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Have you ever gotten clammy, nervous, or felt your heart race when you were in your Spanish or French class? Most of us have been there. This feeling is called xenoglossophobia (zen-o-glos-o-phobia), this is a situation specific anxiety whenever someone has to communicate in a language different from their native one. Like regular anxiety that can be triggered by broader situations, xenoglossophobia can be managed if treated properly using different techniques to combat it. However, before we look into the solutions, we must look at the common triggers.
One of the first triggers is the fear of a negative evaluation; the fear of not being understood or heard. Let’s be honest, if you are a language learner there is a good chance that someone has laughed at you for mispronouncing a word or having an accent. This can intimidate us since we are already putting ourselves in a vulnerable position by speaking a language that we are not familiar with. We want to feel validated by our peers which is why the sting hurts even more when you are going into this knowing that you are not the fluency that you may want to be at, risking your ideas and perceptions being lost in translation. This leads into the second trigger which is the feeling of having our identity attacked. Through identity protective cognition, when our identity that we have built and internalized through our own experiences is being attacked from external forces, our fight, flight, or freeze response is activated. Flight or freeze is often the choice of many people when encountering a situation involving a foreign language. The beginning stages of a new language can prohibit a person’s control of what they can say. With the additional anxiety when speaking another language it can cause problems with one’s ability to cognitively process the language thus creating problems with your language progress. So with this said, how are ways that people can move past this to actually improve their language abilities.
The first is to surround yourself with people who are native speakers in your target language who are open to mistakes. The best way to learn is to be in an environment where you can prosper, being in a tense place where you are being heavily judged will not help you. Only take a language course that counts towards your GPA if you can handle the anxiety of another language impacting your grade (there are literature classes that can help fulfill your language requirement at university but, always double check). The second thing is to take every mistake as a stepping stone towards where you want to be in your target language. Like any other skill you will learn from the mistakes that you make, you will have moments where you will have minor errors and then you will have moments that you said the absolute wrong thing and the person is staring at you wondering why you asked to hold a sausage. The best way to handle everything is to laugh it off, laugh at yourself, a good sense of humor goes a long way. The third rule is to not set the bar too high for yourself to the point that you feel as though you are wasting your time. Do not expect to have deep meaningful conversations about your place in the universe after a few days or even weeks of studying a new language. Start small, memorizing the most used words in the language, talk to yourself, write down your thoughts in a journal, listen to the music, etc. Everything will fall into place once you master the simplicity of doing small everyday things, you will be more prepared for the challenges that you may face when it comes to complex subjects from philosophy to business. The final note is to study a language you genuinely want to know as a whole, from the food to the culture, be committed to the language like you would a relationship.
Language is the foundation in which we communicate with one another, it is a gateway to new ideas, relationships, and possibilities. It is as though you have unlocked another part of yourself by learning a new language. It is highly intimidating to have a limited vocabulary to express yourself but, like anything else in life you are taking a risk; the risk of being lost in translation in order to better your communication skills. You will listen and comprehend more not only your target language but your native language as well. I had my moments when I gave up and quit a language but I always found myself drawn back to it whether it be by music, tv shows, or the culture. It can be a lot but, be open to knowing that learning a new language is a never ending journey and there are a million words that can be used to express yourself; you just need to find the right ones.