What I didn’t learn in my language classes: How to overcome your language anxiety at work

Sophie Rupp
Sep 28 · 5 min read

Many people internalize the notion that how well you can speak a language in a work environment will affect how people see your intelligence and competence.

If you’re a professional that works in your second or third language, you know that it doesn’t matter whether you’re closing a deal with a major foreign client or messaging an international colleague on Slack. Those little traces of what I call ‘’language anxiety’’ can appear at any moment and make your work that much more stressful.

As a native English speaker who works in Spanish about 95% of the time, I’ve definitely experienced language anxiety. For my colleagues whose second language is English, that anxiety is noticeably worse, as Europe has an unspoken competitiveness between countries about who can speak the best English. And make no mistake, this competition is high stakes. The loser of ‘’Euro-work-English’’ gets branded with stereotypes of being lazy, uneducated, and out of touch with the current global business climate.

I recently read an article Alice Boyes wrote for the Harvard Business Review entitled How to Overcome Your Fear of Making Mistakes and I immediately thought about how to apply her advice to language anxiety. One part of the article that jumped out at me was to ‘’Focus on your processes’’ because ‘’when you worry, it should be solutions-focused, not just perseverating on the presence of a threat.’’

With that in mind, I decided to make a list of some fears I’ve felt while working in my non-native language as well as concrete solutions that have helped me overcome them. Of course, having an attitude of not judging yourself and not dwelling on your imperfections is important. Along with that mindset, these are my suggestions for specific things you can do to overcome language anxiety at work.

Fear 1: Sounding silly and unprofessional in email exchanges.

Professional email writing in other languages is tricky because specific phrases you might use in your native tongue can sound awkward when directly translated. For example, in English you can end an email saying ‘’Best’’ but in Spanish saying ‘’Mejor’’ at the end of a message just isn’t quite the same.

Solution: Pre-made templates. It’s impossible to make a template of every email you could possibly send but it can be helpful to have the following phrases in a document at copy-paste ready: email greetings, an introduction to yourself, a few sentences to explain what you do and why you might be emailing the person, some action-oriented requests, and goodbye sign-offs. Besides reducing your stress, they’ll also save you some time when you go to write a message. Plus, these templates don’t take long to make! Simply open your inbox and look at the emails your coworkers or other native speakers have sent you to gauge what kinds of phrases are appropriate in certain contexts.

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Fear 2: Missing a task someone has assigned in a meeting or not understanding a key takeaway after a group convo.

Having meetings in another language can be tough. When people talk over each other, change ideas quickly, or jump from topic to topic, it’s easy to get a little lost.

Solution: End of meeting summaries. When a meeting comes to a close, quickly go over aloud the main conclusions the group has come to and confirm the specific actions you and others need to take. It sounds basic but it’s an easy and professional way to make sure you and everyone in the meeting leave on the same page, especially if at a certain point something wasn’t crystal clear to you. If reviewing everything will be time-consuming, at least review your own action items with the group so that you can walk away from the meeting feeling confident that you know what’s expected of you.

Fear 3: Forgetting a word or verb conjugation during a presentation or conversation, becoming paralyzed, blanking out, and looking like a stuttering goof.

Everyone knows to prepare key phrases and words before giving a presentation or talk. However, sometimes nerves can get the best of you leaving you to say ‘ummmm’ while listening to the deafening silence of everyone waiting for you to say something.

Solution: Time limits and Plan B words. I have a rule for myself where if in 5 seconds I can’t think of the exact word I’m trying to say, I will change to a simpler word. If I get lost in a verb conjugation, I say the verb in the indicative form. And that’s it. It sounds simple, but if you train yourself to ditch the mindset of only speaking when you can say things perfectly, you’ll improve your fluidity and lower your likelihood of finding yourself in a stressful situation. Don’t worry about making your level sound more basic than it actually is by defaulting to simpler words. Avoiding an awkward pause and keeping a conversation or presentation flowing is usually more important to your overall purpose and message.

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Fear 4: Not understanding when a client or coworker asks an important question and as a result, hurting a professional relationship.

Admitting you didn’t understand something, asking for clarification, or requesting that someone speak slower can feel embarrassing. Nowadays, trying to understand people as they talk through masks or having a conversation with someone who has a bad connection on Zoom can make even the most fluent speakers second guess themselves (a look to the future: will these things be part of language listening exercises in the future? They should be!).

Solution: Ask for clarification using the other person’s words. Just saying ‘’Huh? I don’t get it’’ isn’t effective. A good way to keep the conversation flowing and reducing frustration from the other person is parroting back to them what you did understand and indicating where your understanding stopped. This subconsciously shows that your misunderstanding isn’t from a lack of actively listening and that you really are engaged in the conversation. Another solution in contexts where you’ll have more follow up talks with the client or coworker is to ask them to send you an email with their major questions that you will respond to within the same day. That way, you convey your willingness to continue working with them closely while also giving yourself more time to understand and respond to their concerns.

If these solutions sound like plain old-fashioned common sense, it’s because they are! But you know what? When it comes to setting yourself up for success at work, you can never underestimate the power of applying simple techniques to reduce stress and help you feel more confident.

Which fear do you feel the most at work? Which solution do you think is the most helpful? Feel free to comment below if you have other actionable tips for professionals working in their non-native language.

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