Overcoming a bad case of language cowardice

Can language cowardice be overcome quickly?
My quick response is “Yes, of course. Just read the last sentence of this post”.

Hold on! What about real language cowardice, not just natural hesitation? What about when you really, really don’t believe you can do it? That you are one of those who cannot learn anything and who definitely cannot learn how to speak freely? You just know you are no good, you have given it a go often enough, but each time it was pointless.
Let’s look at a more considered reply:

I shall use myself as a case in point. When I stumbled upon LingQ in 2009 I thought I had arrived in language heaven. For decades I had thought I’d quite fancy adding a language or two to my meagre repertoire of school memories. English was ‘forced’ upon me by moving to the UK after my marriage and I eventually managed to feel at home in it. Forget French and Latin. Hardly a shade left of them and the rudiments of my self-taught Russian.

Me being me, I started out on French, Italian, Spanish and Russian at the same time, adding Swedish from scratch as an afterthought. Italian was the first to fall by the wayside. For all I know, it is still languishing there. The other languages suffered neglect only according to how uncomfortable I felt with them. For me a language needs to have a three-dimensional feeling to it. Only then can I know that it is part of me.
It turned out that I had to compromise with them all. Speaking to the nice, patient and interesting tutors (my criteria for tutors) on LingQ freaked me out. Not only did I freeze, my brain went blank and all sorts of panic buttons catapulted me straight back into long forgotten teenage angst. I shook, I trembled, I could not speak. There were no words in my blank mind. Had there been any, I would not have been able to move my mouth. It took me days to recover from a 15-minute session. It was pathetic and that at my age. Did I give up? Yes, and no.

I continued reading and writing, chalking up compliments for the latter in both French and Spanish. Swedish was too hard and so I simply stuck to reading for pleasure. (I am an avid buyer of foreign literature from charity shops.) Russian was hopeless and so I was content to practice the script by copying out lessons. I have brilliant Russian handwriting, albeit the old-fashioned kind!

What about speaking I hear you ask: I enjoyed the company of both my Swedish and my Spanish tutors very much and managed to persuade them to chat to me in English. Wonderful. So easy. When the tutor was no longer available, I gave up on the occasional Russian conversations I still tried to attend. It wasn’t my fault she stopped, honestly. And then Russian joined Italian by the wayside, only much further on. I felt a total failure. Russian is the language of my dreams.

What about applying good studying techniques and following the advice given by successful learners here? I read the books, I listened to the talks, I watched the videos. They were all addressing someone else. Nothing worked for me, I was not good enough.

I took speaking to natives off my list of language goals. Well, it never really was on it. I much prefer reading, writing and listening. I gave up on ever speaking any second foreign language. When 2015 turned out to be a bit of a difficult year on all sorts of levels I practically withdrew from LingQ in the autumn, apart from the occasional posting on the forum. I was still reading French and Spanish and a bit of Swedish from time to time, but that was that. I didn’t miss LingQ much. My use of it has always been rather erratic.

Last month on Twitter I came across a tweet from another LingQ member who mentioned yet another book about language learning. “Becoming Fluent: How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language” by Richard M Roberts and Roger J Kreuz.

Well, dear reader, I bought the book. I found it well written, with extensive notes for further study. It somehow pressed all the right buttons with me. Was it the “Adult” in the title to whom I responded? While some chapters will appear self-evident or old hat to the experienced, successful language learner, for someone like me, it helped change my life.

I don’t know whether I would have arrived at this point eventually in any case, since the lure of languages is so strong. Perhaps all the prior attempts at breaking the sound barrier had built up such a momentum that the mere reading of the book constituted a Tipping Point for me. I now know that I am capable of speaking with native adults of the various languages of interest to me.

How do I know? Well, since this Road to Damascus experience I have been able to hold a couple of Skype conversations with LingQ tutors. What fun to find the words I needed, and to laugh when I couldn’t find them. Speaking now seems natural and appropriate. It turns out that all the reading and listening seems to have paid off: I have been given a pat on the back by the French and Russian LingQ tutors on my pronunciation (and also by a Spanish teacher I happened to bump into here in my home town and who I dared to address in Spanish). I definitely did not twist their arms! Honestly. Success!

Self-doubt is something so cruel. Be kind to yourself.

P.S. Sorry for the length of this œuvre!


It’s all too true that fear can create a psychological block which can completely “freeze” students in a scenario like an oral language exam.

I was fortunate to have an Italian teacher who gave me a tip: alcohol…!

No seriously - she recommended to us that we have (how did she put it?) “a glass of wine” shortly before going into the A level oral exam.

I didn’t stop at one glass, of course, but that’s another story!

And did I pass the exam? As Ed Miliband might say: “Hell yeah!” :slight_smile:

It seems that all these years I missed an opportunity for getting sozzled legitimately. How old were you, surely not of drinking age, when your Italian teacher came up with this splendid bit of advice? How right she was: relaxation is key.

When I become anxious about something, I try to think of the negative consequences that the situation could have.

If I speak badly, what is going to happen? Am I going to be executed? No, so life goes on.

Am I going to be laughed at? Only if that person is a jerk, so I don’t really care about their opinion at that point.

Is it going to be awkward? Probably . . . but most of my conversations in my native language are awkward, so I’m used to it.


But she was Italian! :stuck_out_tongue:

(I was over 18, actually…)

BTW: Boy do I miss smoking and drinking…sometimes…

Since reading your comment I have been playing around with it in my head and have come to realise that when I used to be in the kind of language stupor I describe above, I allowed myself no access to thoughts guiding me towards questioning this behaviour. It was total shut down, no progress allowed. I only now know what an amazing breakthrough I have had. How wonderful are our brains!

Should I ever get the language wobbles again, I can now apply your worst case scenario consequences game. Very useful. Thank you :slight_smile:

SanneT, I can identify with your cowardice. I spent a lot of time on German a few years ago until I could understand quite a lot of everyday conversation, but my own speaking was minimal. I tried talking to a German friend, but got criticised for not knowing how to apply all the grammar rules, so I stopped doing that. I then switched to Chinese and have hardly looked at any German for just over two years. I am inspired by your comments to get back into German. I’m not sure how to break through the grammar barrier, but my study of Chinese has taught me to understand every word and to say everything out loud. What I am hoping is that if I apply this attitude to learning German, I’ll break through. The other message I have gained from your post is that there is no need to fear. Sometimes, at least, I will be understood. This is progress, even if other times I am not able to make my intended meaning clear. What do you think?

Yes, absolutely. You’ve got to get used to the occasional “failure”. It’s part of the game.
Think of this: if your life depended on making yourself be understood in German, I’m very sure you’d manage. Probably with a combination of gestures, less than perfect sentences and isolated words. However, of course you set a higher standard in your conversations. You’ll often achieve those “higher goals” of smooth communication but you’ll also fall short occasionally. As you said, this is progress.

I totally agree. The slogan “No fear, no shame” would be a great one for all language learners to live by.

How sad it is that some of us were made to believe that it was not ok to be imperfect, ie normal. Germans or French or Russians or whoever, who insist on their grammar being adhered to by learners, tend to forget that they themselves never had to learn much of it, they were born into it (well, they grew into it).

As to breaking through the grammar barrier, I am finding at the moment that my increased confidence seems to have opened up my mind, some of the Russian grammar is actually infiltrating it. At last. Prolongued exposure will lead to “Fingerspitzengefühl” for the language, I am sure. Fingerspitzengefühl for a language is having a feel for the subleties of that language, of automatically steering into the right direction.

Please feel free to leave me a private message if ever you want to try out your German muscles. It’ll be a pleasure for me to compare notes with you. Five minutes is better than nothing and the feeling of success is priceless.


Funny thing is that I had a very similar experience. Our English teacher told us to have a little of wine before our oral exams. It worked. :slight_smile:

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I learned to speak with mostly correct grammar (so long as I knew the necessary noun genders) quite early in my German learning, though this was mostly because I studied it to death in a language school for the first four months. However, it still took a long time to get confident in speaking. At first, the main problem was listening comprehension. I was so scared to not understand what somebody was saying to me that I never wanted to talk to anybody. After I began to understand the language quite well, I felt quite comfortable talking to people I didn’t know, but still was very uncomfortable talking to people in German at work. I don’t know why this was. I think it was related to having always spoken to them in English and the fact that they would mostly respond in English when I tried.

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This mainly stems from your mind set that you have been taught to fail = bad.
so you avoid failing as much as possible as it makes you look stupid therefore you are not smart and its to protect your ego and perception from your peers ect ect
When in reality learning anything is about making mistakes and errors it will naturally happen, you probably just don’t remember making those errors in things you have learnt prior.

Research has been done on the ‘Fixed vs Growth’ mindset

I also wouldn’t advise anyone wasting their time reading the book
“Becoming Fluent: How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language” by Richard M Roberts and Roger J Kreuz.

A complete waste of £12 and a fue hours reading that could have been better utilised with study.
Full of non relevant analogies, fluff and word salad, its a collection of studies compiled that barely elaborate on the original research and you would be better reading the original work yourself, the book is 40% citation links to papers like you see at the bottom of a wikipedia article and can be summed up in a fue key points like so;

Apply your life experience to the new language as children dont have this experience.
2000 core vocab + working knowledge of them in real language is better than rote vocab learning 10,000 words
Chunking Chunking (psychology) - Wikipedia
Deep Vs Shallow thinking for memory retention
Forgetting curve
over learning and SRS (ie anki)
Anchoring memories with self reference and emotions

and most importantly, which they saved for the last fue pages the big bazinga,
method of loci Method of loci - Wikipedia

Nothing new for me personally, everyone should know by now there is no quick hack for learning language it takes time and dedication, just work smarter now you are an adult and learn how is BEST FOR YOU, that gives the most results, explore many methods and find what works for you, as an adult you can self critique and note your own progression.

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I have definitely put myself in a position where I read, write and listen, and rarely talk. I tell myself that I don’t really want to do it anyway, but that is probably a lie. What is true, however, is that talking, while it aids my ability to form sentences no end, makes me feel stressed and ultimtely puts me off learning a language. When I was at university and I had particularly urgent deadlines, it would be the way that I allowed myself to procrastinate (I picked up the very basics of Swahili on one such occassion, and have since forgotten what I learnt in its entirety, but another time I picked up Persian and I still enjoy the benefits.) I don’t want to feel like the languages have become the chore.

So I am working on letting myself read and write and listen and not have to talk, so that my languages don’t fall by the wayside, because I love them. Talking will join later, in the ever distant “one day”. I am not being unrealistic when I say that day will come - I can say that with confidence because I’m not waiting for it to happen on its own and because I have made it happen before. It was years before I spoke any Hindi to anybody but myself but I made it happen when I was happy to and when the language already felt like it had sunk into me.

I’m not even sure that I would say that I am being cowardly to avoid speaking other languages sooner, though fear is certainly an aspect of it. I am scared of speaking to people a lot of the time, but what I fear more is losing the ability to enjoy what I love, because when I push myself to make sentences that don’t feel right, when the sounds haven’t buried themselves into my consciousness because I am trying to remember a rule instead of a feeling, it just becomes another source of stress. As far as fluency goes I am certainly playing a long game, but it’s a good one and I don’t see why I shouldn’t like playing it for a long time.


What a heartwarming contribution. I doubt whether your approach is cowardice, mine became it over the decades (I am now 70+). May you never lose the ability to enjoy learning and may your timing always be right for you!

I know several Moscow Mules did amazing things for my Japanese.

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I found the same very often when speaking Polish in Poland in shops. I’d speak in Polish and they’d often answer in English. Not very reassuring.

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