Building Self-Esteem in Language Learning

Even the most skilful students sometimes struggle with low self-esteem in language learning. It may happen, for example, that you keep making the same mistake over and over. Or that, after a period of sustained progress, you don’t seem to be able to take your speaking level any further.  

Whatever difficulties you experience on your way to fluency, there are two kinds of learners: those who give in to hardships, and those who keep trekking in spite of them.

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Today, we are going to take a look at two real cases of language learners who were able to move past their insecurities and realize their goals.

Nilda – Learning English for the right reasons

Nilda, a 50-year-old client from Lisbon, tells us about her experience learning English to prepare for a job in New York.

I’ve always been an insecure person. More often than I would like to admit, I have refused to take part in experiences or activities that would make me feel exposed — my fear that people would find out I was no good at something is sometimes bigger than my desire to learn new things.

But when the opportunity of a dream job in New York presented itself, I knew I had to take it. And that, of course, meant that I had to learn English first!

Though I wasn’t a complete beginner (I love Brit Pop and American films), I told my teacher that I didn’t know anything. I guess I wanted to impress her. I wanted her to be amazed by how fast I would learn. For a few weeks, everything was great. I loved going to class and revising old content while pretending the information was completely new to me. However, once we moved beyond my real level… well, let’s just say that’s when my problems began.

Inhabiting failure

As soon as I started to make mistakes, much of the enjoyment that came with learning evaporated. Every time I had to ask my teacher to repeat things to me, I felt silly and embarrassed. I remember studying ahead of every class so I wouldn’t make as many mistakes during the lesson.

Naturally, my teacher could tell that I wasn’t as confident as before — my frustration was evident. I even started to skip lessons. That’s when she told me that I had to ‘inhabit’ these negative feelings instead of running from them. “Do you feel anxious?”, she asked. “Then bring your anxiety to class”. “Do you feel frustrated? Then we’ll have to deal with your frustration together. Your feelings are welcome here.”

Learning to learn

One day, I apologized to her for not learning fast enough. That’s when she realized what my real problem was. “You are not here to impress me”, she said. “This is not about me at all! Your learning is all about you.” And it was true. She didn’t really care if I was the fastest or the slowest learner. I wasn’t indebted to her. The only person that was supposed to benefit from the process was me! In other words, I had to learn how to learn for myself. Once I achieved this, I stopped panicking every time I found a new challenge and I was able to have much more fun.

Oh, and by the way, I did accept the job in New York!

Pablo – The seek for perfection in French

Pablo, a 35-year-old student from Madrid, joined in to show that insecurities are very common even among those who study languages for pleasure.

If you asked any friend of mine to describe my personality, the words “structured” or perfectionist” are bound to show up at some point. I’ve always been the kind of person who relies on rules and patterns, and I make sure that I get as close to perfect as I possibly can.

When I started to learn French for pleasure, I was completely excited about the aspects of language learning that people usually dread the most: verb tenses, and phonetics.

Unexpected challenges

But no matter how hard I studied, and how much I relied on rules and theory, there were two things I couldn’t get right. One of them was the subjunctive mood — a set of special verb conjugations used in dependent clauses to indicate some sort of subjectivity or uncertainty in the mind of the speaker. Though I tried to separate them into different groups (judgment, preference, possibility, etc.) and created lots of lists with common endings for myself, I could hardly ever remember which form I was supposed to use when it was my turn to speak.

And then, there was the R sound, which is nothing like its English counterpart! In French, the R sound is pronounced in the throat, one of the trickiest aspects of French phonetics. For those of you who don’t speak French, it is a bit like the sound in “Loch Ness”, but stronger. To be honest, to me it still sounds as if you were choking, which may be the reason why I find it so hard! (I’ve always been afraid of choking!)

Desacralizing language skills

Not being able to live up to my own standards made me really frustrated. After one class in which I made lots of grammar mistakes, I said to my teacher that, perhaps, French wasn’t my thing and I should give up. My teacher looked bewildered. “What are you talking about?”, he said. When I finally told him that I was worried about verb moods and the R sound, he said he hadn’t even noticed my faulty R. In fact, he said, “most people in France don’t notice accents because we are very used to hearing people from all over the world. And, as regards the subjunctive mood”, he added with a friendly laugh, “as long as people understand what you mean, I don’t think that’s a very big problem”.

Thanks to his advice, I stopped looking for perfection and I learned to approach foreign languages as means of communication among people from different cultures, not as skills that I needed to excel at.

The role of teachers

Learning self-esteem in language learning can make a huge difference. Though the two stories below involve different languages and insecurities, there are two important similarities between them. First, both Nilda and Pablo were extremely self-demanding. And second, their teachers had a key role to play in their journey. Inspired by the impact that great teachers have on the lives of students, I went to one of our English teachers, Sarah, from London, and asked her if she’s ever had students like Nilda or Pablo.

 She said:

Definitely! Determination and motivation are essential when it comes to reaching goals, and insecurities can be crashing, especially among adult learners. Now, as a teacher, you have to ask yourself: “what will your role be in your students’ learning process? What can they expect from you?”

I once taught a Bulgarian student who had a learning difficulty and who really struggled to learn English. He found speaking and writing particularly challenging. As a result, he had low self-esteem and lacked confidence in his abilities. I used various teaching strategies and techniques to help him. One day, for example, I paired him up with another student who was also a beginner and I let them talk for about 20 minutes about different topics. The fact that the other student was so casual about her own mistakes really helped him. Plus, I prepared a tailor-made set of resources that catered to his needs and abilities. Alongside this, I set a few manageable goals such as “being able to convey a short anecdote using the past tense by the end of the month”, which really helped him achieve his learning objectives. I also made a few learning recommendations that he could use in his daily life to help him boost his English skills.

With a lot of hard work from the student and myself, he began to make significant progress to the point where members of the staff where he worked noticed his speaking and writing skills had improved considerably and commented on it. He was beginning to understand the role of self-esteem in language learning.

In time, the student became so confident that he handed in his resignation at his current workplace and applied for an apprenticeship in plumbing, something that he always wanted to do, but never felt he was capable of achieving. However, thanks to his being motivated to learn and never giving up, the student is now working as a qualified plumber, who is fluent in English.

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It is undeniable that, when it comes to language learning, students need teachers who are passionate about their profession and who can make their lessons interesting and fun; a teacher who is willing to help them to learn by showing a positive attitude, being patient, and giving them guidance. These qualities are not just nice details, they may be what prevents a learner from quitting as soon as they experience problems with their self-esteem in language learning contexts.

If you want to take part in a personalised learning experience with a fully qualified teacher who specializes in motivating learners, you’ve come to the right place. All you have to do is send us a quick message and we’ll match you with a native teacher of whatever language you want to learn for a tailored free trial lesson.