Not Feeling Confident About Your English? I Think I Know Why

When I was a student of English, I often experienced feelings of frustration and anxiety when speaking the language. After years and years of mistakes and practice, I’ve realised why I frequently felt that way and I suspect you’re not confident because of the same reasons. 

Let me tell you a short anecdote about myself. I still feel embarrassed about it but what I’m about to tell you might have happened to you too.

The day I felt most anxious speaking English

London, 2011. I’m in an English class chatting with my classmates while we’re waiting for John, our English teacher. I’m in a group with Abdul, an engineer from Iraq, and Silvia, a Romanian girl who’s into cooking and very much interested in Italy, my native country. 
 

I’m speaking to them with confidence but I know I’m making mistakes. I’m making lots of mistakes. I hear them the moment they come out of my mouth. The third person -s is optional for me, I use prepositions randomly and my tenses are all over the place.

Vocabulary is another issue. I keep forgetting words and don’t know how to say many things the way I want. When I don’t remember or don’t know the exact English word, my best strategy is to use the equivalent Italian term and hope my classmates will understand what I’m talking about. Sadly for all of us, this hardly ever works.

But I don’t really care. After all, they’re making mistakes too because their English is more or less like mine so we’re all in the same boat here. But there’s one thing that unites us more than anything else: English is not our first language and we’re here to improve it. 

John comes in. He asked us to prepare a mini-presentation about our countries for homework.

“Who would like to start? Any volunteers?”, he asks us.

No one replies.

It turns out I’m the only one who prepared something, so I guess there’s no escape. I’ll have to present in front of the class, but I’ve never done anything like this before so I start feeling a bit uneasy.

I go to the front and for the first time I see the class from a very different perspective. There are about sixteen people staring at me waiting to hear what I have to say about Italy. My talk is stilted and I feel visibly nervous. I keep self-correcting and my English is not nearly as fluent and natural as before, when I was talking with Abdul and Silvia.

I’m under a lot of pressure and my heart is pounding. The last thing I want to do is make a grammar mistake. I now care about every single preposition I’m using and I’m not even sure if my classmates understand what I’m saying. If I were one of them, I’d feel very sorry and embarrassed for this poor Italian guy.

It’s a complete disaster.

“Good job, Fabio”, says John when I finish.

Fuck off, John!, I think. 

Why did I feel like that?

This happened many years ago and it was the worst English speaking performance of my life. But I felt nervous on other occasions too. It often happened when:

  • I spoke to people I didn’t know very well.
  • I spoke to people who I somehow perceived to be superior to me, like my boss.
  • I spoke to people whose English was better than mine.
  • I spoke in front of a group of people.
  • I spoke to an English teacher.

Why did I feel so tense? Here are the reasons:

  • I was afraid of making mistakes.
  • I didn’t want to look like an idiot who wasn’t able to communicate.
  • I felt my reputation as a person was on the line.
  • I wanted to be perfect but couldn’t.
  • I expected too much from myself.
  • I knew my English was not good enough.
  • I wanted to be in control of something I couldn’t control.

Things are different today but I wish someone had told me how to be more confident when I was a student.

What no one ever told me

Here are 3 things I wish I’d known:

1. Forget about perfect English, people don’t care about it!

Unless you’re an advanced user of the language, you’ll never be 100% accurate all the time. You’ll make mistakes when speaking spontaneously. The sooner you accept this inconvenient truth, the better. Getting comfortable with the idea that your English cannot always be perfect might be liberating. 

It could also be liberating to know that unless you’re taking an exam or having a job interview, people don’t really care about how you express yourself in English. They care about what you have to say. In London, Australia and New Zealand, I never got corrected by people outside an English class. Never! 

People pay attention to your grammar only if you make big mistakes, which are those mistakes that make your message unclear or hard to understand. For example, someone wouldn’t understand you if you said, “Yesterday I will go to work for 2012 year ”. 

Wait a minute, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t work at producing more accurate language. You need to develop an English system in your brain and this takes time and practice. Loooots of time and practice.

Think about how you learned your first language. Did you use perfect grammar when you were a kid? Did you have a wide vocabulary back then? You didn’t, so why should you expect perfection when you’re using a language that you’re in the process of acquiring?

Ask yourself, how long you’ve been using (not just studying!) English consistently. How many years? That’s your English age. 

At the time of writing this blog, I am a 12-year-old speaker of English. How English-old are you? If you’re 1, like I was when I gave that terrible presentation, don’t expect to talk like a 20-year-old speaker. Do that and all you’ll get is frustration. 

So be patient. Be realistic.

2. You’re a legend, mate!

You are communicating in a language that isn’t your own, so be proud of yourself. A lot of people don’t bother about learning a second language. Actually, a lot of people don’t bother about learning anything at all!

You’re not one of those. 

You’re taking the time and making the effort to acquire new language skills and develop as a person. You’re ambitious. You want to improve. You’re pushing yourself to your limits. This is admirable, so don’t be too hard on yourself. 

Communicating well in English is what will allow you to understand the world at a deeper level because you’ll be able to have conversations with people coming from different cultural backgrounds. Speaking only your first language limits you, but you know no limits. Speaking English will broaden your horizons. This is exactly what happened to me and what will happen to you too.

You’re a bloody legend, mate!

3. You don’t need to prove anything to anyone

There will always be someone whose English is better than yours and someone whose English is worse than yours. Are you trying to impress anyone with your English? During my presentation, I was. I was standing there trying to show my classmates that my English was good. I wanted them to believe that I could speak English well.  I wanted them to like me because of my English, but I was failing miserably.

And I must admit, this sometimes happened with my English teacher colleagues too soon after I became an English teacher. I wanted to prove to them that I was an expert speaker of English. But if you feel that you must prove something to someone, then it means you’re insecure about the very thing you want to prove. 

Now I don’t need to prove anything to anyone, because I know I can speak excellent English.

And I know you can too.

I hope this post was useful. Let me know what you think about it by sending your comments below. 

Fabio Cerpelloni is an easy-going English teacher who helps adult learners speak better English through personal storytelling classes and book discussions. You can join his private email list by clicking on his glass of beer in the photo.

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