good at learning languages as children, but they simply don’t take full advantage of their potential. The difference between the two is that children listen intently and practise incessantly and they are not afraid of failing. But even then, learning process takes them years and their language skills start off relatively poor. An adult immersed in a language and one who is not afraid of use it, can learn even faster than a child because they already knows how languages “work”.

It means that adults who want to learn a new language don’t have to be scared, thinking their brain is not young enough. They can learn easily and faster, only if they are so brave to overcome the fear of mistakes and go on to study and constantly practise speaking.

How you can overcome fear in 3 steps

1. The first step to overcome the fear of talking a foreign language is to be focused on what you want to communicate instead of thinking about grammar, words and so on. It’s what happens when you talk your native language. It’s like driving a car: if you always think about the whole process, you’ll never leave your home garage. Naturally, it takes a lot of practise to get to this point but, once you overcome your fear of talking, it will happen quickly.

2. The second step is trying to practise the language in an informal context. A more relaxed environment will help you feel confident and to use the verbal language at your best. Don’t forget the benefit of using body language which is widely understood all over the world and can help to make you understood to people. When first starting practising with native speakers, try to do it in an informal and small group, so that the speed of their speech and unknown slang words don’t overwhelm you.

3. Immerse yourself in the new language reading, listening to music, talking to people, watching movies every day and you’ll be surprised to find yourself speaking and using new words you didn’t know just a few days ago.

And one last bonus step: don’t forget to enjoy yourself! That’s the key to learning anything successfully.

Conclusion – Age has nothing to do with how we learn, you should feel confident in speaking

There is no “right age” for learning new languages, according to what neuroscientists have discovered. The only obstacle that stops the learning process is the fear of failure. Contrary to popular belief, adults can learn even faster than children, because they know how languages work.

The three steps that you find in this article can help you to overcome the fear of mistakes and to help you become more self-confident when you want to speak a new language.

This article was written by Silvia C – our Italian teacher in Milan. Sign up for lessons with her below.