For most people, the goal of language learning is fluency. Learning the structure of the language and how to correctly pronounce new words are very important, but we ultimately set out to learn a new language because we want to converse in it. If we lack confidence, however, actually using the language in real, everyday situations at work and socially is going to prove even more daunting than it already is. This is why I try to boost the confidence of my students as much as possible. If they are confident, they won’t let the fear of making mistakes stand in their way.

The goal is fluency before accuracy — being able to confidently communicate even if you make grammatical mistakes like mixing up your tenses or muddling your word order. If I can understand what you are trying to tell me and we don’t need to hire a translator to have a basic conversation, then you have achieved a significant milestone in your language learning. When students realise that it’s perfectly okay to make mistakes, that making mistakes is actually part of the learning process, their confidence grows.

Other than the fear of making a mess of things, language students often lack confidence because they don’t know how to keep a conversation going. Now there are many practice activities students can do to improve their small talk skills, but nothing beats having an arsenal of useful phrases to get a conversation going. Of course, every native language is peppered with idiomatic expressions that can be hard to master, often because they just sound silly to foreigners, but common expressions about origins and interests are easy enough to learn… questions about where we are from and what we do for a living, for example. I encourage my students to talk about things they are familiar with that usually don’t require a whole lot of head scratching to produce a good level of fluency. Talking about your family and what you do at work should come more naturally than deep philosophical topics.

Building confidence in a language learning environment requires patience on the part of the teacher, but there is another vital ingredient — empathy. I’ve been able to empathise with the frustrations of my students because I share many of them. I’m also learning a new language. I know how hard it is to step out of the classroom into real-world situations where you encounter natives who often speak faster than an auctioneer trying to sell an expensive painting. But all of the above applies to me as much as it does to my students. We’re all in this together. Our mutual goal, to become as fluent as we possibly can, is totally achievable. So as I encourage my students, I also encourage myself to keep at it.