There’s something quite different on the blog today!
For the first time since I opened the blog, I have a guest writer. I really love writing posts for the blog, it’s probably one of my most favorite activities, so I never thought of asking someone to be my guest.
But then Gloria reached out to me with a proposal and the topic of her post was so interesting that I accepted it right away. Gloria Spagnoli, the author of this post, is a fellow Italian teacher who is doing a great job working with expat women, helping them to find the skills and the confidence to live in Italy independently. You can find her on Instagram and on her website too.
But it’s time to read what she has to say about overcoming blocks and insecurities when speaking Italian. Thanks, Gloria for doing this!
How was it when you first arrived in Italy and you tried to talk? You looked for a friendly face to ask for directions or know where the closest supermarket was. You saw the first kind-looking person and you went straight to them to try and say something. But the minute you tried to talk, something went wrong. You began to stutter, you forgot your words, and you had no clue of how to continue.
And you got mad at yourself because, in theory, you knew what to say, didn’t you? How could have this happened? You were so prepared! Hang on a second, let’s take a deep breath together, because I would like to reassure you for a second. You’re not the only one who went through this. Many people experience the same situation when they try to speak Italian but they’re not used to it (yet).
And, as much as you see it as a problem, it’s not a problem at all. And it’s not even as big as it feels. Once you look at it from a distance, you can see that there is actually a quick solution to that. And it’s exactly what I would like to show you in this article.
I’m going to give you a few tips to help you overcome your fears, insecurities, and blockages that you might have when speaking Italian for the first time. It’s something I needed when I first tried to speak English and Spanish, and it’s something that I had to learn on my own to help myself deal with my own insecurities.
This is why I’m sharing these tips with you, hoping that you won’t struggle as much as I did. Let’s start!
Why do blocks and insecurities occur?
We often think that we feel blocked because there is something wrong with us. Because we’re not like other people. We think that everyone is smarter than us and we, somehow, lack some sort of secret quality. But the truth is we only lack practice.
People often think that speaking is just for talented or advanced learners, that we need to add more and more words to our inner vocabulary if we want to do it. But the truth is that speaking is nothing more than a habit. The more we do it, the better we get at it. Later on, in this article, we will see how to start when we feel like we can’t even say a word. But for now, let’s just stay with this idea in mind: speaking is a habit and, like any other habits, it can be built with time, practice, and perseverance.
The second reason why we feel blocked is because our expectations don’t match reality. Maybe we think that knowing grammar means being able to speak, or that seeing a word just once is enough to remember it in the future. But it’s not how things work. It takes practice (again) to speak fluently (and we’re going to see how to do it, I promise), and it takes time and active reasoning to remember words.
Another reason why these blocks occur is because we feel overwhelmed by our own feelings and emotions. And when we feel so overwhelmed, we cannot even think straight. Let alone thinking or speaking in another language. We get lost in our thoughts, we disconnect from the present moment, and we don’t know how to respond when people talk to us. In the next section of this article, we’re also going to see what we can do when this occurs. For now, keep in mind that this emotional overwhelm doesn’t happen because of you. It’s a natural biological instinct, but luckily we can learn how to deal with it.
What can we do
Starting to speak
I’ve said this before and I’m going to repeat it now: speaking is a habit. It’s just like walking. We didn’t get up one day and started to walk. We tried to lift ourselves up, we fell down, we made some clumsy attempts, fell down again, lifted up again, tried and tried… and now, look at us! We walk and we don’t even think about it!
The same goes for speaking. We need to try, make mistakes, try again, go blank, then try again and again and again if we want to speak without thinking about it.
But how can we do it, if nothing comes out of our mouth?
Here are a few tips to start.
Write and act
Think of a conversation you might have with someone. Then, take a pen and a piece of paper and start to write down how this conversation would play out. Help yourself with your book and dictionary, if you want. After that, read your conversation out loud. Reading out loud (to yourself, to a pet, to a plant…) is a good way to start rolling your mouth and get used to saying Italian words. Do it at least twice a day every day. Rehearse the same conversation, and you will slowly start to see your first changes.
Choose your situations
Not every speaking situation is good for everybody. When you’re learning a language, speaking one-to-one is way much easier than speaking in a group. You need to keep your attention high, and focusing your attention on just one person is way less energy-consuming than spreading your attention over two or more people.
The same goes for people who are shy or introverted (I’m not suggesting that shyness and introversion are the same thing. Not even thinking about it. But, sometimes, social needs coincide). When you’re shy, you might find it easier to be in small groups. But if you’re already confident and you need social stimuli, of course you might prefer to be in a large group. There’s no right or wrong, there’s just what’s best for you.
So, here is my tip to get started: Draw a scale from 0 to 10. 0 equals to doing nothing and 10 is the most challenging speaking situation for you. Write down what could be a tiny little step that you could place on level 1. Then, think of which step could go on level 2. Then, level 3. And so on, until you reach level 10: the “boss fight”.
Now be honest with yourself and see where you are now on this scale. Which level are you at? Which situation or conversation can you manage without getting emotionally, sensory, and cognitively overloaded? Start from there and repeat that same type of conversation a few times, until you feel like you can do it without thinking about it. Once you get there, you can move to the next level until you reach level 10.
Deal with mistakes wisely
We don’t like to make mistakes. We forgive literally everyone’s mistakes but, when we make them, it almost feels like a tragedy. Still, mistakes are a crucial part of our learning process. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to get better. We wouldn’t be able to grow. So, what can we do to use them wisely? Here are a couple of tips:
- Talk to yourself kindly: what would you say to a child who made a grammar, pronunciation, spelling, or vocabulary mistake? Would you yell at them or would you reassure them that things like this happen? Think about what you would say to a child and then talk to yourself as if you were that child. Let’s stop this self-blame that doesn’t get anywhere.
- Use mistakes as a reference: what did you say that you should have said differently? Go back to your last mistake and focus on that. In your next conversation, bring your attention to that single mistake that you made before, and see how many times you’re tempted to make it again. Careful, this is not a “let’s see how silly I am” game. It’s a way to train your attention and bring it to what matters the most in that moment.
As I’ve said before, seeing a word once doesn’t mean that we will remember it in the future. If we want to remember something new, we need to be active in the way we think. And by being active I mean reasoning. Making our brain work. Here are a few tips to make sure you remember a new word that you’ve just heard.
Write it down. If you hear a word when you’re not home, take your smartphone out and note the new word there. You will need that note once you get home.
Think of a picture for that word. Create a picture in your mind. Make it vivid. Make that word come to life and include all of your senses in your mental image. Take some time to do this exercise. The picture needs to be yours and it needs to be alive.
Think about that word. Think of when and how you can use it. With which other words? In which types of sentences? In which contexts?
Write sentences with that word. Write a few sentences in the morning and a few sentences in the evening with your new word. Think of sentences that you can actually use in your day-to-day life. Sentences that are relevant to you. That belongs to your world or to the world of a dear and close person.
Write for a few days in a row. Keep thinking of sentences with that new word. You can use the old ones, if nothing new comes to your mind, or you can keep inventing new ones. But do this exercise for a few days. Help your brain remember more easily.
Dealing with stress
Here we are to the last and most desired part: dealing with stress, overwhelm, tensions, and negative emotions. Negative (or uncomfortable) emotions are inevitable. We cannot think positively and feel positive all the time. Stress is part of life. But we can surf it and we can learn how to deal with it. Here is what we can do to be more present when we speak with someone in another language.
Take a few deep breaths and connect to your body. Scan your body from head to toes and notice what you feel. When you open your eyes, draw your attention to 5 objects that you can see, 5 sounds that you can hear, and 5 things you can physically feel.
Label your thoughts and emotions
Before joining a conversation, we might often tell ourselves stories like “I’m going to be a disaster”, “I’m such a stupid”, “people think I’m stupid”, “nobody will understand me”… When you spot yourself saying things like this, say to yourself: I’m having the thought that… For example: I’m having the thought that I’m stupid, I’m having the thought that I’m going to be a disaster, I’m having the thought that nobody will understand me.
When you feel emotions rise up and overwhelm you, put a label on them too. Say to yourself: I’m feeling… This will help you move from an emotional state to a more rational state. For example, you might say things like: I’m feeling tense, I’m feeling nervous, I’m feeling anxious, my palms are sweating, my heartbeat has accelerated…
Focus on the other person
We often forget about it, especially if we’re speaking another language, but speaking is not something we do to show off our abilities. It’s something that we do for the other person. And this is true for any language, including your first one.
So, instead of looking for the best big word so that you can show people how good you are, stop for a second and ask yourself: how can I make myself understood by this person in the simplest possible way? Big words and long sentences will arrive with time, but first, we need to start from the basics. Focus on the person in front of you, make yourself understood, and don’t be afraid to use simple sentences.
These were my tips for you to help you unlock your confidence when speaking Italian. Being in a foreign country and speaking a foreign language has its ups and downs, and it’s definitely a challenge that not many people are willing to take. So, be proud of yourself, and don’t forget to use these tools when you need them. You’ve got this!