Practical Tips Speaking

6 strategies for being taken seriously while speaking a new language

November 20, 2019

We all know the drill. We’ve experienced it with every language we love.

We make an unexpected attempt at speaking the native language of the person we are talking to. Surprise. Laughter. “How cute!”. “Where did you learn that?”. “Your accent is so adorable!”. And they go back to English. You try again. “Wow, how impressive!”. Back to English. You insist. Back to English.

As human beings, we gravitate towards familiar situations rather than awkwardness, particularly with people we’ve just met. It’s natural for somebody to go back to English (aka, the comfort zone) as soon as they sense a hint of an accent. So let’s see what we can do about it!

1. Continue speaking in your target language, even if the other person continues in English (aka, be a troll).

If you find yourself stuck in a sentence or thought, try throwing in some English words to substitute those you don’t remember/know, but keep the rest in your target language. It will seem awkward at first, but the trick is to be a troll and act like it just doesn’t bother you.

Also, don’t be afraid to ask “what’s the word for this?” while talking. For example, if you want to say you really enjoyed your coffee but have no idea how to say the word “coffee” in that language, just ask. Then, proceed with the sentence you were planning already. In a nutshell – English is not forbidden! Just try keeping it to a minimum and make it work to your advantage.

2. Throw in some awesome expressions, so they see you are not joking around.

From my perspective, the most entertaining part of learning a language is getting familiar with colloquial language. It’s such a pleasure to see people’s eyebrows rising in surprise when you drop these phrases out of the blue! While people may laugh or go blank for a second there, believe me – they will quickly understand you are serious about speaking to them like one of them, not the way the latest trendy app taught you. 

Next time you watch movies or series in your target language, take note of expressions of surprise, shock, approval or politeness. These are the ones you will need when first having a conversation in your target language. That’s exactly how I’ve learned more than 53 expressions/words in Hindi without ever sitting down to study! A bunch of movies, lots of repetition and then taking notes! Which leads me to the next tip…

3. Connectors are your friends.

Let’s face it: you just can’t go wrong with connectors. Especially when I’m learning a new language from scratch, these are some of my favorite words to learn on day one.

Next time you find yourself struggling to keep the conversation going, make it your mission to avoid “aaah”s, “like”s and “humm”s. Instead, go for words that help you to connect thoughts, such as “as a result”, “before/after”, “in order to”, “because”, “however”, “actually” and “although”. They are fantastic for getting comfortable with the language and being taken more seriously. Even if the grammar isn’t perfect after that point, your ideas will start sounding all tidy!

4. Use short sounds, body language and facial expressions as much as words.

People are usually so focused on achieving spoken fluency, that they forget body language also changes from country to country and can be crucial in communicating successfully. Words, sounds and gestures are also language!

Hindi speakers, Arabic speakers, Japanese speakers or Spanish speakers use their body language in absolutely different ways. Typical gestures, subtle head moves and even those expressive ways a community uses to signal disapproval or excitement can be used to prove you’re way ahead. In my opinion, this is immediate proof that you’re committed to the culture that surrounds it, which sends the message that you’re not playing around. You’ve done your homework, so show it!

5. Be a “fake” natural.

If there’s anything you’re going to take away from this post, let it be this: language is not an epic quest for the preservation of your dignity! In fact, let go of your dignity: we’re talking language learning here! You’ll probably make a massive amount of mistakes, insult the entire history of that grammar or forget particular words! You’ll go blank!

But you know what always gets people by surprise? A natural attitude. Yes. Acting like you just don’t give a damn. You’d be surprised at how far acting can get your language skills. It’s as simple as learning a new expression and repeating it as if you’ve known it your entire life.

I’ve had people say “You sound like a native speaker!” after me reading my first-ever sentence in their mother tongue on Google Translate. Languages I had never seen before in my life. How? I literally repeated whatever they said with a theatrical posture, almost like I was playing a character. And here’s the thing: I’ve never been a role model for confidence. While I’m talking, I’m aware that I’m making mistakes. But it’s just so much more fun to dare, play around and act all fluent already, even if you’re starting out!

6. Do not fear silence.

Silence is a natural part of a conversation, just as rest is a key component of music composition. Pausing occasionally will give you a chance to think of what’s next, but most importantly, it will allow you to process what the other person just told you. I cannot stress this enough – nowadays we hear a lot but do not listen properly.

Let the conversation flow and if there are some empty seconds in the middle, know that it is only another part of speech that you can master.

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