Quite a lot of my students have told me that they feel anxious when speaking Russian. They are good at many other language activities like listening comprehension, reading and even writing. However, the mere idea that they have to say something in Russian makes them panic. “It’s like my mind goes all blank when I try to say something in Russian,” they say. “I forget everything when I have to build a simple sentence in Russian”.
When I just started teaching Russian, I couldn’t understand their anxiety. It was quite a while since I myself had overcome this barrier with English, so I had forgotten how it felt. I tried my best to relax my students by saying that the cost of mistakes they could potentially make is non-existent: the world wouldn’t collapse, nobody would die, and nothing, really nothing bad could happen if they made a mistake.
Driving lessons helped me understand those anxiety attacks. I didn’t drive in Russia because Russian cities and towns have good public transportation and a well-developed infrastructure. Also, driving in Russia is freaking dangerous. All those “crazy Russian drivers” videos on Youtube are true, so you can see for yourself how risky it was (and still is). In Canada, however, I didn’t have much choice – life in North America is car-dependent.
I went to a driving school and experienced an adrenaline surge on the very first day of my driving practice. I passed the traffic rules test and theoretical lessons easily, but when it came to driving, it couldn’t have been worse. My brain went blank. I didn’t understand what was going on on the road. I grabbed the wheel so tight that my fingers went white. My knees were shaking, and my poor instructor tried in vain to make me feel comfortable behind the wheel.
When the first shock had passed, I realized that this is exactly how students feel when they need to speak the language they know only theoretically. Anxiety attack. All the words you have memorized, all the rules you have learned – they vanish. You can hear this overwhelming white noise in your head and feel absolutely incapable to say or think anything intelligible.
The similarity between learning how to drive and learning how to speak a new language is deeper than it seems. Speaking, like driving, belongs to two worlds – they both are partly semi-automatic, biological skills and yet intellectual activities.In order to drive well, you have to polish your driving habits until they become automatic, yet you have to keep your head cool and focus a lot so that you can manage the ever-changing situation on the road. To speak well you have to stop thinking about the rules and words, but still stay focused on your speech and react fast when making a mistake. Both skills are practical by nature but have lots of rules and complicated theoretical components.
I managed to overcome my anxiety, and now I’m a proud holder of a Canadian driver license. I must admit, it wasn’t easy. I found a lady instructor who was wonderfully unemotional when correcting my driving mistakes. I practiced with my husband begging him to let me drive, even though we both knew it would end up with us both shouting very loudly.
The only cure for that kind of anxiety is practice. Hours of practice is the only that matters. Don’t be hard on yourself for your panics. It’s okay to feel this way. Take little steps, but practice frequently. Push yourself further and further. Even a little progress will lead you to bigger success: the more you can say, the better you feel, and the less time and effort you need to calm down. Good luck!
Photo by Sharon Sinclair