Don’t let negative self-talk affect language learning

Another afternoon on Netflix.
Total time of language learning today: none.
No, that one line in Japanese in the background doesn’t count.

You think to yourself: “I’m never going to be good at this…”

Fast-forward a few days.
You have a chance to chat with a native speaker.
You gather all the courage that your introvert heart can hold and go for it.
After a few sentences, you misuse a verb conjugation. It’s impossible to stop thinking about that one mistake for the whole evening.

You sigh “I’m so bad, they’ll surely think I’m stupid now”.

Stop right there.
Start catching your thoughts before a tiny snowflake turns into a huge snowball.

negative self-talk

What is self-talk and why does it matter? 

Self-talk is that inner dialogue that goes on the whole time in your head. It’s the stuff that you say and think in your mind about yourself.

It’s important to be aware of it because it shapes your world. Your thoughts and the words you use in them are the sources of your emotions. The way you think about an event determines your reaction to it.

When something goes wrong and you ruminate about it for hours, you’ll feel like you’re hopeless.

When you pat yourself on the shoulder and think that no one is perfect, you’re more likely to give it another try. And to know how to avoid that one mistake, next time.

Negative self-talk is often at the root of anxiety and depression. It shows you a faulty vision of yourself that doesn’t match what others see.

Often, we tend to underestimate the power of our thoughts. We don’t realise that the reality we see is, in fact, just our perception of reality.

The self-fulfilling prophecy

Clara sees a listing for her dream teaching job. The requirement is 2 years of experience and she has been a tutor for about one year now. She tells herself “I’m not ready yet, I need more training and possibly a certificate”. In the end, she decides it’s better if she doesn’t apply yet.

Mike sees the same listing. He has no experience but just got a teaching certificate. He tells himself “I’m sure I’d be able to handle this job, I’ll give it a try”. Mike applies and aces the interview. He gets the job.

Clara and Mike live in the same world. They just see it from different perspectives and that makes a difference in how they act in their everyday life. And, of course, on the outcome of their actions.

Telling yourself that you “can’t” do something will stop you from acting. As a result, your prophecy will fulfil itself and you’ll take it as a sign that you were right. What you don’t see is that you had a choice to act and you dismissed it.

When you trash-talk yourself, you give up on your fighting chance. There’s no reason to try when you already predicted a negative outcome. In a way, it’s a safety measure against the pain that comes with failure.

Self-talk in language learning

“I can’t understand.”
“I’m not good yet.”
“I need more practice.”

How often do you say something like this when you’re learning a language? Is this stopping you from doing the things you’d like to?

Once again, you postpone taking a language certification – maybe next year…

You don’t dare to add a language you’ve been learning for years to your resume.

You would try and speak, if only you were “ready”.

Some learners have a rowdy inner critic. It picks on their every imperfection.
It goes as far as comparing you to the native speakers and saying you’re bad. Not much of a fair player, is it?

When you tell yourself that you’re not good at learning or that you’re stupid because you make mistakes, you stop trying.

Don’t always take your own opinion of yourself as accurate.
I know for a fact that I underestimated my language level, repeatedly and with different languages. I see other learners do it too, all the time.
Sometimes we need another pair of eyes to see things through.

What would you say to someone else?

Try to recall the harshest thought you had about yourself today. Would you use those words against someone else?

Our inner critic is hard to please. He has impossible levels of excellence for us, one step higher than perfection even.
We are way kinder to others. And so are others towards us.

When you meet someone who is learning your native language, you don’t think they’re stupid because they have an accent. You don’t consider them uneducated because they make a grammar mistake either. You surely won’t keep that one mistake in mind as the key factor to define the person.

What changes when you change your self-talk?

Imagine you start talking to yourself as you do with your best friend.
When something goes wrong, you’re supportive and try to cheer yourself up.
You look for a positive side to the misdeed and suggest a solution.
You remind them that no one is perfect and reassure them that there’ll be another chance.

At the end of the day, you’re not feeling like an incompetent failure. You found comfort and reassurance in your skills and you’re ready to do better tomorrow.

When you start believing that you are capable of doing good things, you start acting towards your goals.

Be kind and forgiving to yourself, instead of harsh and nasty.

Your self-confidence will grow and you’ll get rid of the nagging feeling that you’re doing something wrong.

5 tips to get rid of negative self-talk in language learning

1. Be mindful of your negative thoughts

Notice your self-talk daily. Be mindful of the words you use when talking about yourself as a person or your achievements. When something goes wrong, consider how you react to it in your head.

Catch yourself in the act of negative self-talk. Can you rethink it in a more compassionate way? Can you find one positive side of what went wrong?

For example, when you feel embarrassed because you mispronounce a word, don’t call yourself an idiot. Consider that making that silly mistake will help you remember the correct pronunciation without effort next time.

2. Walk in their shoes

When talking to a native speaker of the language you’re learning, picture the opposite situation.
They are learning your language and they chat with you. They use simple words and basic grammar. Sometimes they make a mistake or they ask you to repeat.

Do you think they’re a bore? Or are you happy they chose to learn your language and they’re interested in your culture?

3. Plan realistically, acknowledge your achievements

It’s easy to get frustrated at yourself when you don’t get things done. It’s also hard to get things done when you plan for more than you can realistically do.

Take a look at the week ahead and schedule language learning accordingly. Don’t plan to learn 2 hours a day on a week with 3 important work meetings to prepare for.

Whatever language learning activity you do during the day, write it in your diary. Acknowledge that you did something, be it vocabulary review or watching a movie in the language. Your inner critic won’t be able to call you a slacker.

4. Record your progress

The “you’re-not-getting-any-better” voice is a tough one. Give it what it deserves by regularly recording your progress.

Keep a notebook for your vocabulary and writing exercises. Go back to the first pages from time to time. Yes, you’re moving forward.

Record yourself speaking, too. There’s no need to share it with anyone, it’s only for yourself. When you listen to your old recordings you’ll have no doubts. Your pronunciation is getting better. You can make longer, more articulated sentences. You’re improving.

5. Say it out loud: what are you good at?

Deep inside, you know the things you excel in. You know the reasons why your friends appreciate you. Count the compliments you received recently.

Say it out loud. Repeat the loving words you received from someone, list your work achievements and your language progress. The words we speak are powerful. A bit magical, even.

Your inner critic and your negative self-talk ultimately come from fear.
Fear of not being enough, fear of rejection, fear of failure.
The only way to never make mistakes is to stop before trying.
So shut the critic up, get your hands dirty and do what you’re scared of.

Looking for ways to keep language learning in your life even on those days when anxiety won’t let go of you? Join this free 4-day email course and let’s discover together how to do just that.

negative self-talk

What is the criticism you use most often against yourself? Have you ever felt like your negative self-talk affects your language learning experience?


I’m Elena Gabrielli, introvert, grammar geek & proud Ravenclaw :)
I’m on a journey to help introverts and other quiet learners make language learning into a tool for self-care (and keep anxiety out of it).