How do you avoid panicking when you meet a native speaker?

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How do you avoid panicking when you meet a native speaker?

Postby philomath » Thu Mar 07, 2019 10:06 am

Some background: I’ve been studying Spanish off and on for around ten years now. I’ve done iTalki lessons with tutors before, and lately I’ve been practicing self-talk for around a half hour every week. I feel like I’m pretty prepared to speak about common topics in real life.

However...yesterday I was in a bookstore in London and out of nowhere a man came up to me asking if I spoke Spanish. He wanted to know about the camera I was holding (since I’m being a typical tourist in London) and whether I post my photos online. And also general stuff like why I speak Spanish.

These were totally basic conversation topics and yet I totally floundered, internally panicking at the prospect of speaking to a native speaker. I managed to respond to his questions but couldn’t remember a lot of phrases that I wanted to say, and I was too nervous to keep the conversation going. He ended up excusing himself after a bit; he probably thought I didn’t want to talk to him. :’(

I’m sure this has happened to other people, so does anyone have advice for how to avoid this? How do you remain calm and collected and able to use all of your language knowledge around native speakers?!
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Re: How do you avoid panicking when you meet a native speaker?

Postby zenmonkey » Thu Mar 07, 2019 10:39 am

It's a great question. I always panic a little, even at advanced levels because there is an immediacy of performance that is needed. I've found that practice helps, both real but also imagined, I spent a lot of time in public transport and made little scenes in my head - what if this person suddenly ... talked to me, was choking, dropped something, asked xx - what would I say in language yy?

There is an old trick for public speaking that also, surprisingly works, take thumb and finger and squeeze them together as if you don't want to drop a penny. Doing the makes you less hyper focused on speaking and you'll be less body conscious too. If you have a pen or something else in your hand, squeeze that. But never so hard your eyes bulge out and veins in the neck begin to pop... that might be a little too much. :shock: :lol:
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Re: How do you avoid panicking when you meet a native speaker?

Postby cjareck » Thu Mar 07, 2019 11:19 am

I also have this problem. In English, I managed to overcome it thanks to American volunteers who came to Poland to teach us English. I think this was mainly my primary school, so about 25 years ago ;) With German, I had no choice. I studied a semester in Potsdam, and I simply had to survive ;) A friend of mine spoke German worse than me, but we were always together, so he could give me motivation. We started in October and before Christmas, he was already able to speak himself. I was once in Russia for a few days, and since this is a Slavic language, I had no problem in communication, even if my Russian is poor. In Hebrew, I was only able to ask about the Restrooms and sometimes barely understand the answer ;)

In the situation, you described, I would only manage English and German probably. Nevertheless, I would be surely confused since clearly you were taken by surprise. If this took part in Spain, the situation might have developed differently.

In my opinion, the best way is to find in a situation where there is no other possibility but to speak. If you managed to solve it by speaking, then you should cross the barrier and have no such problems in the future.
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Re: How do you avoid panicking when you meet a native speaker?

Postby Cavesa » Thu Mar 07, 2019 12:31 pm

It's just like with the patients, many teachers, or some animals. Remember, they might be just as afraid of you as you are of them :-D

Now seriously, my two cents:

1.They asked you, that means they are interested in your opinion or experience. So, there is no need to fear you're wasting their time or annoying them. They asked you despite not being a native speaker. And probably hoped to learn a thing or two from you, or to enjoy the pleasure of a shared interest.

2.When it comes to the generic questions (like "why are you learning Spanish"), I think it pays off to think about such things on one's own and prepare some short beginnings of an answer, that will allow the conversation to go naturally on. You can do this on your own, give a short answer to yourself, your pet, plant, or imaginary friend (those are very useful in language learning overall), or the italki tutor you've already been using. This is especially difficult for me and other people not that fond of small talk. And it is a hell, when it comes to innocent questions with explosive potential (in case of languages, it may happen whenever a language has a bad reputation due to connections to something from history or politics, or you get to a specific group of people disliking the language or your nation. Spanish is usually quite risk-free.). But in any case, having a short answer people can expand on often much better than thinking of anything on the spot or having a long answer.

It won't work much for the questions on your camera (but if it is your hobby, you might enjoy learning more about cameras in Spanish, and it would make you ready for this as a side effect). But it can work for a whole sort of questions like "Why are you learning this langauge?" "Where are you from?" "and where is that?" or "what do you like about this country the most?"

The key is having a short answer ready. Most people are not interested in long meaningful conversations, it is sad but true. Even more people are looking just for an opportunity to lecture you on why is your answer wrong :-D The short but not stupid answers are the key, from my experience. Starting with a loooooong sentence (no matter how rich in interesting information) will just make you more nervous, I'd say. Start simply.

If the answer happens to not fit the most common pattern of the conversation, the better for you. If you surprise the native, you'll level the ground a bit. A surprising amount of people is suddenly paying more attention, speaking slower, and looking for what to say themselves, if you tell them "well, I love this Spanish tv series" or "I'm such a fan of this scifi writer" (or famous cook, a football team, anything), instead of the generic "it is such a useful language". That is the conversation they've been practicing.
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Re: How do you avoid panicking when you meet a native speaker?

Postby languist » Thu Mar 07, 2019 12:55 pm

This isn’t an answer related to overcoming psychological or linguistic issues, but it helped me a lot.

Breathe! I know that sounds like an oversimplification of the problem (like when you say “I’m sad” and someone helpfully responds “don’t be!”), but it’s an exercise I’ve found genuinely useful.

When I worked as a waitress, I sometimes had to speak to customers in their language. We had lots of Italian, Spanish, Polish, etc, speakers in our staff, but I was one of the only French speakers. My colleagues would come up to me and say “table 48 are French and don’t speak English! You have to take the order!” and the nerves would start spreading through my body, and if I didn’t control them, they would get in the way of my mind functioning properly.

I started to go into the kitchen for 20 seconds before taking the order and do some deep breathing. It was amazing how much this helped me order my thoughts compared to when I engaged in the encounter full of nervous adrenaline.

Not sure this would help you much in the above situation of being politely pounced on, though !
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Re: How do you avoid panicking when you meet a native speaker?

Postby Vero » Thu Mar 07, 2019 3:05 pm

In fact, I would say that "breathe" is the best answer :) It helped me a lot. To slow down a little bit and not try to compete with the native speakers is also a good idea. They will always speak faster and better than you. And sometimes it's fine to have some phrases prepared to gain some extra time (something like "Well, let me think for a while...", "let's see...", "good that you are asking...") because these extra seconds may do all the difference.
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Re: How do you avoid panicking when you meet a native speaker?

Postby Elenia » Thu Mar 07, 2019 3:49 pm

I panic and get nervous about having to give presentations all the time, no matter the language. I've found that it really helps if I actually let the other person/people know I'm nervous. It's also something I do if I'm ever called upon to speak French. My French sits in a dusty, damp corner at the back of my mind, but every now and again I need to speak it. When I do, I let the other person know that my French is rusty (in French) because I don't use it. After this point: take your time and actively remind yourself that it's okay to make mistakes, and it's okay to need to talk around words or ask the person you're talking to for help.
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Re: How do you avoid panicking when you meet a native speaker?

Postby Neurotip » Thu Mar 07, 2019 6:41 pm

Remember that you won't perform at your best.

Think of something else that you're good at doing but don't do every day. Then imagine someone comes up to you in the street and asks you, without warning, to do whatever it is; do a dance, do some hard mental arithmetic, recite a Shakespeare sonnet. You're just not going to give your best, or anywhere near your best, performance under those circumstances. If you can expect that and go easy on yourself, then you can avoid getting into the vicious circle of getting distracted by your dismay at not doing well, and doing even worse because of that. We've all been there. :)
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Re: How do you avoid panicking when you meet a native speaker?

Postby Deinonysus » Thu Mar 07, 2019 7:02 pm

My father has a technique for getting speaking practice without dealing with native speakers. He'll talk to anyone in his target language regardless of whether or not they understand him. Eventually a coworker responded to his Italian with Polish. So then he had to learn Polish.

I do this as well with German (mostly just with my wife). Then I started using this trick with German speakers as well. It basically felt the same as before, but it turns out that when I use this German trick on German speakers it's just called speaking German.
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Re: How do you avoid panicking when you meet a native speaker?

Postby zjones » Thu Mar 07, 2019 9:45 pm

I agree with Elenia's advice to let the other speaker know that you are nervous. Something like, "Oh pardon, you took me by surprise. I'd love to speak XX with you, as long as you take it easy on me. I haven't practiced in awhile." You'll probably still feel panicked, but you'll set yourself up for an easier conversation if the other person knows that you're a little nervous.
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