Amy Melendez was in a supermarket in Maryland with friends when it happened to her.
She had ordered one of her favorite drinks, a corn-based beverage from Central America called atole.
She began to drink her atole when a man nearby asked if it was good. But the man was using casual language and Melendez did not understand his question. So she said, “I don’t know.”
The man then asked how it was possible for her not to know how the drink was.
That's when the laughter began. The man laughed. Her friends laughed. Amy Melendez felt a little foolish.
Her spoken exchange with the man was entirely in Spanish.
Melendez is a Spanish learner. But she is also an English language teacher. Currently, she supervises English and service worker training programs at 32BJ in Maryland.
Melendez has shared the supermarket story with many of her students. She wants them to know she can relate to the challenges of learning a language.
Being laughed at or joked about can happen no matter what language you are learning. And it may make some learners nervous about speaking their new language.
However experts say there are ways to overcome those feelings. So on Education Tips today, we offer suggestions from a few teachers.
Why do people laugh?
But first, let’s explore why some people laugh.
Wynter Oshiberu teaches English in Washington, D.C. and Maryland, including for the International Center for Language Studies and a nonprofit group called Paper Airplanes.
She says most people who laugh are not trying to be mean or hurtful. Instead, a language learner’s pronunciation or way of putting words together may sound unusual to some native speakers and can take them by surprise.
“And they’re not thinking about how it might make the other individual feel who's learning the language... It’s just a natural instinct when you hear something that sounds a little bit different than what you would expect to hear or how you would expect to hear it.”
If the way you say something sounds different or unusual to a native speaker, that person may not have had much contact with foreigners.
Josh Plotkin is an American living in Brazil. He has been fluent in Portuguese for years. He operates a website called BrazilianGringo.com, which teaches foreigners how to live in Brazil and improve their spoken Portuguese.
On his website, Plotkin notes that some Brazilians who have little contact with foreigners laugh at him because they aren't “used to hearing an American speaking Portuguese.”
He notes similar experiences when traveling in other countries and trying to speak their languages.
But whether the reason is lack of contact or something else, we have tips for overcoming the fear of using your English.
Tip #1 – Relax; be patient with yourself
The first suggestion is to relax and be patient with yourself, a piece of advice from Oshiberu.
She says to remind yourself that you are learning the language, so it is normal to make mistakes. She advises not to be too hard on yourself.
“I think sometimes the best thing to do is just smile and just breathe and relax and…try not to let the fear of laughter stop you from learning the language or immersing yourself in the language.”
Oshiberu also suggests learners avoid setting learning goals that are too strict, which can sometimes become a barrier rather than help.
Other experts note that people who make jokes or laugh may not have studied a second language. This is yet another reason not to judge yourself by the reactions of others.
Plotkin warns against worrying that people are thinking, “You look like a fool trying to speak our language.” Ideas like these can hurt your progress and be a barrier to fluency.
Tip #2 – Practice your speaking skills
The second tip is to practice your speaking skills.
Both Melendez and Oshiberu say practice is one of the best ways to deal with fear.
Melendez suggests doing role plays. In a role play, two or more people act out an imaginary situation; for example, going to a market or talking to a bus driver.
“If you know there’s a new situation – a situation you might not feel comfortable in, what are the phrases you might need? What are the words? Is there someone you can practice with? But definitely just going through those role plays will help you overcome the fear."
You can imagine, for example, your friend is a bus driver. You have a lot of questions about taking the bus. You can practice the questions on your friend.
Oshiberu says another solution is to record your voice as you train by yourself. That way, you can listen for mistakes, whether in your wording or pronunciation, and correct them.
Tip #3 – Don’t be afraid to ask questions
Our third tip is: Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
If you are worried about what to do in the moment when someone makes a joke, the solution can be simple: Kindly ask the person the reason for the laughter, like this, says Melendez:
“‘Is there a different way that I could have said it?’ or ‘How would you usually say it?’”
She said the issue could be something very simple. Then, once you know the issue, you can bring the information to a trusted person, such as a friend or practice partner, and ask them to help you correct it.
Tip #4 – Keep a sense of humor
The fourth and final tip is to keep a sense of humor.
Keeping a sense of humor can make the long process of learning a language more fun. You might even laugh with the person who is laughing or making the joke. This may feel strange at first but gets easier with time.
Josh Plotkin notes that, over time, he has come to understand that being laughed at when speaking a foreign language is not a bad thing. He has learned not to take it personally. These days, he even laughs along with the people, using it as a way to make new friends.
I’m Alice Bryant.
Alice Bryant wrote this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Words in This Story
beverage – n. something you can drink
casual – adj. not suited for serious or official speech and writing
challenge – n. something that is hard to do
pronunciation – n. a particular person's way of saying a word or the words of a language
instinct – n. the way people or animals naturally react or behave, without having to think about it
fluent – adj. able to speak a language easily and very well
immerse – v. to make yourself fully involved in some activity or interest
strict – adj. used to describe a command or rule that must be obeyed
moment – n. a precise point in time
practice – v. to do something again and again in order to become better at it