How To Untwist Your Tongue Speaking a Foreign Language


It goes without saying that learning a foreign language, like practically any other cognitive experience, falls into two categories: obtaining the necessary theoretical knowledge and putting all the acquired material into practice, ideally, combining the two all along. While most mentally healthy people may have no or little difficulty mastering the first part, they may find the second one a trifle trickier - especially if they are not surrounded by the language as they are learning it. Furthermore, practising a language may be quite a stumbling block even if you are surrounded by native speakers. That is the case if you spend most of your time within your family or a close circle of friends, who all belong to the same ethinicity as yourself, and spend far less time among representatives of the country you have come to. As a result, you may feel uncomfortable and lacking self-confidence when you have to speak in the presence of native speakers, albeit your theoretical linguistic knowledge and lexical arsenal are second to none.

Also, it is important to note that what you learn in theory might well at least slightly differ from the way native speakers express themselves in reality. Accent, word choice, and other minor nuance-related language peculiarities inherent in the speech of natives of the region you have come to may turn out to be different to the ones you have come across earlier. The linguistic adjustment can thus be quite puzzling.

This instruction set will provide you with some of the most efficient guidelines on how to untwist your tongue and overcome the unpleasant anxiety experienced when getting to speak a foreign language irregularly and/or struggling with a foreign accent.

Note: The guide is intended for people with a very good command of written English and who wish to bridge certain minor gaps they might have in oral expression (in English or any other language which is not their mother tongue).

1. Keep calm when speaking

  • Do not think about the possibility of making mistakes; rather, stay positive-thinking.
  • Think quality, not speed - take time to weigh your word choices.

Caution: Hasty speech can result in silly mistakes and blur the overall quality of your oral expression.

  • Do not lose heart when realizing you have made a mistake - your interlocutors might not even notice it

Caution: You risk losing your train of thought when shifting your attention to a mistake you have made. The rest of your speech may come out as stuttering and unconvincing and generate even more of awkward wording.

2. Think, but not too hard

  • Better avoid high-flown language in a casual talk.

Caution: You may end up sounding affected and pretentious, which will turn off your interlocutors.

  • Keep your speech focused and neat. Avoid mental fuss. Turn an idea in your head into an intelligible, digression-free phrase coming out of your mouth.

Tip: Remember that ideas swarm inside of your head but you should only pick one or two of them per sentence to stay coherent. Otherwise you risk giving your speech poor and unclear wording.

Important: Depending on how advanced the level of your language is, you may need to mentally translate a phrase from your mother tongue to the language that is foreign to you. Take your time to do it. You will unlikely fare well with unconsidered blurting.

  • Get your ideas straight in your speech. Do not overthink in search of sophisticated words.

Caution: Ruminating one idea for too long before mouthing it may result in awkward pausing during your speech and negatively affect the dialogue with your partner.

3. Do not panic if you are at a loss for a word

  • Think of synonyms, paraphrase.
  • Do not be ashamed to admit to not knowing how to say something in a particular language in front of native speakers. Keep in mind that learning is a continuous process of your life.

4. Do not be ashamed to come across as a non-native speaker

  • Regardless the flawlessness of your accent, do not aim to hide your true nationality. Apart from the quality of your language, albeit very high, other factors (e.g., ethnic traits, absence of characteristic turns of phrase, etc.) may give you away as being a non-native.

Important: Pretense of being a native speaker can make you agonize over the slightest mistake or accidental loss of the correct intonation.

  • Do not emulate the local accent too much either. Try to sound natural.

Caution: When emulating, you may distort the way natives pronounce words and yield negative impact on the quality of your speech.

Tip: Give yourself time to adopt a new accent. Do not stress out.

  • Be confident about your speech, embrace yourself while speaking.

Tip: Many native speakers can be less grammatically precise than non-native speakers. If they happen to twist this or that expression, do not give up its correct version just for the sake of speaking "like" a native.

Caution: Grammatical mistakes may be pardonnable to native speakers but are most likely to be picked upon when made by non-natives (at a job interview, at school, etc.).

  • Do not think that you speak worse than native speakers during your speech. Do not belittle your linguistic possibilities. Let your confidence show but do not flaunt.

Important: Self-confidence in speaking a foreign language with native speakers equals doing the demolition job on your fearing their linguistic superiority.

5. Get into the habit of speaking the foreign language to yourself

  • Train the sounds over and over again.
  • Practise the intonation.
  • Work on the speed.
  • Mentally translate something you think or say in your mother tongue to the foreign language.

Tip: Look up words you have difficulty translating in a bilingual dictionary and memorize them. That will later help you talk on casual topics without thinking in the presence of native speakers.

Important: Keep language training regular.

6. Do your best to incorporate local expressions, idioms, etc. into your speech

  • Ask your interlocutor (a native speaker) to repeat and explain to you a certain expression or turn of phrase that you did not get at once.

Important: You will feel a lot more self-confident dropping a couple of such expressions into a conversation. Also, you will feel more integrated into the new society whose language you have decided to adopt.

  • Do your best to memorize any new linguistic detail you hear or see written.

Caution: Make sure to double-check whether or not that detail has officially been approved and is actually correct.

Important: Untwisting your tongue goes hand in hand with getting the most familiar possible with the way native speakers frame in reality what you have learned in theory.


I really enjoyed your article, Olga! You give great advice and you do so in an organized manner. Also, the comic strips are great! I really enjoyed the one with the Shakespeare reference :)

This is a good guide! It's light hearted and very clearly comes from personal experience. I'll have to keep it in mind when I learn French!

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