Speaking and anxiety

Hi WK friends, this is my first forum post. I have a very specific problem and I was hoping for some advice.

A bit of background: I’m 30 and have been learning Japanese since I was 15 and living in Asia (not Japan). I live in the USA now and have been mostly self-teaching myself Japanese since I was 18, on and off due to health and university, but I feel like I have a strong foundation from this and childhood studies. For the past 4 or so years I’ve been studying consistently and I’m N4 level.

The problem I’m having now is I absolutely cannot speak; I feel like I could speak more when I was an absolute beginner. I was diagnosed with PTSD when I was 25 and I’ve worked incredibly hard to overcome and process it in therapy - it’s improved an incredible amount and now I am undercover as a “normal person”, haha (my words). I have a lot of random anxiety and when I try to speak in Japanese my mind goes completely blank and at that time I wonder if my mind is capable of ever having a thought again. This also happens when someone asks me a question in English that requires thought and reflection.

I can’t seem to figure out how to make this work. I worked at a Japanese restaurant for two years, with the intention of being around the language, I have a Japanese tutor who I like to speak to in English, my partner is Japanese and he desperately tries to get me to speak but I just can’t, and I have an old coworker from the restaurant days who, get this, I speak to in English but text in Japanese. I can text my partner in Japanese too, and I got Pimsleur from the library and don’t have many issues keeping up with the audio lessons. I was in Japan two years ago and after about a week there I could talk to people I knew couldn’t speak English (!!!). I feel like if I know they can speak English, I’m just burdening them with my bad Japanese. It’s so ironic because I’m a language teacher at a community college.

I know that I need to speak to get better at speaking, but I feel like I can’t make words come out of my mouth due to weird, hidden anxiety. My skin just crawls when people ask me to speak or when I try to speak by myself. It’s gotten so deep I just feel nauseated and guilty writing about it.

Thank you everyone for your thoughts; I sincerely appreciate any advice.

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I have the same issue. I currently live in Japan and don’t speak Japanese nearly as much as I should; I’m in a large city so there’s plenty of English everywhere, and I’m always with my partner who speaks the same level of Japanese as I do just without the fear of speaking, and so it’s easy to fall back on him.

What I did recently to help combat this is sign up for a Japanese tutor/language partner through my city. I meet with her once a week for two hours to speak in Japanese. I’m hoping that this forces me out of my comfort zone and gets me used to speaking in Japanese. Mostly, I’m hoping it helps me with the deer-in-headlights look I get when someone says even one word to me in Japanese. I just freeze up completely. While I only started this about a month and a half ago, I can already see a difference in my confidence, especially immediately following a lesson. For me, I just had to force myself to do it, even if I’m anxious and nervous every Tuesday prior to my lesson, haha.

Good luck! <3

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It’s a common thing for people learning a language, you’re certainly not alone.

It got to me until I spent a week in Japan and was just surrounded by it and could dive in. Just me, nobody I knew around me. So if I got something wrong, so what? I could look like an idiot and never have to see any of those people again in my life!

I think it’s good to start simple and build up a pattern of success. Could be as simple as 以上です at a restaurant or bringing things up at a conbini. Could be 一枚をください at a park or attraction that requires a ticket. And when that works and you’re like “Oh huh, how about that, that’s not too bad” it can build up into more involved statements, dialog, etc.

I actually found that my Japanese speaking took the biggest leap forward when I was most under stress. Took the wrong way on the Marunouchi line, was going to be late for a dinner reservation that was adamant about being prompt, running through the streets of Ginza getting there just as the clock was hitting 7PM.

Catching my breath…

僕:すいません! 違い電車! 七時の予約があります
店員:…大丈夫です!

It just came out. Without even thinking about it. Granted, I had also had a 500mL Asahi not long before I left my hotel which may or may not have relaxed my nerves a bit…

Regardless. You’ll get there. Just gotta find some small successes to get over the initial hump.

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I also get super anxious about speaking, but the way I got over it (at least with the other languages I’ve learned) was either

  1. Make up sentences in my head and have conversations with myself in the target language. Like if I had to go to the store or buy something, I would play out the sentence in my head or type it out before I even did it. It feels kinda lame but getting to practice saying things before I was under the pressure of other people was so helpful.

  2. Alcohol. if that’s something you’re okay with of course. it really helps people to stop overthinking language and just go for it.

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As a person who has never been diagnosed with PTSD, I’m not sure if my advice will be helpful to you at all, but I’ll put in my two cents anyway. I used to be possessed with crippling social anxiety disorder. I was more or less silent around people I didn’t know very well from the time I was maybe 12 years old until around 18. I was terrified of saying stupid things or being laughed at or making people dislike me, so terrified that I couldn’t even speak. Interestingly, this had the effect of causing the very thing I was afraid of since people who won’t talk seem rather suspicious, strange, and difficult to like. But that’s off topic.

Before I could get confident in speaking Japanese, I of course had to become confident in actually speaking English. So let me introduce you to the process.

First, I took a job as a waiter in a restaurant. It was terrifying! But gradually I got used to communicating with strangers. It helped that I was getting paid to do it.

Next, I moved to a new city. There was NOBODY there I knew at all, so I HAD to communicate with people I didn’t know. It wasn’t easy and I was depressed for a long time, but gradually I made friends and I got a little better at talking. Mind you, during that period my lack of social skills did earn me a lot of dislike from some people, which was exactly what I was afraid of, but life went on and gradually I learned to see those people’s negative attitude towards me as something that was as much wrong with them as it revealed something wrong with me. After that, it became easier to deal with.

Finally, I moved to Asia and took a job as a teacher. Now I was a professional talker and communicator for a living. I felt like I was dying every time I stepped into the classroom. But after a few months, it started to feel natural. During that time I also lived with a host family and they couldn’t speak any English. I had to communicate (in Korean it so happened, but same idea). Basically, I was in situations where communication was essential to my life; I had to step up, so I did.

At this point in my life, I’ve given several public lectures at universities and I’m still a teacher. I still get a little nervous sometimes, actually really nervous, especially when I go to job interviews that will be conducted in Japanese. But I came a long way.

Long story short, you have to put yourself in situations where you have no choice but to do it. And you have to get yourself in the mindset where you realize that “failure” do achieve what you want is just a lesson teaching you where you need to improve. It’s not your deficiency, it’s your data on how to improve.

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I sympathize because I have anxiety and also find that I sometimes need adequate time to concoct a decent response in English, let alone Japanese. I think you may be able to have more confidence in your speech if you first practice with shadowing. Shadowing can really get you used to speaking Japanese sounds and words, starting with simple phrases and eventually working up to full sentences. If you have a solid foundation with your shadowing, you can eventually start to practice with basic conversations, and proceed from there. This book is a great resource for shadowing as a beginner.

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I feel your pain! I also have generalized anxiety and was diagnosed with PTSD when I was 21.

I agree with previous responses: get out of your comfort zone, and do it often. It’s something that really helped me in all aspects of life. The worst anxiety comes from doing things I’ve never done before, things that I would rely on others to do for me (such as ordering food at a restaurant, or asking for directions, or even something as simple as going outside to take out the trash, because I was afraid of someone approaching me for small talk.)

The first few times are absolutely terrifying and it’s easy to get swept up by your fears, but the more you do it, the more you get used to it, and the more you realize it’s not really as scary as you might think.

Also, people don’t really care if your grammar is perfect when you’re speaking with them, especially if they are aware that Japanese isn’t your native language. Mistakes will always happen, so don’t worry so much about making one! People can be very kind and patient. As long as you understand each other, go ahead and make those mistakes. Gesture wildly for words you don’t know. As long as you’re communicating with someone else, it counts!

I really hope you find success. I’m rooting for you!

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Would it help if you read a book/article aloud to your partner? This way the words aren’t technically yours, but you still practice shaping them.

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I don’t have PTSD, just general language embarrassment, so if this advice is not appropriate then please either ignore it or even tell me why it doesn’t work for you!

Two big things I’m hearing from your story are:

  1. getting nervous/blanking out in the moment and
  2. feeling guilty about making other people put up with your “bad Japanese.”"

First off, would you feel more relaxed doing an exchange or paid practice with a stranger rather than someone you know? You could hire a tutor, or I think there are free sites where can pair up with someone who is learning your native language and take turns. Either way, they get repaid for the time they spend and you can reassure yourself that if it goes badly you never have to talk to them again!

If you’d rather practice friends, how about setting it up like a structured appointment:

  1. Arrange a day/time in advance AND how long the appointment will last (half an hour?)
  2. Agree a topic so you can mentally prep yourself
  3. Agree on something you will do to repay them for their time (Take your friend out to dinner? Take over a household chore that your partner hates? Watch that show your partner loves but you hate?)

Your partner (and your friend) might argue that they don’t need item #3, but just be firm and tell them it will make YOU feel better about the whole thing!

Good luck!

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I can sympathize…If you are like me and find your self surrounded with people with superior English (to inferior Japanese), then I don’t want to burden others. You may be best with 1-on-1 conversations and if you find a good language partner looking for English practice, you can find you self sympathetic to each other’s cause and it’s easier to build trust. It also helps to written down some ideas/conversation topics before hand and introduce some grammar you want to practice. Lastly, humble yourself to make a complete ass of your self and be ok with it (no harm done, just try again). Tell that ego to take a nap while you have your conversation practice.

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I’ve been immersed in it and all I can do is understand a bit more, but every time a word slips out of my mouth people are like, “huh?” “what?” and I’m just thinking, “I know I said it right…” then depression and panic, BOOM…I think I need to study definitely a lot more, but it is difficult to know which type of study to use. I go to language exchanges and even though most Japanese people will use “easy Japanese” with me, I feel like it just confuses me more. I just want people to speak naturally to me until it just fits into place. But that is just me. I think the main point I am trying to get at is MAKE MISTAKES. Because it doesn’t matter if you are wrong, you will learn from it, but if you don’t say anything, no one will hear or understand you.

But I should take my own advice and stop being a wuss. Haha…I have been taking tiny baby steps to improve lately though…

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There is a website called rocket Japanese that might help you. It has a voice recording section where given scenarios and situations are played out in a role play scenario and you read out the script into your computer. It then analyses your voice and rates you until you speak perfectly.

Although it is not a person on person encounter. It may be the kind of system that helps someone like you speak and gain confidence in the privacy of your own room.

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Let’s hear some more about this. Sounds like you have the perfect person to speak with!

Since this is what seems to be stopping you from speaking Japanese with your partner, this is probably the most important thing to overcome.

It sounds like your partner doesn’t feel like you’re burdening them, so why not ask them to only speak Japanese with you sometimes? Maybe just during certain times of the day or something? Like, no English until 8 PM. At first you might experience the same anxiety, and it’ll be a quiet evening, but that’s okay! No pressure to speak, but if you do it has to be in Japanese. Do the same thing the next day. Maybe it’ll be a little less quiet, maybe you’ll get out a few sentences. Either way, keep trying, and eventually you might get comfortable enough to speak naturally with your partner.

Of course, PTSD makes all this more complicated! How do you think trying something like that would be for you personally?

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Rocket Japanese is wonderful. I’ve been using it for over a year, and it has really helped me with pronunciation. Now if I am going to be somewhere where I know there will be Japanese speakers, I practice sentences from Rocket that I may need, and then feel more confident about my speaking. Then I speak to Japanese native speakers with much more ease. Best of all, they are so happy (and surprised) that I am speaking their language, that the feedback is encouraging.

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I was a pretty shy person in my teenage years, totally socially awkward, It was so bad that I even managed to avoid speaking in class altogether by making my presentations in video !

I signed up for a work exchange program back in 2006 and did pretty good at the english exam. So when I finally went to the U.S, and had to communicate in english for the first time, even though I was pretty confident with the language I just froze out of being nervous.

So after that I made a conscious effort to interact with people in english as much as possible, starting with basic interactions like just buying something at the market and going up from there. I thought beforehand what I was going to say to that person, and then delivered my line. I saw each opportunity as a learning experience. So if I managed to get my coffee in the way that I liked it was a success, if I came out with some weird vanila mocha frappucino, better luck next time.

I was pretty embarassed about my poor pronunciation, but people in general were really nice to me, and that surprised me. When they see that you’re interested in their culture and language usually they think it’s cool. They won’t hate you for speaking poorly, they just see someone who’s really trying it’s best!

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Thank you everyone!! I didn’t think there could be any ideas so I’m just so grateful for all the responses T_T Special thank you to everyone who shared their mental health struggles, too. I was able to speak a little with my tutor yesterday (two whole sentences), which is a big step forward. Now I just need to learn how to effectively use my partner without freezing in fear, hahaha.

It’s so reassuring to hear other people going through and having gone through similar things. I appreciate the support!! I wish I had posted a lot sooner. :heart:

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That’s great news!! May these 2 sentences become the harbinger of anxiousless speaking!

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As someone else with PTSD, I’m cheering for you! I struggle a lot with this too and the only method I’ve found is to brute force my way through it until I eventually get used to it. Our stress levels tend to skyrocket way higher than the average person’s, but remember that it can’t stay at that high level of intensity forever. The more you do it and your brain recognizes you aren’t being threatened by it, the more it will start to relax a bit. Maybe trying exposure therapy with it would help? Good luck!

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I think we need to remind ourselves that output is much more difficult than input. This can apply to many aspects of life, but particularly to learning a language. So, speaking and writing will be more difficult than reading and listening, and that’s okay, it’s something to be expected in the language learning process.

Now, here’s the point where almost everyone tells you to find a tutor or conversation practice buddy and just try to brute force learn to speak. And to some degree, I think this can help. But there’s a missing piece that this guide on learning to speak Japanese covers well, here’s an excerpt:

Speaking Japanese is similar to playing a sport, especially for the process of being a good player and speaker. There are only three factors; Knowledge , Practice , and Experience . Suppose that people have read several how-to books on basketball and know the rules and the theories behind them, do you think they could sink a shot on the first try? Suppose that a basketball team has practiced shooting a lot, but has never experienced actually playing real games, do you think they could win their first one? This is applicable for languages as well.

Knowledge Practice Experience
Basketball Rule, Theory Shooting, Passing, etc. Participation in games
Japanese Writing System, Vocabulary, Grammar Pronunciation Practice, Read-Aloud Method, Instantaneous Composition Method Interactions with native speakers, Intensive and Extensive reading

However, the importance of the practice is often ignored in languages. As far as we know, a lot of people go straight into interactions with native speakers after acquiring some of the grammar and the vocabulary.

Some people can jump straight from Knowledge to Experience and do quite well. Sure, they’ll make plenty of mistakes along the way, but they get over them mostly unharmed, and therefore are able to progress in their language learning process. For them, this brute force approach might be intense, but it’s not overwhelming.

But I imagine that this straight jump can be truly overwhelming for other people, especially those with certain personality traits or mental health conditions (myself included: very introverted, shy, highly sensitive, and for a while now dealing with more anxious and depressive feelings than usual). For these kinds of people, this brute force approach can lead to a complete loss of words or to very stiff and unpleasant conversations, which we later use to blame and berate ourselves for our “failure” to speak properly, which can then lead to increased anxiety in the following conversations, which can then lead to avoidance, and then we’re stuck on a loop…

So, to avoid or at least reduce the chances of getting stuck in this loop, we would do better by focusing on Practice before or along with Experience. Some of the suggestions proposed here in this thread (making up sentences and having conversations in your head, shadowing, reading aloud, role playing) are good examples of Practice!

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Thank you for adding this!! While I’ve heard people (actually including me lol) promote shadowing and other forms of practice for Japanese, I’d never thought of it as that essential. You spelling it out like this made me realize that for me to get better, but most importantly more comfortable, with speaking, I need to practice instantaneous composition!

I’m now checking out the method that is mentioned (and created by) the page that you linked, thank you very much!!

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