Do you fear speaking in English because you worry your friends will make fun of you?

Do you fear speaking in English because you worry about what others would say on your mistakes?

Do you fear speaking in English in presence of others because yours is not as good as theirs?

If yes, read on. In this post, I’ll try to deal with this topic at a fundamental level.

1. How to overcome hesitation?

There are two fears people commonly have when speaking English. First:

‘What will others think when I make mistakes’

You can’t get fluent in a language without making mistakes. Period.

Here are experiences of few people:

Matthew Youlden: he speaks around 20 languages

In his TEDx talk on the topic how to learn any language easily, Matthew Youlden, who speaks around twenty languages, mentions making mistakes as one of his three key rules to learn any language fast. To quote him:

Because we learn by making mistakes. It’s actually the only way we can get things right. As children, we’re even expected to make them. But as adults, we are apprehensive because they make us feel vulnerable.

Sid Efromovich: he speaks 7 languages

Sid Efromovich, another master language learner who speaks seven languages, says making mistakes is one of the five principles of language learning he followed:

…the golden rule of language learning, the most important thing, is to get things wrong, to make mistakes.

He says – and that’s commonsense – that when we’re learning a new language we’re expanding our database of sounds and other language-related stuff and therefore are bound to make mistakes:

That [making a mistake] is the trigger that you need to look for. Because that is the signal that tells you that you’re going beyond your database and that you’re allowing yourself to explore the realm of the new language.

Marianna Pascal: she has helped professionals speak better for 20+ years

Marianna Pascal has helped professionals in Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries to speak better English for over twenty years. She says people who don’t feel embarrassed on making mistakes, don’t feel judged by others, don’t feel shy are the ones who communicate the best in English.

Scott and Vat: they learnt 4 languages from scratch

Scott and Vat were scratchy and full of mistakes in the beginning when learning four new languages, but because they kept trying, they got better. They, in fact, call making mistakes ‘very good’. Listen what they’ve to say on making mistakes (duration: 52 seconds):

(Learning through mistakes holds true for organizations as well. Google, for example, has seen so many of its products bite the dust and so many acquisitions gone kaput. But because they’ve tried so many things, they also have several smash-hit products and acquisitions, lifting them to where they are.)

So by all means make mistakes, but also be keen to correct them and improve. Let people think what they think. Remember, without opening mouth, you’ll never become fluent.

‘Friends and acquaintances will make fun of me’

You can’t wish away people who make fun of you when you speak in English. You’ve to ignore them, keeping in mind your larger purpose (next point in this post). If you don’t speak because of them, you’ll – along with them – eventually rue the missed practice (see the case study at the end of the post). So ignore them and focus on what you ought to be doing.

Moving on to the next point, you’ll find it easier to overcome hesitation if you’re motivated to learn the language.

2. How do you motivate yourself?

Fluency in English has a strong correlation with professional success.

To give an example from India, here are few worrying statistics from National Spoken English Skills Report by Aspiring Minds (sample of more than 30,000 students from 500+ colleges in India):Fluency data

Only 7.1 percent fall in ‘good’ or above category, with only 1.3 percent being in ‘very good’.

And more food for thought:Aspiring Minds - fluency stats

Nandan Nilekani, co-founder and former CEO of Infosys (USD 10 Billion + revenue), in his keynote at IIT Madras convocation ceremony left two key messages with the graduating students: don’t stop learning and develop soft skills. He was addressing students at IIT, but he didn’t talk about technology or engineering. He spoke of fundamentals – if you’re good at these, you can very well master other things.

There are plethora of studies and anecdotal evidence that unequivocally point to role of verbal fluency in professional success. Graduates even from the best undergrad and grad institutions in the world have sub-par career results for want of strong communication skills.

If you’re fluent in English, you’ll pull away from many other job-seekers and colleagues, and open opportunities for yourself in fields where, otherwise, you may be an outcast.

Strong communication skills will also help you build a better and wider social network.

Getting better at something that plays such an important role in your professional and social life should be a strong motivator for you. Remind yourself of the benefits you’ll accrue or many opportunities you’ll miss if you can’t communicate well in English. And, very important, unlike math, science, history, literature, and others, English is not a subject. It’s a skill that will last your lifetime – all the more reason to be good at it.

This brings us to the last point, which is also my favorite. I’ve seen people not trying hard enough because they mistakenly believe that they simply don’t have the talent to speak fluently like others do.

3. Everyone has the potential to speak fluent English

After years of futile effort, many think that they’re just not made to be a fluent speaker. They think that only intelligent, talented persons can reach the exalted levels. Or maybe those who’re blessed with the right genes.

And because they reconcile to this fallacy, they don’t even make concerted effort to improve. (Why would they if they believe that efforts aren’t going to bring in results?)

However, this belief that only few blessed can make it is far from reality.

To unravel this, let’s first briefly understand how human beings – and even animals – learn a new skill.

3A. How we acquire skills?

Human brain has around a billion neurons, and each is connected to around 1,000 other neurons, totaling around one trillion neural connections (or pathways). Our experiences in the physical world continuously arrange and rearrange these neural connections. (Widely believed to be first propounded by Eric Kandel, who shared Nobel Prize for this research in 2000.)

Watch this YouTube video to understand how this rearrangement happens (duration: 2:03 minutes):

For example, if you start playing tennis, some of the neurons in your brain will rearrange to form new neural connections to encode ‘tennis skill’ you’re picking. To quote John Medina, a leading authority on brain study and founding director of two brain research institutes, from his book Brain Rules:

As you practice more and more and expand your repertoire of shots, your neural connections change accordingly.

When you want to hit a tennis forehand, electric signals flow through the neural connections pertaining to hitting forehand, and in a split second your hand gets directed to move a certain way to complete the shot. As you improve your forehand, the concerning neural connections start getting insulated with a substance called myelin, which prevents the electric signal from leaking. (Imagine, plastic insulation on electric wires preventing current from leaking.) The thicker the myelin grows, the more proficient the forehand myelin insulates neural connections

(In the image above, a neuron insulated with myelin is shown. The four cross-sectional images of the neuron depict progressive buildup of myelin.)

Can you, a tennis newbie, pick a 125 miles per hour tennis serve? Very unlikely. But a professional tennis player would on most occasions. Why?

The professional, over years, has built relevant neural connections and insulated them with enough myelin to react to such a fast serve. You or I can’t because we haven’t developed those neural connections and insulated them with myelin.

To give another example, you, as a toddler, once struggled to even stand up. And then in a matter of few months you could walk, then trot, and then gallop. This transformation from crawl to gallop is the result of a similar building of neural connections, this time a different set of connections (remember, there are nearly trillion connections).

That’s why Michael Jordan, ESPN’s greatest athlete of the 20th century and unarguably the greatest basketball player of all time, failed miserably when he decided to quit the game and played baseball in 1994. In the solitary full season he played, he posted a 0.202 batting average and committed 11 errors in the outfield, the league’s worst. His brain was wired differently…wired for basketball.

I hope these examples have unraveled how we pick skills.

At the most fundamental level, we – even animals – pick skills through building appropriate neural connections and then insulating them.

Now, let’s come back to English.

3B. English language too is a skill, which you acquire the same way

Well, you would’ve guessed what I’m going to say now. I’ll speak out through the work of Dr. Paul Sulzberger, a researcher at Victoria University, New Zealand. In his 2009 findings on language learning, he said:

When we are trying to learn new foreign words we are faced with sounds for which we may have absolutely no neural representation. A student trying to learn a foreign language may have few pre-existing neural structures to build on in order to remember the words.

It’s all about building relevant neural pathways and insulating them with myelin. There is no starting difference between yours and a fluent speaker’s neurons. You’ve to put in that work, make those improvements to build similar neural connections and myelin insulation. They won’t build on their own. (Many, despite being in an English-speaking environment for hours daily, struggle to speak effortless English mainly because they confine themselves to their friends who speak in native language. In short, they don’t build the requisite neural pathways.)

Remember, lack of intelligence or inborn ability is not the reason for poor spoken English. Anyone can become a good speaker. (I encourage you to read this post. It’ll provide you insights on how the best in any field were once average like you or I. They weren’t blessed with any inborn talent or superior genes. It was their continued effort and constant improvements (deliberate practice, in other words) that made them experts. In the post, you’ll see that seemingly intractable problems such as shyness and learning art too can be overcome through appropriate practice.)

After reading this subsection, you may be thinking, “Duh, I know this. The more you practice, the better you get.”

No, this subsection is not about that. It’s to tell you that you’re no way disadvantaged in terms of fundamental attributes required to learn English. So, you shouldn’t slacken your efforts for the reason that you’re starting with your hands tied, from a disadvantageous position.

Case Study

I met a recent graduate at the institute where I developed the curriculum for Communication Skills course. He was one of the few persons who couldn’t land a job through on-campus placement, main reason being poor communication skills.

I asked him what he planned to do in the coming weeks and months. He replied that he would apply to different companies on his own and if he still doesn’t get a job, he would consider writing entrance exams for MBA programs and government jobs.

What he didn’t realize was that in all the options he was considering he’ll have to face interview. There too his communication skills will be exposed. Imagine, working hard for months for the entrance exams only to face disappointment because of a 30-minute interview. His communication skills dramatically reduced good options from his plate even though he was strong in academics. And there was no short-term solution to his problem. That’s what hit me.

He finished by saying that his biggest regret during his four years at the college was that he didn’t try speaking in English despite wanting to because of peer pressure. His peers, his friends are gone now and he has to fend for himself.

Well, this is an extreme, but common, case. However, there are many times more people who settle for a lesser job (in terms of prestige, nature of work, and remuneration) for the same reason – poor communication skills.

Don’t let hesitation to speak do the same to you.