The Psychology of Speaking in a Foreign Language

a couple talking in a foreign language over coffee
Psychology is the X-Factor of communication.

The conversation among students of a foreign language usually centers on topics such as grammar, vocabulary, and idioms. Or how long it takes to master a foreign language. Or the merits of travel and immersion. Or, yet more creatively, the effect language has on personality. But few have stopped to consider how psychology impacts communication skills in a foreign language. Let me explain. .

People commonly experience fear when speaking in a foreign language. They struggle to find the right words. They are conscious of their accent. And they know they are more prone to making mistakes and looking foolish. Ironically, these fears actually impair their performance in the language. The energy that goes to nursing a fear is energy diverted away from the process of communication. I have friends whose written ability in a language is quite extraordinary, but you would never know due to the complex they’ve built up in their mind over speaking. Psychology, at times, is a greater impediment to clear communication than actual language ability.

I and a number of friends have observed that spoken foreign language ability tends to significantly increases with moderate alcohol consumption. That is, in fact, the bizarre observation that initially inspired this post. We know that alcohol lowers inhibitions, which makes many people more comfortable socializing in general. And that foreign languages tend to generate an increase in fear-based inhibitions. Without these inhibitions, people still make mistakes and have an accent, but they are less conscious of them. The end product is clearer, better, more confident communication.

The first step to overcoming any psychological impediment is recognizing it as such. Remember, no matter how many egregious language errors you ever make, the earth will keep on spinning. Mastery of this simple observation may, in fact, be the fastest way to improve communication skills in a foreign language.

For further reading, check out The Magic of Speaking in a Foreign Language.


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