Learning to speak a new language? Just use it!

A perfected accent: It’s one of the things that hold people back in learning and ultimately speaking a new language. 

The main reason for this is something called foreign language anxiety, more formally known as xenoglossophobia. This is the feeling of unease or inadequacy you might get when speaking a foreign language. 

Foreign language anxiety stems from the perception that we will be judged for not communicating with as much ease or precision as we would in our native language.

It is a concept that may be perpetuated by teachers, family members, and the general public alike.

As a result, this may form the idea that it is necessary to strive for a “perfected” accent, which can inevitably vary depending on the geographic location where a particular language is spoken. Consider a Rioplatense Spanish accent versus a Peninsular Spanish accent. 

At times, this may produce an uncomfortable method or rhythm of speech for the interlocutor, further enhancing the anxiety and lowering the motivation to speak.

It is important to note that anyone can suffer from this perceived linguistic inadequacy, including native speakers. But the phenomenon is far more common to second-language speakers who haven’t achieved a high degree of conversational comfort.

This is, however, an idea that we should evaluate further and truthfully pick apart.

Everyone has an accent, whether it is considered “authentic” based on geographic location or not. The most important aspect of learning a new language — and subsequently speaking it — is simply being able to communicate.

The more we focus on speaking like someone we’re not, possibly as a result of external pressure or by our own idea of proper speech in our target language, the more difficult the language-learning process will become.

Languages are living concepts, and no one can speak any language “perfectly.” The idea of oral-language perfection is a myth. The more we strive for this idea of perfection, the more frustrating the process becomes.

We learned our “mother tongue” by simply watching and imitating others speaking the language, without structure and making mistakes, but eventually the pieces fell into place. So, when it comes to oral reproduction of a second language, the same idea should be implemented: Just speak it.

Being able to communicate the message to the listener is key. One’s accent or grammar structure comes with time and can be improved with close care, but neither will improve without using the language as much as possible.

This is also true with code-switching, which can often produce negative emotions for the interlocutor when trying to speak in the target language. 

However, this is a concept that can occur naturally for people who speak multiple languages, especially if more than one of these languages come from similar language families, such as Italian and Spanish. 

Ultimately, this should not discourage us from pursuing conversations in our target language, as with time, the frequency of code switching tends to decrease.

Each individual must decide for themselves what language perfection sounds like. Ultimately, enjoying the process is key to achieving that comfort — it’s the true way to learn and flourish within a target language.

When given an opportunity to speak in a language we are learning, whether with a “native” or not, it is fundamental to simply use it. That way we can build upon our fluidity, vocabulary, and linguistic grasp. It allows our mouths to get used to moving in ways that reflect accurate pronunciation of these new words. 

An interesting language-hack, or rule of thumb, is that if the mouth hurts after speaking in this new language, that is a good sign of oral development.

We ought to put our egos aside and use what we already know when developing our ability to speak another language, so we can build upon our knowledge and achieve the language goals that we set out for ourselves.

Having said all of this, I’d like to conclude with my personal top-five language-learning tips to enhance the ability to speak in the target language:

  1. Listening is fundamental. Reading and writing are very important, of course. However, the best way to learn new words and phrases is simply to actively listen — music, a movie, a podcast, or even a conversation between people on the street.
  2. Confidence is everything. This is easier said than done, yes. But it’s the key to finally speaking a language. Be confident in what you know, and open to what’s left to learn.
  3. Create a script and build from there. When meeting someone new, in any language, the “ice breaker” questions are often similar — where are you from? Where do you work/study? What are your hobbies? Find a list of ice-breaker questions online and practice responding to them to develop pronunciation and comfortability.
  4. Seek out opportunities to practice with others. It’s no longer the case that a learner has to know someone personally who can speak the target language — there are a number of apps that can connect people to practice speaking, replicating meet-ups in person, which are also just as good if this is a possibility.
  5. Have fun with the process. We learn and develop our skills when we’re having fun. Craft your own learning and development so the process is enjoyable and you can truly reach your goal. 

Matteo Talotta is a dual Canadian-Italian citizen and a university recruiter at Gartner, Spain.