The SECRET to Successfully Learning a Foreign Language

top-secretToday I will divulge, exclusively to you, my dear readers, what I consider to be the best-kept secret of polyglots and incredibly successful language learners to learning a foreign language successfully. I hope this will clear some things up for you and help you in your study of foreign languages, and as always I would love to hear your opinion, thoughts, and reactions to this “secret.” Since a secret divulged is really not that much of a secret anymore, you are free (and in fact, welcome) to share this post with as many friends, strangers, and random people as you wish.

When it comes to learning a foreign language (or pretty much any skills, in fact), I have always thought of success as being built on top of three pillars, each one shouldering an approximate equal part of the weight of the fortress built upon it.

The three pillars to success in learning a foreign language, therefore, look like this (drum rolls):

Three pillars to successful language learning: confidence, attitude, and motivation

That’s right: confidence, attitude, and motivation. These three characteristics alone will get you much farther than any special memory tricks, textbook, or other gimmick—although combined with these latter they can quantitatively and qualitatively boost your skills in a foreign language. Today, I am particularly interested in the issue of confidence, but I will come back to attitude and motivation in the future since they are just as important.

What’s Confidence?

Famous people are often heard talking about confidence and about its importance, and they are often quoted for it. People such as Theodore Roosevelt once said: “Believe you can and you’re halfway there.” It sounds rather tacky, but there is some great deal of truth to it. Have you ever heard of a mountain climber say to him/herself, before climbing a mountain, “there’s no way I’m going to make it to the top!” Of course not. A person with such a mindset would indeed probably fail, or at the very least would find the climbing process quite unpleasant and fraught with negative thoughts.

Confidence, however, remains a somewhat hazy term, often negatively associated with such traits as arrogance or haughtiness. I have told several of my students in the past about the importance of confidence in language learning, and many have been skeptical about its importance, which has, frankly, quite surprised me, since I see it as so central to the success of such a skill acquisition. Before we go any further, then, it might be wise to spend a few minutes looking at what confidence actually is (and what it is not).

Confidence is, simply put, something that comes from within. When you believe in yourself, others will believe in you. This is a universal law. It does not work the other way around, no matter how much we would prefer that. Arrogance is sometimes mistaken for confidence, but arrogance is something completely different. Arrogance is the notion of being somewhat confident with a leaning toward elitism, bragging, being macho, showing off, etc. Confidence is about believing in your abilities and in your potential.

Theodore Roosevelt’s wife, Eleanor, once said something that I want you to re-read a couple of times because it is so important and so relevant to the study of a foreign language: “Confidence comes not from always being right but from not fearing to be wrong.”

Why is Confidence Important?

Kent Sayre, in “Unstoppable Confidence: Unleash Your Natural Confidence Within,” says something about your comfort zone that deserves to be quoted at length:

We all have a comfort zone, a set of things we feel comfortable doing. It varies in each area of our lives. An air traffic controller may be calm, cool, and collected while he has hundreds of lives at stake. Now, on the road, with his teenager learning how to drive the family car, he could easily panic because he has a different comfort zone. Our challenge is to perpetually expand this comfort zone, doing new and different things. This means that we are evolving and growing. The beauty of expanding your comfort zone is that there is a certain rush when you do it. There is this surge of energy, this rush you feel when you do something new. You feel really alive. Especially coming out on the other side of something that maybe you weren’t sure you could do and realize how successfully you did it, you feel good, don’t you? And you look back and casually remark, “It wasn’t such a big deal after all.” [emphasis mine]

Fish jumping out of a small aquariumLearning a language is all about expanding your comfort zone. The problem is that people who lack confidence usually never step outside of it; they are afraid, afraid of change, afraid to do something new, afraid to make mistakes, afraid to look silly. The problem with these people is how they perceive what’s outside of their comfort zone, with this little internal voice constantly repeating negative thoughts. “Unless I learn at least 5000 words and go through this grammar book there’s no way I can talk in [insert target language]. Nobody would understand me!” “If I open my mouth they will probably all laugh at me.” “There’s no way I’ll be able to speak to that person. What if he ignores me?” “I’ll look silly for sure.” See the kinds of thoughts I’m talking about? As soon as you start seeing the expansion of your comfort zone differently, however, things can quickly take a 180 degree turn.

Now, people can be addicted to negative things: alcohol, drugs, gambling, etc. However, “if you stop and think about it,” Kent says, “if people can make addictions in the negative sense, what stops us from becoming positively addicted? It’s a revelation to understand that you can aim your addictions in the right direction. What if you were to aim your addictions to health, vitality, achieving goals, and expanding your comfort zone?” Some of the greatest and most successful language learners I know all seem to have a similar addiction! They are addicted to expanding their comfort zone. Today is the day you can start doing the same.

The importance of confidence becomes even clearer when we take a look at the difference between competence and confidence.

  • Competence: The ability to do something.
  • Confidence: Your belief about your competence.

Many language learners know a great deal of vocabulary, grammar rules, verbs tables, and other such things. This is their competence, their knowledge. But there is usually a discrepancy in those people’s mind when it comes to how they view and perceive their competence. No matter how many words they know, they always have this feeling that they “can’t talk,” or that they will “look silly.” In other words, they have the competence, but they don’t believe in it.

Baby inside a circled labeled comfort zoneI have students who are learning English because they “want to travel the world.” Many of these students’ English is in fact much better than they believe it to be. They have a very large vocabulary, know grammar rules incomparably better than the average English native speaker, and can express, albeit with hesitation, just about any thought they would need to convey in a daily situation. Yet, I’ve had many tell me that they were still planning to study English for another 2+ years before actually doing what they have in mind! When we look at such an example as an independent observer, it becomes clear that these students’ problem is not their English skills; it’s their confidence (or lack thereof).  They are afraid to step outside their comfort zone.

The same situation happens with tens of thousands of students who go abroad to attend a foreign language academy. Where I live, in Korea, these students usually already have an intermediate command of English, and yet they (or their parents) end up spending thousands upon thousands of dollars sending them to a private institute in a foreign country to learn more grammar and more vocabulary, when in fact what these students need to do is simply open their mouths, believe in their abilities, and actually have fun with the language. This can be done by traveling and getting to talk with native speakers or by finding a job in a foreign country (hint: you don’t need to have native-like fluency to work in a coffee shop!).

Don’t Take My Word For It

Now, if you’ve followed me until here, you might still be skeptical about the importance of confidence in language learning. Fair enough, you don’t have to take my word for it. Alex Rawlings, crowned “Britain’s Most Multilingual Student” with his ability to speak in over 11 languages, has recently written a post in which he says the following:

Learning a language is not just about the books you bought and the methods you’re using. Your success depends on your state of mind, and right here, right now, in this very paragraph, I am going to reveal to you my own secret method. This is my technique, my trick and my number one tip for anyone who wants to be successful in learning languages: be confident.

As Alex adds, “Being confident enough with what you know to be able to start using it is the difference between learning a language, and learning about one.” Sadly, most people are very good at learning about a language, rather than learning the language itself.

Still not convinced? My good friend, Luca Lampariello, who has always been a great inspiration and who speaks a dozen of languages with a surprising degree of fluency, recently wrote a post on Benny’s ultra-popular blog Fluent in 3 Months, entitled “The Art of Making Mistakes – How and why mistakes help you to learn languages.” As you can guess, in the post Luca talks about the importance of making mistakes. “Having a positive attitude towards learning and people can indeed change your life,” he says. “Making mistakes is not only necessary, it can also be fun!” Remember Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote? “Confidence comes not from always being right but from not fearing to be wrong.”

As a last example, Benny Lewis himself, author of the blog Fluent in 3 Months, recently did a recap of the Polyglot Conference that took place in Budapest in May 2013. In the post, Benny relates his experience having difficulty speaking Hungarian when under pressure. He says that when he was in a queue of people under time pressure, or when people asked him to say something in Hungarian to a taxi driver, or ask what something was in a restaurant for them, or if someone just plain came up to him at the conference and started speaking Hungarian to him, he felt under too much pressure and couldn’t deliver. “Normally, I don’t have an issue with feeling like I’m being ‘judged,’” he says, “but this may also have something to do with the fact that normally I travel by myself and don’t have to worry about other foreigners hearing me speak.”

Being under stress or pressure can undoubtedly affect confidence and, consequently, one’s ability to speak a foreign language. Benny’s example is relevant in that even an outgoing world traveler who has learned over 10 languages can still have trouble delivering when facing pressure.

If you make a funny mistake, laugh at yourself! The sky is not going to fall. Hey, even Madonna underlines the importance of doing so! “I laugh at myself. I don’t take myself completely seriously. I think that’s another quality that people have to hold on to… you have to laugh, especially at yourself.”

How Can You Increase Your Confidence?

Confidence doesn’t just happen one morning when you wake up. It also won’t happen just because I underline its importance. Confidence comes from within, and only you has the power to grow it. Before we end this post, I’ll give you a few quick tips that will hopefully help to guide you in that direction.

Vlad Dolezal is a blogger, life coach, and author of the book “Unleash Your Confidence,” who has a lot of good advice on how to improve your confidence. Vlad says in his book that when thinking about a situation, you automatically make “movies” in your mind that represent the situation. These movies completely determine how you feel about the situation.

Vlad says that when you want to try to speak in a foreign language, the first thing you would want to do is run the situation past your conscious mind. Only when you’ve decided that there really is no good logical reason to shy away from the situation, that’s when you turn to tweaking your emotions.

“In this case, you would determine what movie you picture in your mind when you imagine talking to a native speaker of the language,” he adds. “Chances are, it’s a rather unhelpful movie, possibly involving them being angry and annoyed with you for wasting their time. Or freezing up and ending up with an endlessly awkward silence. Or something like that. Then you would pick a mental movie that you would like instead. One that fills you with confidence and gets you excited about talking to native speakers.

The goal here is basically to get yourself to a point where any time you think about talking in a foreign language, you automatically think of the positive mental movie rather than the negative one and feel a surge of confidence.

There are many additional ways you can increase your confidence, but unfortunately due to space constraints I will have to stop here for now. If you are interested to read more about this subject, I encourage you to check out any of the books I’ve linked to in this post (or a simple search on the internet will provide tons of additional resources).

What Do You Think?

So, did I convince you? Can you see how confidence plays a huge role in language learning? Or do you think it’s not that of a big deal? What about your own experiences?

I’d really love to hear how confidence plays a role in your language learning process, and the importance you give to it. Don’t be afraid to leave a comment and tell me what you think!

Lastly, my birthday is coming up pretty soon (yay!), and if you’d like to give me a gift that will cost you nothing (except for about 10 seconds of your time), please share this article on Facebook! Simply click the “Post to Facebook” icon just below (where the “Share the Knowledge” arrow points to), and you’re done! That means a lot to me!

By Lingholic

8 thoughts on “The SECRET to Successfully Learning a Foreign Language”

  1. Read books or articles or other is important, but for me this follows the discovery of interests. Years ago I didn’t read much, I didn’t like to read and I would say even now. What has changed is that I like to find and learn informations and reading has become one of the preferred means to achieve this.
    To me confidence has grown when I realized to be able to add a greater load at my shoulders and stand the effort. I think it works a bit like going to the gym: the amount of weight increasingly grows in a progressive fashion. At the very beginning, learning a second language has been a huge effort to me, I had a low return. Now instead I can stand several hours reading articles or other stuff. To me the confidence grows with the measure of results.

    1. Sorry for the late reply, Red!

      I have very similar experiences as you. The first foreign language I learned required quite a lot of trial and error, and was generally a very slow process. I also had trouble focusing for long periods of time (such as reading/studying). Now, things have gotten much better, and my confidence has also significantly grown.

      It’s good to know that your confidence grows with the measure of your results, but unfortunately that’s not the case for everyone. In fact, many language speakers who have a good command of the language and generally know grammar very well are reluctant to speak the language for fear of making mistakes and sounding funny. Have you ever had this problem before?

      1. At a beginner level, my difficulty in talking was due to the fact that I didn’t have a vocabulary large enough to be able to complete some sentences or comprehend enough of what I was listening (hence my interest expressed several times in my speeches about vocabulary acquisition). I’m not embarrassed so much by mispronounce words or make important grammar mistakes, although I don’t enjoy it.
        Listening was to me the most difficult activity and sometimes was even frustrating.
        I’m understanding the importance of immediately listen to and repeat aloud the pronunciation of a new word, while reading, to try to memorize the sound, before add this one to the list of new terms I meet.
        I think also that the lack of knowledge of terms affect the listening capacity. Because at least if I don’t understand some words I can try to guess them by context of the subject I’m listening.
        I think that the confidence to communicate with other people can be severely affected by the frame in which you meet others. I mean, if you contact a reception, an information office or something similar you can feel that a much higher performance is required by you, due the formal atmosphere. Instead in a different environment it should be more easy accept to… inevitably commit mistakes! 😉

  2. Thank for sharing good information in learning language.
    I really like to read your post.
    Maybe.. this is because I am a Korean.

    Anyway, I totally agree with what you’ve written.
    I use to hesitate when I speak with native speaker.
    At the moment that I about to speak out, I use to be frozen.
    I think that is because of my lack of confidence.

    I have come to love the saying that you mentioned.
    “confidence comes not from always being right but not fearing to be wrong.”

    It’s true. We don’t have to worry if we are wrong especially when we speak.
    In my experiences, native speaker can understand more than I think when I am speaking to them.

    Thanks a lot!
    I am very sorry that I can’t give you gift because I don’t have facebook. ^^;
    Have a nice day!!

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Han!

      I also really like that saying: “Confidence comes not from always being right but not fearing to be wrong.”

      I hope your language studies are going well, and if you have any questions don’t hesitate to let me know, I’m always more than happy to help the language learning community! 🙂

  3. Thanks for your advice and report. I am a foreign student which is studying in the UK. This is my first term come to England and have the first assessment. Nothing I am not worried about. I only feel disappointed about my English. Unbelievable, I got Grade E in my English assessment. My writing and reading have the lowest point that’s why I had a bad score. The first thing is to be confident, whatever how your english skill is poor and which grade you are. Also, attitude and motivation is cannot be missed. When I have learned how to self study a language successfully then I can try other language faster. That is a big challenge and i won’t give up.

    1. You are right Sheng, try not to get discouraged and remember that it’s all about your attitude. You definitely seem to be on the right path, and you have very good English skills! Good luck with the continuation of your studies in the UK 🙂

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