Building Confidence to Speak in English: Advice From 3 Immigrants Who Understand Your Struggles
What is confidence?
It's hard for most people to describe what confidence is or what it feels like. I hear this question a lot from new students: How can I speak English more confidently?
Cambridge Dictionary describes confidence as "the quality of being certain of your abilities or of having trust in people, plans, or the future". Dictionary.com says that confidence is "belief in oneself and one's powers or abilities". Do these definitions resonate with you? Can you think of a time when you believed in yourself and your abilities? How did that feel?
I’ve noticed that my confidence level is higher when I’m practicing a new skill consistently. Even if I’m a beginner, I feel good about myself when I show up for lessons and work hard. I trust that I will make progress and that I’m heading toward my goal. I especially feel good when I get out of my comfort zone and actually use what I'm learning in a safe environment. My confidence skyrockets when I overcome a fear and survive the experience!
So if confidence is about our belief in our abilities and about trusting ourselves, why do we sometimes think that reaching a higher speaking level will bring us more confidence?
How do we become confident?
Well…I don’t think it just happens on its own. Confidence doesn’t magically come when you reach an advanced level or when you become fluent. It's important to remember that confidence is your belief in how good you are at something, but it is not a measure of your skill. Many people confuse the two. I’ve seen firsthand that speaking confidently doesn’t have a causal relationship with speaking level. I’ve met beginner English speakers who exude confidence and are proud of the way they speak at every level. These students inspire me to believe in myself more and to build confidence instead of waiting for it to appear at my doorstep.
I've learned that you can have confidence at any level of speaking.
I talked to three inspiring U.S. immigrants about their experiences and asked them three questions:
What is your #1 advice on building confidence for someone learning and speaking English as a second language in the U.S.?
What is your #1 advice on how to continue taking small steps toward your life goals without English holding you back?
What is something you do or say on a daily basis that only U.S. immigrants would get?
I feel honored to introduce these people to you. They have all braved years of mistakes, taken many small risks, and dealt with cultural and language barriers along the way. I’m sure that you will resonate with their experiences, and I hope that you will follow their tips so that you don’t have to struggle on your own. Their methods can help you. You are not alone.
Originally from Russia, Anastasiya made San Francisco her home in 2010 and loves to help others make a home there too. Real estate and swing dancing are her passions. As a graduate of the University of San Francisco masters program in Communications, she values the importance of careful presentation when she negotiates deals for her clients. She believes her work is about translating the dreams of her clients into successful business strategies.
I absolutely love her Instagram profile where she shares walking tours of San Francisco’s colorful architecture and her favorite gourmet spots. You’ll feel as if you’ve been transported to the most picturesque spots of San Francisco to soak up some snippets of history.
What is your #1 advice on building confidence for someone learning and speaking English as a second language in the U.S.? I think it is helpful to find a circle of friends outside of work, so you feel less pressure to speak perfectly. Work situations can be stressful, and it can especially be hard for someone who is still learning English. Get a hobby that involves a community, so you can be yourself and practice in a casual setting as much as possible.
What is your #1 advice on how to continue taking small steps toward your life goals without English holding you back? I think you need to do regular check-ins with yourself to evaluate your goals. When you understand your "why" it is easier to stick to your goals. Your "why" can change, and that's OK! As long as you are taking actions that are in tune with yourself - you are on the right path. I also think that some sort of daily practice helps. I like yoga. I try to wake up early so I can be with myself before the day starts. It helps me collect my thoughts.
What is something you do or say on a daily basis that only U.S. immigrants would get? I sometimes hear new slang in movies or songs, but I don't know the exact meaning of it. It happens pretty often. I then usually google the phrase to find meaning in different contexts. When watching movies I sometimes ask my American husband to explain the meaning of some phrases to me. I like the dictionary feature on Kindle - I definitely learned English by reading a lot. Paper books can be hard because I can't always look up the meaning of new words quickly as with the Kindle e-reader.
Elena helps online language teachers reduce their workload, rekindle their passion for teaching language, and make more money. She taught at a College in Ukraine for 6 years, was made redundant, got married and moved to the United States, and has been in the online teaching industry full-time since 2010. Check out her website.
You can find her reading books, writing, doing yoga, playing with her kids, raiding her local library, eating good food and hitting some hipster cafes and restaurants in New Orleans.
Elena has inspired me to take small steps toward my big dreams while being authentic in the process.
What is your #1 advice on building confidence for someone learning and speaking English as a second language in the U.S.? Try to find ways to start conversations. I know it may be scary for some people, especially if it's not something you'd do in your culture, so what helped me is to have a couple of ready-made questions or comments like: How old is your child/dog? Do you know where I can get...? Looks like you enjoy novels (in the library or a bookstore). Looks like you've got a cart full of healthy veggies (at a grocery store). Don't be afraid when people don't respond -- the point is to start a conversation, to make it feel less awkward. For instance, I used the line about veggies last week at a grocery store, and the person in front of me totally froze (#awkward). But the cashier was chatty, so that worked.
What is your #1 advice on how to continue taking small steps toward your life goals without English holding you back? It may help to have a journal where you write down the questions you asked or the interactions you had with people at the store or in the library. Writing things down is a good way to reinforce your practice habit and to get more comfortable speaking. It may be helpful to write down funny stories and mistakes you made. It helps you normalize them and not let them prevent you from taking risks and talking to people.
What is something you do or say on a daily basis that only US immigrants would get? I tend to talk about food a lot. I ask other immigrants what foods they miss, where they buy produce and how often they meet up with their friends to enjoy their food. I think food is what immigrants miss the most, maybe because it's not just the food, but the memories of sitting around the table and enjoying friends and family that you can no longer see as often. So talking about food helps feel less lonely and actually takes some of the sadness away.
Jessyca Roy Landry
Born and raised in the beautiful green lands of Quebec, Canada, her first language is French. She is a sociologist, foodie, dancer, traveler, and community builder. She started learning Mandarin out of love for her husband and her family-in-laws. Not only in the hopes to communicate better with her in-laws, but also to learn more about the culture, history, and social identity.
Jessyca is such a great contributor to other language learners. She shares her journey learning Mandarin on Instagram along with study resources and Chinese culture. For more insights from Jessyca, check out her website.
What is your #1 advice on building confidence for someone learning and speaking English as a second language in the U.S.? Learning a language is a lifelong journey, so have fun with the process. I made so many mistakes both on pronunciation and usage. Instead of saying "focus", I used to mispronounce the "foc" sound into "fuc" so I would say "fuckus".... "Let's stay focus" versus "Let's stay fuckus" definitely lands differently with natives. I think it helped me a lot to just laugh at myself. A more practical advice would be to learn how to describe the words you mean to use, but might have forgotten, by using synonyms and describing the word (in a way it's like playing the tabletop game Taboo) with the people you're talking to. I also use this with my Mandarin - a teacher of mine used to have us play Taboo before our class as a warm-up exercise and a way to practice vocab we had learned in the text we were reading.
What is your #1 advice on how to continue taking small steps toward your life goals without English holding you back? That's such a good question. First, I would say keep a "beginner's mindset” and a “growth mindset" - the beginner mindset so you don't get caught up in comparing yourself or hyper focus on mastery. While it is okay to strive for excellence, keeping a mindset of both eagerness, curiosity, and openness to the possibilities has proven to myself a very good way to stay light-hearted in what I accomplish. It puts the ego aside. A growth mindset helps me keep in mind that everything in life is in-progress. I tend to be very self-critical and not allow myself to fail. It used to be something I was very afraid of.
Keeping the growth mindset in mind, taking pleasure in sharing my progress with others, leaning into the vulnerability of my own current limitations, and allowing myself to dream about the future possibilities of WHERE I could be helps me be less "stagnated" by the paralyzing self-criticizing voice within..
Lastly, my more practical advice would be to surround yourself with people who you are inspired and challenged by. Don't overthink it, follow your heart, try things a couple of times, and reflect about how it makes you feel.
What is something you do or say on a daily basis that only US immigrants would get? "English is so hard". Unfortunately, we do say that all the time! I think when we say this, we mean that compared to other languages (often here it's compared to Mandarin), English doesn't have much of a linguistic inner-system. Mandarin has a lot of compound words and verbs which helps build a "system” - giving you clues to understand the language itself. When I say this with French people, we are referring to pronunciation. It's so hard because we use the same alphabet and often even the same words, but they are not pronounced the same way and people don't always use them in the same context.
Additionally, being surrounded by so many immigrants who don't have English as their first language has been really helpful for me in learning and practicing English in a new environment in the USA. It helps me feel like I'm part of a group that was once there and can relate to my experience. I’ve found that many people can understand me even though I might not use English properly.
Here are some of my takeaways
Find a hobby that involves a community so you can: Be yourself and practice in a casual setting, feel less pressure to speak perfectly, and enjoy doing something “in” English.
Do regular check-ins with yourself to evaluate your goals. When you understand your "why" it is easier to stick to your goals. Your "why" can change. That's OK!
Try some kind of daily practice to help you get centered and collect your thoughts.
Find ways to start conversations so you can experience English in real life, connect with people, and learn how to feel less awkward. Have a couple of ready-made questions or comments like: How old is your child/dog? Do you know where I can get...? Looks like you enjoy novels (in the library or a bookstore). Looks like you've got a cart full of healthy veggies (at a grocery store). Use a journal and write down your interactions, funny stories, mistakes you made, etc. It will help you normalize them and not let them prevent you from taking risks and talking to people.
Enjoy the lifelong journey of learning a language. Laugh at yourself. Learn how to describe the words you mean to use by might have forgotten. Hint: Like the game Taboo!
Keep a "beginner's mindset” so that you don't get caught up in comparing yourself or hyperfocus on mastery and a “growth mindset" to help you remember that everything in life is in progress.
Share your progress with others, lean into the vulnerability of your own current limitations, and allow yourself to dream about future possibilities.
Try out these tips and then come back to share what has changed for you!