How to Gain Confidence in Speaking a Foreign Language

Because writing is distracting and there are other memories from this year worth preserving.

Let’s say, just for the sake of example, French.

  1. Go to a foreign country where the language is spoken. Get on a train going the wrong way from the airport, preferably in the middle of the night. Get off the train at a godforsaken suburban station that may or may not have a train heading in the right direction that late at night, but definitely no taxis. Try asking the drunken guy dropping off his even more inebriated brother whether you’re on the right platform. Try to interpret his slurred reply for your parents and ask him whether the last train for the night has already come, only to have him ask if you speak any other languages. Tell him that no, switching to Russian won’t help, unless you want also to switch to discussing whether you like milk and bread. Finally get on the train. For the next several days, read newspapers and books in French, but find that, in contrast to every other time you’ve been in the country, everyone seems intent on replying to you in English. Even the young guy at the post office you know doesn’t speak English as well as you speak French. Your stuttering probably isn’t helping your case. Surrender and slink back into reading what Le Figaro has to say about the whole DSK scandal. Head to another country where the locals speak a language you’ve only been learning for a year – let’s say, German – and immediately manage to strike up breezy conversations with cab drivers, hotel receptionists, waiters, etc. with no confidence problems whatsoever and while availing yourself of grammatical constructions you didn’t even know you knew that well.
  2. Despair of your ability to ever speak French again. Recognize that, logically, it’s probably mainly a confidence problem, but know that confidence is essential in being able to speak a foreign language and despair further.
  3. Keep reading from the stash of inexpensive paperbacks you picked up from the incredible multi-site bookstore in the legendary university quarter. Let’s say, Gibert Jeune. (God, you love French book prices.) Maybe occasionally watch a news clip or listen to a little Carla Bruni(-Sarkozy) song. Speak French to yourself in the shower and wonder what’s wrong with your ability to do this in real life. Console yourself that at least you have this ability and should be able to do necessary academic work in French. And that you can read Hugo in the original. (God, you love Hugo.)
  4. Go off to study abroad, but in England, where they speak something like the same language as at home. Gather your courage and sign up for the French Society at the Fresher’s Fair. (Signing up for the Scandinavian Society mailing list by accident in the process…You put your name down on the table with what looked like a tricolore and didn’t realize anything was amiss until the guy manning it invited you to come to the brunch tomorrow to enjoy some of the delicious moosemeat they had procured.) Go to the introductory cocktail party and mostly speak with one girl, another fresher…and in English because both of you are a little too nervous to speak French. Hold your own okay when speaking to a Canadian guy, but still sincerely doubt your ability to speak in a more natural situation, or to an actual Frenchie.
  5. Sign up for an intensive history course option for the second (middle) term. Put down three options, one of which involves doing a lot of reading in French. Get that one. Look at the texts and reassure yourself that you can read all of these.
  6. Look at your actual schedule and realize that while you can read all of the texts individually, the speed necessary to read one to three of them a week might be a little more challenging. You’re going to have to work on this over break.
  8. Google tips for how to improve your reading speed in a foreign language. Don’t find much. Decide to try a couple of suggestions any way. Put on an audiobook of Diderot’s La Religieuse while doing a puzzle. Make it through three hours before you get bored and realize you were reading faster than this before, anyway, and you might as well read it on your new Kindle.
  9. Install a French (French-to-French, monolingual) dictionary on your Kindle. Discover how handy it is.
  10. Get desperate and think outside the box. Look at suggestions for how to get kids to read faster in English and see that they should read below their level, because reading faster makes for reading more fluently, which makes for reading faster….Download some free children’s classics and read them at a quick clip. (And recognize why people talk about Anglophone children’s literature being superior.)
  11. Download classic plays in bulk. Moliere and Corneille and Racine, oh my! Read them and realize that you can read them at a comfortable clip. Read them on planes, which means you’re really reading them for fun and distraction without too much effort. Be happy about this, but expect it to do absolutely nothing for your speaking abilities.
  12. Go back to school and survive the semester of the further subject. Read lots of primary sources in French. Skim lots more secondary sources in French than you would have thought. Get really quite fast at skimming those secondary sources. Still opt for the English ones when you can. Sometimes look at translations for the primary sources, but do a presentation on one of the books that doesn’t have a readily available translation. Realize that other people don’t find Stendhal funny and there’s probably something slightly wrong with your head. Read lots of quotations aloud in class and tutorial. Keep reading.
  13. When your friend’s mom is visiting and takes you all out to dinner, have an allergic reaction to mushrooms, take Benadryl, have an allergic reaction Benadryl, and then correct another friend’s French counting through your near-paralytic haze when everyone probably thinks you’re high as a kite and just not there. Soixante not sixante.
  14. Go home for a break and don’t touch any French-language anything. Chat with your neighbor in German. Glance at a few Spanish-language websites. Contemplate taking up Italian – it was so beautiful in Rome a few months ago….But nothing French, not even finally finishing watching Z.
  15. Join your friends in Paris for your friend’s twenty-first birthday celebration the week before school starts back up. Arrive early in the morning at the hotel, where everyone else is already checked in, and speak with the people at the reception desk and breakfast in English. Head out with friends and friend’s mom and speak with the taxi drivers and museum cashiers in English. Give a history of World War II, as summarizeable on two paper napkins, in forty-five minutes in the museum café. In English.
  16. Go to dinner at a restaurant that night while half asleep from jet lag since it is, after all, only twelve or so hours after you got off a flight from California. Make sure that it’s the type of restaurant where the menus are all in French and the waiters only speak French. Make sure your group of eight includes a vegetarian, a vegan, and some very complicated food allergies. Make sure that you’re the only one with more than the equivalent of a year or two of rusty middle/high school French. Get put on the spot for language work before you have time to take off your coat, much less think about whether you can speak or not. Blearily translate the menu. Even more blearily negotiate your friend’s mom’s wine order, pretty much as soon as you sit down. Explain what a vegan is, what an American vegetarian (not pescaterian) is, and all the things you and the soon-to-be birthday girl are allergic to. Relay everyone’s questions to the waiter and the answers back. Do all of this before you realize that you’ve done it all, and in French. Don’t really think about how easily you’re speaking until the guy sitting next to you, your friend’s sister’s boyfriend, informs you that you have a really good accent and asks for pronunciation help with his phrasebook.
  17. Continue to play interpreter and sight translator for the next six days. Speak well enough that the tour guide your group has for a few days encourages you help navigate meal orders even when he’s around, at least for yourself.  Manage plenty of situations where you’re the only one who speaks both English and French. Get replied to in French, even in situations where the other person speaks some English. Talk a friend into the Orangerie and Orsay for free, as your UK student visas should allow. Basically just speak the language.
  18. Realize that yes, you can.