I was seventeen years old and all alone in Germany. I got on a bus and asked the driver for a ticket to my stop ‘Natruper Straße’. He didn’t understand, I repeated it. No luck. He still had no idea where I wanted to get off and was getting pretty impatient. I tried again. He said something to a woman sitting in one of the front seats. She looked at me disapprovingly. He sighed and issued a ticket (any old ticket, I suspect). I walked through the bus, feeling incredibly embarrassed, helpless, stupid. I mean, how badly had I just pronounced those two words ‘Natruper Straße’ that they were completely unrecognisable to someone who drove past the stop every day?

During that four-week stay in Osnabrück (strongly recommended by my German teacher if I was to have any chance of passing my A-level) there were so many situations when I had to face it: my German was terrible. I was making loads of mistakes and my accent caused either hilarity or confusion. I felt extremely uncomfortable speaking German and was acutely aware that I was nowhere near as cool in German as I was in English (or at least thought I was).  

So when people coming to me for lessons say they’re really uncomfortable speaking English, I know how they’re feeling. Whether it’s the embarrassment of making basic grammar mistakes, the frustration of not being understood, or hating the fact that you just don’t sound like yourself in the foreign language.

Yes, I can relate to all of that, but … 

Mistakes and inaccuracies are normal.

Listen to yourself and the people around you and you’ll soon notice that we don’t even speak our native language perfectly. For example, sometimes we start off intending to say one thing, remember something else mid sentence and finish off in a completely different way. The resulting sentence isn’t grammatically perfect. So what? It doesn’t prevent people from understanding each other.

If you use the wrong tense or not exactly the correct word, chances are the person you’re speaking to will realize what you mean from the context. And if they’re uncertain they can ask.  

There’s nothing wrong with having an accent.

Perhaps you don’t like speaking English because you think that you have a strong German accent. First of all: you’re probably being far too critical of yourself. And then the question is how would you prefer to sound? What would be ‘correct’ in your opinion? Native speakers of English around the world speak English in very different ways. And then there are millions of non-natives with their own individual accents – some of which are considered particularly attractive. So there’s no reason for you to be ashamed of yourself for sounding different.

At some stage you have to take the plunge and just speak.

Of course you can work on your grammar and vocabulary, read and write English. But there’s no getting around it: the way to become more comfortable speaking English is to speak it. As much as possible.

Seize opportunities as they arise. Chat to a foreign visitor at the coffee machine (you can even plan in advance how to open the conversation). Join a German colleague in taking an English-speaking visitor for lunch, this way you can practise speaking and at the same time you have a safety net in your colleague – if you need support, she’s there for you.

Or why not take lessons with a trainer to help you overcome your initial inhibitions as well as getting honest feedback and plenty of support.

What definitely helped me most in learning German was living in a family as an au-pair. The conditions were ideal: the couple always spoke German to me: They took the time to repeat or rephrase what they’d said. They made a real effort to understand what I was trying to say and helped me out when I needed it. But most of all they provided a completely unthreatening environment – there was no shame in making mistakes, I could even laugh at myself. That’s the atmosphere I aim to create, especially in one-to-one lessons.

Porträt Nicola Bartlett
Nicola Bartlett
I’ve been an English trainer for over 25 years, helping adults to get their message across in English – clearly and appropriately. Successful communication in English requires more than just a good knowledge of the language. An understanding of different mentalities and a feeling for the best approach are vital, too.