From Flashcards to Freakouts: the Art of Learning Another Language and Not Going Crazy

Here’s the hardest part, hands down, of learning any language, ever. Harder than memorizing tenses. Harder than subjunctive conjugations. Harder even still than negative mandates in the pluperfect oh my gosh my head hurts. Are you ready?

The hardest part of learning a language, no matter which language it is, is getting over the embarrassment of actually speaking it.

If you just rolled your eyes, you’re either lying to yourself or you’re one of those extremely rare people who doesn’t suffer from crippling embarrassment when forced to speak in another language. Or you’re European. Regardless, you’re an exception to the rule. Learning a language is all kinds of difficult, but the part that usually teeters out close to that ledge called “forget this, I’m going home” is the speaking bit. You know, the whole point of having learned this foreign tongue in the first place.

There are myriad ways you can learn a new language. You can pay lots of money to take big fancy classes. You can study at home using effective tools like or homemade flashcards, which may require more self-discipline but are definitely cheaper than the aforementioned classes. All those ideas are great, and they’re effective steps in starting to learn a new language.

The thing is, none of that will make much of a difference if you don’t get over your fear of having to speak the words you’ve memorized. There’s a really good chance you’re just afraid to sound stupid or make a mistake. So here are a few tips for overcoming that seemingly insurmountable obstacle:

Accept the fact that you are indeed going to sound stupid and make a mistake. Actually, scratch that. You’re not going to make a mistake. You’re going to make lots of mistakes. But that’s ok! Making mistakes is how we learn. Following that logic, the more mistakes the better! If you’re traveling around, you don’t have time to worry about mistakes. Focus on all the cool monuments and stuff all around you, and be cool.

Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Remember that time somebody was making an honest, admirable effort to converse with you in your native language and you couldn’t stop laughing at them? Oh wait, you have a soul and that never happened? Yeah, it takes a real punk to judge somebody for bettering themselves by speaking a second (or third, or fourth – yeah, I’m looking at you, Europeans!) language. Most of the time, we admire these educated folks’ efforts and help them along should they need our assistance. Take note.

Remember that the point of leaning a language isn’t perfection. It’s communication. This is perhaps one of the simplest truths of learning a language, and yet it’s the often the hardest one to remember. We rarely study languages to become fluent and appear to be native speakers. I mean, that’s a fantastic goal, but it requires a level of dedication the average adult doesn’t have time for. More likely, you’re studying Spanish to be able to ask where the bathroom is, or where you can find some decent jamon con queso in this joint. If you’re able to get your point across, you’ve accomplished your primary goal. Crack open a sweet cerveza and relax.

4 Responses to From Flashcards to Freakouts: the Art of Learning Another Language and Not Going Crazy

  1. Cat of Sunshine and Siestas June 13, 2013 at 6:40 am #

    Agreeeeeed! The first day I met the man who is now my partner, he told me he could speak three other languages, besides Spanish, at a B1 level or better. Despite my good grades in Spanish growing up, my minor in the language at University and my ganas to impress him, we ended up only using English for the first three months of our relationship. I would fumble through tenses and try and adopt an Andalusia accent with everyone but him – it took me three whole months to work up the courage! Now, we very rarely speak in English.

  2. David February 25, 2016 at 4:49 pm #

    Totally true. The fear of speaking is huge, and is why polyglots say that their hardest language was always the first; they were still afraid to speak.

    I read a blogger once who suggested coming up with a ridiculous opening line (in Spanish, of course) to break the ice. I’ve tried it a few times. It actually works!

  3. Brian March 27, 2016 at 10:26 am #

    Yes I totally agree, I now live in France and have done now for 8 years and I am still sometimes embarrassed when I try and speak French, this despite several French associates telling me that my French is not too bad and that they can indeed understand me. Which, after all, is the point of the exercise.

    That said I am a lot better now than when I first arrived and being embarrassed would cripple virtually all attempts at French conversation. You really do have to get over that hurdle and one way of helping you is to do some preparation in advance i.e. if you are going shopping for DIY goods, groceries or anything else, find out what the French is for those items.

    Of course this doesn’t help when you find yourself in an unexpected conversation, but what does happen is that your vocabulary does increase and the more you converse the more you hear the actual words being spoken rather than white noise 🙂

    I can’t say I am a fluent French speaker now, even after 8 years, but I do find I can get by and even though I still sometimes get a little embarrassed, I do at least manage to try and push that embarrassment to the back of my mind.

  4. Sverre Henriksen June 1, 2016 at 6:24 am #

    Simple and to the point senor. The hardest part of learning language is finding someone who is as much dedicated as you. Without practice, the words fade away. And also check out Duolingo; which is pretty good e-learning tool.