Terrible First Language Exchange

So I just had my first language exchange. It was terrible! I was so nervous and my brain just forgot everything I learned. Thankfully my partner was very patient and understanding. I hope I didn't scare them away.

Now, I'm not sure if I want to do it again. It was very nerve-racking and I felt like an idiot. How do you overcome this?

Side note: Why is it so easy for me to read French, fairly difficult to listen and comprehend, and extremely difficult to form my own sentences?

September 4, 2016


It's always easier to read a foreigner language, and hardest to form your own sentences. That's how it works. It takes a LOT of practice until you stop "translating" everything inside your brain to your native language and start really talking in the new language.

Good luck with your studies!

September 4, 2016

So many people will study another language, but are afraid to open their mouths. I want to commend you on having the courage to get out there and have a conversation. Well done. Really. Give yourself credit for making an effort to speak. It will become easier over time. It's always nerve-wracking at first for everyone (except for maybe Benny Lewis but he doesn't count).

In terms of difficulty listening and understanding, it's important to remember that spoken language and written languages are two DIFFERENT but related symbolic systems. That's especially true for French. Even something as simple as "Je ne sais pas" can sound like "Shay paw" when spoken. Connecting the French spelling to pronunciation is not obvious (at least not to me). I've studied French off and on for a very long time, and have had French-speaking friends at time. However, I still get nervous at times and there are some people that are difficult for me to understand (especially teenagers or people in their early 20s). Or, I'll understand something, but it takes just a fraction of a second too long and the other person switches to English. At times, I've said the wrong thing and have made the entire room laugh, then realize just a bit too late what I've actually said. The good part is that you can laugh at yourself and I now have a story guaranteed to make a French person laugh immediately.

In order to connect written French with spoken French, here are a few things that you can try:

  • If you can read books, get an unabridged audio book to go with it. Then read along as you hear the words spoken.

  • Find podcasts with transcriptions in French. Read along.

  • Find TV shows that you like in French (netflix can be good for this) and turn on subtitles in French (not English).

  • Read to other people in French. This can be an article that you find interesting or something you've written. If you prepare something in advance, that can take the pressure off of having to spontaneously converse.

  • Try forvo if you're not sure how something is pronounced. The first several are easier to understand, but check out how the last person pronounced "Je ne sais pas."

  • Take a class. Conversation classes can be great with the right teacher because they are good at helping everyone feel at ease and will speak in a way that's easier to understand than a random person.

Bonne chance!

September 4, 2016

[deactivated user]

    When you're on duolingo you are developing passive skills, reading and translating on a given subject. But skills such as listening and talking need to be developed separately. They are different skills. But they need to be developed if you wish to speak French. One of the biggest fears stopping people is the fear of looking or sounding like an idiot when speaking a new language. Unfortunately, to get to the point of proficiency, you must first sound like an idiot. Alot. So to answer your questions more directly, to overcome your problem you must study and speak more, then repeat. Learn to laugh about yourself, it really helps. I was talking French to a friend from France and while attempting to explain something she said, "I DON'T understand you!" I said, "Oui, moi aussi!" Then we both laughed about it. Have fun, keep doing language exchanges, and remember to laugh!!

    September 4, 2016

    One can be very proficient at reading and understanding a language and terrible at writing and talking. Those are two distinct skills. You will have to train either by having more conversations, or by trying to write out your thoughts in French.

    If you do have good reading/understanding skills though, you'll become proficient at talking in no time, but it simply requires it own training.

    September 4, 2016

    Well, I think speaking is harder for you, because you haven't exercised it to much. How can you learn to speak, when you don't speak? Moreover, being nervous also can make some people to be bad even at things they've exercised nearly to perfection. Don't be discouraged and exercise speaking (both alone and with the other person) until you won't be nervous about it.

    September 4, 2016

    Practice is the best way. Just practice listening and speaking as much as you can. I had an advanced Spanish class, conducted entirely in Spanish, after being away from Spanish for over a year. At first it was awful. I was confused and my sentences were about 3 words long. But every day I came to class, things got better and eventually, I could understand most of what people said when they talked and form somewhat more complex sentences on my own. It is very important not to give up and to keep trying. It gets better over time.

    Also, the difficulty pattern you have is fairly normal. With reading, it's right there in front of you and you can look at it again if you need to. With listening, you only hear it once, and it's easy to mishear things. And it can be hard enough to express yourself in your native language. Sometimes I can read or even listen without translating in-between, but I can almost never do that when speak.

    Il ne faut pas abandonner! Bon travail et bonne chance!

    September 4, 2016

    I always find it easier to activate my speech using this website:

    the day of a Skype session or language exchange. Since I have so many languages swimming around my head at any given time, I need to "root directory" my brain. This site has native speakers saying standard words and phrases three times with a prompt to say the phrase before the third time.

    I also let the person know that I may say words and phrases in other languages, and that I simply have to get it out of the way before I say something in our shared language. I also make sure that I am the one asking the questions, and there are very specific reasons for this. First, as a tourist, that's mostly what you will be doing with natives as you navigate their country. Second, questions are finite. Answers can go any of a thousand directions, and that's best handled by natives. A question is easy, but an answer requires thought and additional processing that causes your language brain to freeze up with the overwhelming number of possibilities.

    I normally establish that I will be asking the questions, and if it is someone whom I've e-mailed before, I have sent a list of these questions so they can form answers and eliminate questions that are too personal.

    If we decide to hold additional language exchanges, I try to use a shared script where we agree to switch back and forth between languages, using the same scripted conversations. We then redo the conversations a few days later, and see how much we both progressed. You do this with around thirty standard personal conversations, and you would be amazed how much progress you make, and you avoid a lot of the nervousness you experienced.

    September 5, 2016

    Thanks so much for posting that site. I think that will help me a lot with speaking. I, too, had a language practice that made me feel so foolish because I got so nervous that I blanked on basic stuff that I knew!

    September 6, 2016

    that is the way in any language speaking and listening is the hardest area just keep on practicing that is the only way to get better i have had those issues in french not pronouncing the words correctly and freezing up it does get better it is very good you had a pacient partner some of them can be jerks

    September 4, 2016

    Thanks everyone! :)

    September 4, 2016
    • 1127

    Hi. I think most of what I'd usually write is written by others in previous comments. Many wrote it better than I would have. The main thing I want to write is to keep trying. There is no need to feel like an idiot, as a foreign language is difficult for most people. It's also normal if it's not easy, or actually quite difficult at first. I'd like to encourage anyone to keep trying. As with anything, practice should make you at least a little better than you were without practice. I can't guarantee anyone I don't even know that it will be fast or easy, nor that you'll eventually be perfect in it. I do think you'll be surprised what you achieve if you keep trying.

    September 4, 2016

    In a way it was almost predictable that your first time would be "terrible" as you say, because in general first times (no matter what discipline) generally ARE terrible. If you want to learn to dance, then you should start dancing. Next time is going to be better.

    The second thing I suspect in your case is that you've failed because your skills are not strong enough yet. If you find French "fairly difficult to listen to and comprehend", how do you expect to understand what the person you're talking to is saying to you and thus have a meaningful conversation with them ?

    September 4, 2016

    Have you considered writing to your foreign language partner to start out? With a pen pal, you would have a chance to calmly think about what you wanted to say, so you wouldn't feel pressured or anxious. Once you get more comfortable forming your own sentences, you could try a conversation exchange again.

    Alternatively, try having some basic conversations with yourself in a foreign language. (You might want to do this in private, far away from psychologists or concerned bystanders.) Of course, you wouldn't get any corrections or feedback this way, but it is a good way to practice actively recalling the language. It can also help build confidence.

    Good luck!

    September 5, 2016

    Just keep trying. t will come to you.

    September 5, 2016

    You say that you have difficulties with listening, so I would recommend that you tackle this issue first, before you practice speaking.

    September 5, 2016

    the sky is the limit keep pushing your self

    September 11, 2016
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