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Expat Insecurities- Overcoming the Fear of Speaking a Foreign Language

Most expats don’t just deal with the stress of moving abroad and the subsequent culture shock, but also with learning a new language. This is especially daunting when throwing oneself on the job market. Our member Gabrielle is sharing her language learning experience and has some advice for you.

Transitioning from student life into the working world (or the “real world”, as some like to call it) can be a tough reality at times. Moving abroad and becoming acclimated in a foreign country, especially when one is faced with the task of learning a new language, is also no easy endeavor. Combine these elements, and the acceptance of a job position overseas can be a rather overwhelming, and daunting task and a potential source of insecurities and self-doubt.

The first biggest challenge I had when moving abroad was learning a new language, a challenge which simultaneously filled me with great excitement, but ended up touching upon my deepest insecurities. When I started to learn German, I begrudgingly realized that I wasn’t going to become fluent overnight and this indeed was going to be at times, a rather strenuous uphill battle. I often doubted myself in whether I would be capable of ever learning the language (why does German have to have so many different definite articles and declining adjective endings?).

Will People Understand Me?

Throughout the language learning process I often worried:  do people even understand me when I talk? And do I sound stupid? The answer to that first question is more times than not- yes, people do indeed understand me. There are many times when I mess up the word order, or say something grammatically incorrect, but regardless, 9 out of 10 times, people get the gist of what I am trying to say.

And those remaining 1 out of 10 times when people have little or no clue what I am babbling on about, getting a second chance to slow down and explain again what it is that I am trying to say usually makes the overall message I am attempting to get across become clear.  And when that fails, you will be amazed with what hand gestures can do in assisting in getting a message across!

The second question that I and many new foreign language learners obsess about is: do I sound stupid when I talk? The answer to this is simply, no! In the now almost 7 years that I have lived abroad, I can scarcely remember any time when someone laughed at or made fun of the way I spoke German. Well this excludes semi-harmless fun people get out of teasing me due to my clear American accent, but that aside, people are usually rather pleased and happy that you are making an effort at all. They don’t expect perfection and they are not judging you. Do you think other non-native speakers who speak your mother tongue imperfectly sound silly? No, of course not! Not everything you say is going to come out flawlessly, but that is a given, and there is absolutely no need to worry about it. People will understand you and they won’t think you sound dumb. Just speak and don’t be afraid of what comes out.

How to Beat Insecurities and Doubt

So after a few years had passed I finally reached a point where I knew the language well enough to use it in everyday daily conversations with ease—but then that itching feeling of insecurity and doubt started creeping up again when I was hired for a job. Now I worried if my language skills were strong enough to be using German as a working language. Considering the fact that I was hired for a job after an interview was held in German, the answer to this should have been a clear yes, my German language skills are also “good enough” to be considered at a working level.

If you are hired for a job, have enough confidence in yourself, and  you are indeed viewed as qualified for the job,  then don’t overanalyze potential shortcomings. If you feel like maybe there are areas where you are weak and your foreign language skills are not as strong as you want them to be, just keep practicing. Make an effort to talk with your coworkers or find a tandem partner, and your foreign language skills will only continue to improve.  As time proceeds with your job and if you continue to make an effort, you will get better quickly.

So now I am an experienced expat, using a foreign language on a daily basis in a work setting and I feel rather confident about it. This does not mean that at times I do not still have those minor freak-outs when I have to write an important Email, make a serious phone call or potentially give a presentation in German, but the point is that these freak-outs are usually minor and become less and less, and hopefully at some point be no worry at all. The less we worry and the more we have confidence in ourselves, the easier and more enjoyable our expat experience will be. Don’t let your language levels hold you back. Embrace the mistakes, keep on adventuring and, more importantly, keep on talking!


Gabrielle Byko is an international communication professional who has studied and been working in Germany and Austria for the past 6 years. She has a passion for experiencing international culture exchange in all of its forms.