Shyness and nervousness are natural, but they also make it more difficult to speak. If you feel shy, you might not think of things to say, or you might not remember to use grammar or vocabulary correctly.
Some English learners get stuck in a pattern, where they avoid speaking or using English.
I can’t promise to solve all of your problems with feeling shy or nervous, but I’ll share some ideas and advice which I hope will help you to deal with it better and feel less shy speaking English.
1. Speaking English is Just Speaking
When we first meet foreigners or hear foreign languages, we often think of them as very strange, interesting and exotic.
“Wow! He’s speaking French. It sounds so beautiful. He must be talking about philosophy, or literature, or something very interesting… I wish I could understand him.”
“Wow! She’s writing in Chinese characters. It’s such a beautiful writing system. Maybe she’s writing a poem, or a love letter… I wish I could understand her.”
Yeah, maybe he’s talking about philosophy, but maybe he’s complaining that he got stuck in a traffic jam. Maybe she’s writing a poem about misty mountains, or maybe it’s just a shopping list.
If you think a foreign language and foreign people are strange, exotic things, of course you’ll feel more nervous when you speak. Many English learners have this idea about English. You aren’t just talking to a person; you’re talking to a… native speaker! Argh!
But actually, speaking English isn’t something strange or different.
It’s just speaking, just like you do all day every day. Native speakers aren’t a different species; they’re just like you.
Most of what people think about and talk about is quite simple, and it’s similar all over the world. People complain about their jobs, think about what to have for lunch, chat to their friends about TV shows they’ve seen, and so on.
So don’t think that native speakers are some kind of magical animal. If you want to talk to them, talk to them. If you don’t, don’t. It’s not such a big deal either way.
Not a big deal? Really? Yes, really. You need to ask yourself…
2. What’s the Worst that Can Happen?
So, you feel really nervous about speaking English, especially to native speakers. You try to start a conversation with a teacher at your school. It goes horribly badly. You don’t know what to say. You feel really uncomfortable. After a minute, you walk away, and you think to yourself:
- “I’ve made an idiot of myself.”
- “I feel so embarrassed.”
- “I’m sure he/she thinks I’m stupid.”
Here’s a question, though: what have you actually lost?
It’s just a conversation. It’s really not a big deal, except in your head.
Ten years in the future, are you still going to be thinking and worrying about that time you tried to start a conversation and it didn’t go very well? No, of course not. Some things seem like a very big deal in the moment, but that doesn’t mean they’re actually important.
You may feel embarrassed, and tell yourself that you’re stupid, but remember: you’re doing that to yourself, and there’s no objective reason why.
No one else is telling you you’re stupid. You aren’t risking anything by just starting a conversation. I guarantee that the person you’re talking to isn’t thinking these things about you.
So what can you do about these feelings? How can you control them?
3. Wear a Mask
These feelings of nervousness or shyness are all inside. Here’s the most important piece of advice I can give you:
Just because you feel shy or nervous, it doesn’t mean you have to act shy or nervous.
Let me tell you a story.
Before I started teaching, I was terrified of public speaking. Even speaking in front of small groups made me feel very scared and stressed.
The first class I ever taught was to a group of maybe eight Russian teenagers. It was the most scared I’ve ever felt. That’s not an exaggeration; I really have never felt so much fear as during that class.
I was shaking, sweating, and trying to teach something about modal verbs. I don’t think anyone learned anything. Afterwards, I thought to myself, “How am I going to do this?”
My trainer gave me the same advice I’m giving you. Act confident, even if you don’t feel it.
So I did.
The first few months, I still felt nervous when I taught, but I hid it. After a year or so, I didn’t feel so nervous. After a few years, I could stand in front of 100+ people and expect them to give me their attention, even if I still felt a little bit nervous inside.
If it worked for me, it can work for you. Sure, it takes time, and it’s not easy, but it’s possible.
So act confident. Hold your head up. Make eye contact, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable. Speak in a clear voice. Control the speed and rhythm of your speech.
These things aren’t so difficult. You’ll feel good because you’re taking control of your feelings, instead of letting them control you.
OK, you think. Easy for you, Oli. You’re talking about speaking your own language. We’re talking about speaking a foreign language.
So let’s talk about that!
4. Worrying About Your Language Makes Your Language Worse
Here’s a question: when a foreigner speaks your language, how do you decide if they’re speaking well or badly? What do you notice?
In most cases, people notice your fluency and your pronunciation. Especially in spoken language, we don’t generally pay much attention to mistakes with grammar or vocabulary IF the speaker is fluent and easy to understand.
What does this mean? It means that if you’re embarrassed about your grammar or your vocabulary when you speak English, you shouldn’t be.
First of all, worrying doesn’t solve anything anyway. If your grammar’s bad, worrying about it isn’t going to make it better. It’ll just make you feel bad—that’s the only result.
Secondly, other people will really not notice your grammar or vocabulary so much. Most people who aren’t English teachers don’t really care about these things. People who are English teachers care about them at work, and then stop caring after work.
Trust me: if you talk to me after I’ve been teaching all day, I really don’t want to think about your grammar or vocabulary problems. Most teachers I know feel the same way.
Most importantly, worrying about your grammar and vocabulary will affect your fluency. You’ll hesitate and speak more slowly if you’re always thinking about which verb form to use, or which word is ‘exactly right.’
So, if you’re just having a chat with someone, don’t think too much about your language. It doesn’t help anything; it doesn’t make your English better, and it doesn’t make it easier to communicate.
Just talk, and try to express yourself. You’ll sound more fluent and confident. Hopefully, that will make you feel more confident, too.
Let’s put the things we’ve talked about together.
5. Break the Habit Sooner, not Later
You can’t help feeling shy or nervous, but you can change how you respond to those feelings. Very often, our responses to these feelings are habits. They’re habits which are difficult to break, but not impossible.
Every time you want to talk to someone in English, but you choose not to, you’re feeding these bad habits. Every time you criticise yourself by thinking, “I don’t have anything interesting to say,” or “My grammar sucks,” you’re feeding these bad habits.
So go and talk to someone, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable. Do it ten times. The tenth time, I can promise you that you’ll feel a little better about it. The hundredth time you do it, you’ll feel a lot better about it.
Don’t have anything interesting to say? Then say something boring, or just end the conversation. No one expects you to be interesting all the time. No one’s interesting all the time. Most conversations are quite simple.
Worried about your grammar or your vocabulary? Remember that no one else really cares that much. Just express your ideas and try to communicate. When you’re talking, that’s much more important.
Most importantly, stop feeding bad habits. Talk to people, even if you feel uncomfortable. You’ll learn quite quickly that feeling nervous or shy will only stop you speaking English if you let it.
Hopefully this Oxford Online English lesson has helped you get an idea of how you can feel less shy speaking English!