7 Parlor Tricks You Can Use Today to Be More Confident Speaking a Foreign Language

how to be confident speaking another language

Hello all! Today we have a guest post from Cher Hale, who recently started her superb blog “The Iceberg Project.” Cher has lived in Italy in the past and is passionate about the Italian language. Today, she’ll give you a couple of great tricks to increase your confidence in speaking a foreign language. Check out my recent post on the importance of confidence if you haven’t done so already, it’s related to this one Enjoy!

Have you seen the movie What Happens in Vegas?

There’s this scene where Ashton Kutcher and Cameron Diaz are in a nightclub, and she shows him her parlor trick of being able to open a champagne bottle with a knife.

As soon as she does this, you can see her confidence skyrocket with her body language because she sees he’s impressed with her.

How do knives, champagne, and Vegas apply to learning a foreign language?

When you’re learning a foreign language and you hear advice from Sam about being confident and Benny about speaking from day 1, you gotta overcome a lot of the confidence issues that may be holding you back.

Easier said than done, right?

But if you want to be conversational in the language, you really have to get out there and use what you’re learning so it sticks and you tangibly feel the progress you’re making.

Otherwise it’s easy to sway from your commitment and move on to other easier, less intimidating goals.

I’m not a proponent of cheap tricks. I firmly believe in getting in there and doing the work, but I also believe humans need little (or massive) doses of confidence where we can get them.

We need to be reminded we’re awesome, capable, and ready to start speaking.

What are these doses, you might ask?

Here are 7 parlor tricks you can use when speaking a foreign language to bolster your confidence to the next level.

Hidden Card Trick Magic Macro 10-19-09 4
[photo credit: Steven Depolo]

1) Have an arsenal of phrases guaranteed to spark small talk.

When you meet someone for the first time, it can be hard to make decent conversation in your native language, let alone your second or third one.
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[photo credit: David Boyle]

In order to avoid awkward pauses, too many head scratches, and lots of wandering eyes, have an arsenal of 10-15 conversation starters in your target language memorized and ready. Practice them with friends who speak your native language to get them locked into conversational memory and practice them out loud to yourself if it helps.

Since these tend to be basic phrases, you can find them on any About.com resource page, or you can hop onto Italki and do a written/video language exchange asking how to say the phrases. Another option would be to go onto Fiverr.com and search your target language. There are usually people that you can pay $5 to in exchange for a video with the phrases you want to learn.

A couple examples of small talk would be the basics of “Where are you from?”, “How old are you?”, or “Do you have any brothers and sisters?”

Choose one you’re really comfortable starting with, and expand on it.

For example:

-Do you have any brothers and sisters?

-How old are they?

-What are their names?

-Did you like living with siblings/as an only child?

-What was your favorite part of having siblings/being an only child?

-Where are your siblings/parents living now?

-Do you miss them?

There is opportunity for expansion of conversation within each topic.

From there, you could weave in whether they’re dating anyone or not, or you could totally switch it up and ask what they usually do on the weekends during their free time.

As long as you stay genuinely interested, you can find pockets of space for meaningful conversations.

2) Have a burgeoning supply of phrases ready-made to charm.

There is a moment in every new relationship where you have the opportunity to charm someone and put a smile on their face. And who doesn’t like to smile? Charming phrases could be anything from local slang in the language and cute colloquial phrases to genuine compliments. Have 10-15 at the ready (yes, that was a Harry Potter reference).

If you know these, your confidence will be bolstered by their approving faces alone.

A couple examples would be ‘Pleasure to meet you’ or complimenting them on an aspect of their country you really enjoy, like a favorite traditional dish.

In Italy, saying ‘Piacere’ when first meeting someone really sets a friendly tone. When you tell them “Mi piace l’italia” or “I like Italy”, many of them will light up. If you go one step deeper and say “Mi piacciono le casarecce” or “I like the caserecce pasta”, you’ll show you appreciate their food and are interested enough to have tried dishes that are beyond the normal spaghetti and meatballs stereotype.

Particular to Italian is a gesture you can make where you place your index finger in the middle of your cheek and turn it back and forth like a key while saying “Buono”, depending on what type of food you’re referring to.

Research gestures and behaviors typical to the culture and see if you can incorporate them into conversation. You might look silly, but they’ll most likely be entertained and charmed by your eagerness.

Then, you can follow up their response with some small talk by saying something like “Qual è il tuo piatto preferito?” or “What is your favorite dish?”

I loved this gesture so much that I would do it whenever I had a chance, and I would also set up conversations to lean toward food so I could watch Italians, particularly Italian men, do it.

There are few things in life more adorable than witnessing that gesture done by an Italian man.

3) Set up the scene for awesomeness.

Making mistakes and being embarrassed is much easier with a glass of prosecco in hand. Not saying you should always be socially lubricated, but being surrounded by an environment you enjoy, like karaoke or a really delicious Italian dinner, helps the situation.

prosecco with cherries for dessert
[photo credit: Dana Robinson]

For obvious reasons, I was always more inclined to practice Italian with friends after a couple of glasses of white wine. I would even be so bold as to command them to stop speaking English. While I didn’t always have my notebook on hand to record what I had learned, the practice of engaging in conversation upped my confidence when I was sober.

Plus, I always learned the most interesting phrases over a shot or two with locals – phrases that you would never learn in a classroom.

4) The reminder that this language makes you cooler.

Not that you care or anything, but knowing this language makes you cooler. Remember why you wanted to start learning this language, write it down, and read it before you study or go into a new conversation.

Really get down to the core. Let’s say we’re talking about Italian.

Is your family from Italy and you want to be able to connect with your grandparents in their native language? Have you always wanted to visit the canals of Venezia or see jaw-dropping Florence? Is the core of that desire really just to chase your wanderlust and find adventure in your life again?

Whatever your ‘why’ is, remember that. If you don’t have a strong ‘why’ behind your reason, your goal is very likely to fall by the wayside, which we want to avoid.

If it helps you to find yours, here’s my reason for learning Italian.

Italian sounds like music to me. I love that they know exactly how to relax. I believe that by learning Italian, it will infuse my life with the passion that they feel towards art, music, and beauty. I love chasing my wanderlust, and I am in constant need of adventure. Learning Italian fuels that adventuresome part of myself when I can’t actually be in Italy.

Remembering why you’re subjecting yourself to this discomfort makes a world of difference in actually going through with it.

5) Memorize a poem, song lyrics, or a beautiful quote.

This one is truly parlor trick-ish. Find a piece of language construction you really enjoy, memorize it, and show it off to your friends who speak your target language. Start it off by saying “Hey, do you know this…?” If they do, they’ll be delighted and charmed by your rapture of their language, and if they don’t, they might teach you something they do know. Always an opportunity to learn.

Whenever I was in Italy, I always asked my Italian friends if they had read Fabio Volo, a famous author in Italy. Whether or not they said yes, I would say something like “I was reading his book Il Giorno in Più, and I really loved this quote where he said xyz.”

They adored that I was interested enough in their language to pick up their literature, and if they liked him, then it was bonus points for reading what they’ve read.

If you need help finding authors in your target language, it’s best to look up the country’s version of Amazon, and search in the Books section. You can also use this resource to find popular movies and music.

Need some memorization tips? Sam wrote an awesome series on improving your memory. Read it here.

6) Really listen.

Men, listen up. This tip will help you not only with increasing your confidence with speaking a foreign language, but will also make dating much more enjoyable for you. When you genuinely listen to the other person, you have more opportunity to generate meaningful conversation that uncovers layers of all of the people involved.

Speak Up. Listen Up. (44/365)
[photo credit: Thibodeau Photography]

When you show raptured attention, you get raptured attention. This translates into body language, which you immediately see, thus inching your confidence bar higher.

Stop formulating your next sentence while they’re halfway through their first one. Allow space to listen and reflect.

This one can be really difficult to follow as you’ll get nervous and try to prepare yourself for the next sentence to avoid huge gaps of silence. Let there be silence and let whoever you’re talking to know that you’re still learning this language, and it might take you awhile to form sentences. Usually they’ll be patient with you. If they’re not, find someone new to talk to.

Another way to avoid silence if it makes you super uncomfortable is to keep some emergency phrases in your phone’s notepad or in a journal you carry with you. This provides you with an easy save while your mind searches for the right words.

7) Remember the other perspective.

Realize that humans are usually nervous when meeting new people for the first time and speaking your target foreign language typically means a first-time meeting. The other person is probably just as nervous as you are. This kind of perspective shift will help you ground you into the moment and remember that not every human in the world has perfect confidence. It might be a little awkward, but you’ll get through it.

The first five are just stepping stones for you to use as mini shots of confidence to aid you on your language learning journey.

Confidence will become real with the last two. You’ll never be fully and permanently confident as confidence is a lifelong process. But implementing these practices and operating from this mindset will help sustain the confidence you need to become conversational in your target foreign language.

And as many tricks as there are to increase your confidence, nothing beats creating a conversation with a native speaker despite your fear. Open yourself up to opportunities where you’re required to interact and use the language. Once you’re actually attempting to use the language, it might suck the first 23 times, but the 24th might be close to magic. You won’t even notice the transition.

What’s one way you keep your confidence up while speaking a foreign language? Tell me in the comments below!

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Cher Hale is an instigator of adventure and romance on her blog The Iceberg Project, where she teaches women how to charm Italians with their own language and chase their wanderlust.

  • www.lingholic.com is all about the art of learning languages. Learn how to learn and dramatically improve your foreign language acquisition ability.

  • Show Comments (9)

  • Red/

    For italian gestures definitely I suggest this:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aHZwYObN264

  • Guest

    That video totally made my day! He does the buono gesture at around 5:30 in case anyone wants to see it.

    Also, there’s this short lexicon of gestures that I just found today: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/07/01/world/europe/A-Short-Lexicon-of-Italian-Gestures.html?ref=europe&_r=0

  • Great post, and completely agree with the #1 especially. People get so much credit when they throw out some silly basic phrases..but if it works, why not?! 🙂

    • Indeed! I’ve also found that being up to date with popular stuff that goes on TV is a great conversation topic. For example, here in Korea, the so-called “gag concert” program is ultra popular and at times I feel like I just have to watch at least a couple of episodes so as to follow other people’s conversation and to spark a few others. I think anything related to the culture of the country is always a great conversation topic (food, music, movies, TV programs, travel destinations, etc.)

      • Red/

        Turkey and Korea are probably the two countries in the world that have developed archery at the top level that could be reached in the past centuries, with sophisticated composite bows made by horn wood/bamboo and sinew.
        I think that in Korea shooting arrows is a topic of great interest. In particular there is a traditional discipline called gukgung. Many video can be found on youtube.

        • Well, I must say I’ve never heard even once a Korean talk about archery. You are right in that Koreans always win the gold medal during the Olympics, but I’m not sure whether that would be a good topic to spark conversations. It’s like if a Korean approached an average American and started talking about Olympic swimming; not sure this would be a huge success.

          Speaking of sports, though, usually in Korea baseball is pretty popular and definitely makes for a good topic of conversation! And it’s worth to watch if you’re around 🙂

          • Red/

            So, sadly, I didn’t get a correct information. It had been told to me that Koreans have great interest for this kind of sport .. …

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