Language learning anxiety is a mixed bag of emotions that you’d rather avoid altogether. Pair it with a perfectionist streak or a desire to succeed at everything, and you end up with a thought process that encourages you to hide under a rock and hope no one notices how terrible you are at learning Spanish or German or Japanese.
It’s called Imposter Syndrome and, quite frankly, it sucks.
You may have heard about it recently in regards to successful businesswomen or high-achievers, but it can pop up in all kinds of situations, even in your language goals.
Let’s face it. Learning a language is hard enough. You’ve got to persuade your mouth to make new sounds. You’ve got to get used to new writing systems. You have to think differently and learn actual grammar every now and then.
You already know those things take time and perseverance. So, what do you do when you make a serious effort, do all the work, and feel like a fraud?
You think: “I’m not really fluent. There are plenty of people who are much better than me. They know what they’re talking about. They have good advice.”
You’re lucky if you can make it through a conversation without anyone figuring out how often you avoid using a different verb tense.
Confessions of an Average Language Learner
When it comes to French, my speaking skills could use some serious improvement. I don’t have too much trouble with pronunciation. A bit of serious practice usually puts me in a good mood.
But I can’t produce sentences. My mind goes blank when I try to think of anything to say. I’d never be able to write this post in French.
Though, I could probably read it.
Does this mean I know exactly what to work on?
Does this also mean my knowledge of what to do next makes me proud of my current skills and eager to improve?
Not at all.
In fact, I feel like my current mixture of high-school knowledge and current self-study tactics makes me a fake. I’m not like all the other French learners. I don’t really know French. I’m just pretending.
Fake it ’til you make it?
No matter how long you’ve been learning a language, there’s going to be something you’re not sure about. There will always be more to learn.
At what point will you stop feeling like an imposter pretending to be bilingual or multilingual? After you get through a textbook? After a certain number of successful conversations? Once you pass every single test, write a book in your target language, and spend 10 years living in a country where it’s spoken?
The truth is that none of those things will make you feel more valid. Once you start working to change your thought patterns, you’ll be able to diminish that feeling of not belonging, no foreign language degree required.
Take a deep breath and…
Stop invalidating your progress.
Have you ever met anyone who told you they learned English by listening to American music?
I’ve met a few and, even though I may have been surprised at first, I never accused them of “not really knowing English.”
Still, when I learn new words after listening to a French song or memorize lyrics so I can sing along with the music, I sometimes tell myself I don’t really know French. I just know the song lyrics. It doesn’t count.
The next time you start to tell yourself something silly like: “I don’t know it well enough, so it doesn’t count” or “I could only understand two words in that sentence, so I’m not getting any better.”
Stop. Progress doesn’t have to be a giant step forward. Anything that helps you learn is legitimate practice.
Talk To People!
Don’t isolate yourself and think that comparing your current level with others or avoiding scary conversations and opinions will help you. It will only make you feel more left out.
Find supportive friends, especially ones who are also learning a language. Talk about your achievements and your failures. You might be surprised to find out you have similar issues.
As an introvert, I have an especially hard time with this one. If it helps, try asking people what problems they struggle with. You can choose to talk about your own challenges once you see how many other people feel insecure or discouraged about their abilities.
Conquer tangible or measurable tasks. Then, share your insecurities.
Take a language test or start a project. Find a way to “prove” your skills.
It doesn’t have to be something serious. It just has to be concrete. For example, I started writing a short story in French. I know it will take a while, but I’m hoping it will help me feel more secure in producing my own thoughts in another language. Your goal might be writing in a journal or making a series of videos.
More importantly, after you’ve finished your project or passed that test, you need to share what you’ve learned and talk about things that make you feel like it’s still not enough.
Acknowledging these thoughts will help you overcome them. Plus, the feedback you get from others will let you know that you’re not alone in questioning your abilities. Don’t internalize any corrections or constructive criticism. Those things will help you improve. Ignore haters.
Counter your negative thoughts with positive ones.
Make a list of everything all the things you need to work on.
Then, make a list of all of the things you’re good at. Write down every thing you’ve learned, including “hello”.
Maybe your pronunciation is terrible, but you’re really good at understanding speech. You could have a hard time remembering new vocabulary, but it means you’re good at explaining things with only a few words.
Focusing only on the things you still need to learn will just make you feel like you don’t know anything useful. When you force yourself to remember the positives and think about all the things you have learned, you’ll be more likely to realize that your efforts mean something.
Fail, but don’t give up.
Accept the fact that you cannot be perfect and you’ll eventually make a mistake.
You might feel embarrassed about it or wonder if you’ll ever get it right. At first, you might be afraid that you’ll never be good enough. If you just double check everything so that you don’t make any more mistakes, no one will be able to point at you and call you a phony.
Ignore that impulse and don’t be afraid to show your mistakes. After you mess up a few times, you’ll realize that no one is actually going to point fingers at you. Your failures won’t determine your worth and you can stop imagining some ultimate doomsday where you’ll have to leave the world of language learning behind in shame.
Instead, people will encourage you to try again. The time and effort you put in is what makes you a language learner, not your ability.
So, keep messing up until you expect it. It might be difficult to do at first, but you’ll get used to it. No one is actually an all-knowing language learning guru. So, don’t force yourself to pretend to be one either.
Keep on learning and if you find it too hard to stop feeling like an imposter, don’t be afraid to talk to a professional. Imposter Syndrome is a real thing that can hold you back. It doesn’t just affect your language goals and it’s perfectly normal to need a little help.
Is there another strategy that has helped you overcome your language learning insecurities? Share it in the comments.
Share your own challenges, too. Let’s encourage each other!
Featured image Photo by Braydon Anderson on Unsplash