The Role of Phonetics, Grammar, and Mindset in building ESL Speaking Confidence

Updated: Jul 21, 2021

I have worked with many clients who speak English at an advanced level. Yet, despite their English fluency, they often feel insecure about their speaking. As a language learner myself, I understand this situation all too well. Based on my coaching experience and my personal language learning experience, I think lack of confidence boils down to these three main issues.

#1 Phonetics

Phonetics is the study of sounds in a language. In my experience, most everyone who is learning a new language has trouble with at least a couple of the sounds. For me, I struggle with the German z and ch sounds. Consider your English. What sounds are hard for you to create? If nothing comes to mind, consider feedback you have received from others. Is there a word or two that you use that listeners sometimes don’t seem to understand?

For some, creating short vowel sounds (like short e or short i) are difficult because short vowel sounds do not exist in their native language. Spanish is an example of this. For others, creating the s sound at the end of a noun might be difficult because this final s sound does not occur in their mother tongue. Vietnamese is an example of this. When you pronounce a sound incorrectly, it can impact your listener’s comprehension of your speaking, which in turn affects your confidence. Confidence and feeling effective in your ability to communicate go hand in hand.

To strengthen this weak spot, explore pronunciation videos on YouTube or get help from a teacher, coach, or friend who has mastery of the American English sounds. Usually, it is only a few core phonemes that are the underlying problem.

#2 Listening Comprehension

Listening and speaking go together like peanut butter and jelly. Sometimes you feel pretty good about your speaking, but there are times when you pretend you understand something that someone said. If this happens more than a couple of times in a conversation, it can affect your confidence. Yes, building listening comprehension takes time, and I have written on this topic before.

But one way to increase your confidence quickly when you hear something in a conversation that you don’t understand is to simply say that you don’t understand. Don’t fake it. Don’t hide it. In my experience, that is the worst thing you can do. Instead just come clean. You’d be surprised at how willing most people are to slow down, rephrase, or approach the topic from a different angle so that you can understand better.

I know it’s hard when you are the CEO or the manager of a group of people. The pressure is on, and you feel like you need to know everything. But that’s the ego talking. Take a deep breath and ask the speaker to repeat his or herself. It takes courage to do this, and courage gives rise to confidence.

#3 Grammar

You don’t have to know every English grammar construction to feel confident, but I know there are sentences and ideas that you express frequently. Are you sure that you are saying them correctly? Sometimes we get really used to expressing a particular sentiment in our jobs. We are pretty sure we are saying it right, but we don’t know for certain. Get feedback on the most common ideas you express on a regular basis. Knowing the grammar constructions that you use most frequently are 100% correct can give your confidence a boost, and then you can use those same constructions to build more correct sentences.

Finally, I need to add that confidence is a mindset. If you are feeling a lack of confidence about your speaking abilities in English or another foreign language, my guess is that you are probably feeling a lack of confidence in other areas of your life. Feeling insecure about your skills typically stretches across more than one area. Yes, I could give practical advice regarding grammar, vocabulary, and phonetics all day long, but if you feel like you have been battling the confidence monster for a while, there might be other issues at play.

Take a step back and look at the areas of your life where you feel strong, confident, and valuable. How did you get to that point? Was it by studying? Was it by practicing a lot?Was it by hiring someone to help you? In other words, recreate that in your English speaking world. You know what works for you better than anyone else. In what ways could you increase your English speaking confidence this week?

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