Anxiety and language: how anxiety impacted my ability to speak my second language

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I wrote this article months ago but never got around to sharing it. Within the span of a month I got a new job, moved country and settled into an entirely unexpected new routine, I simply couldn’t keep on top of things. The sunflowers may seem like a distant summer memory now but the topic is as relevant as ever. It’s about anxiety and expression, more specifically: how anxiety has impacted my ability to speak my second language.

Three years ago I was finishing my final semester at my French University. Presentations, exams, papers- I had no issue getting up in front of my teacher and 40 students and speaking perfect French non-stop for 40 minutes. Then came the year of stress, existential crisis and anxiety. Suddenly I found myself struggling to speak a single French sentence without stuttering or freezing.

This has been an incredibly frustrating experience for me as I’ve always really prided myself in speaking fluent French. I grew up in France. I had a French education. At University most people assumed I was French and there was even a time where I spoke better French than English (now THAT was also frustrating). What provoked this shift in self-confidence? I can trace it back to 8 months worth of weekly driving lessons. They triggered such a huge amount of anxiety the likes of which I had never experienced before. I now realize that this is actually a very common occurrence, but that doesn’t change the fact that I couldn’t cope with it at the time. The only thing that got me through those grueling months was exercise, yoga, books and Netflix (yep). Escapism was, and still is, my crutch.

I got my licence, thank the universe, but then I started working in retail. Suddenly I was faced with a different anxiety trigger: people. All it took was for one person to note a slight shift in my accent and my mind flipped: I started panicking, hesitating and forgetting simple words that had always come to me so naturally. It happened almost overnight and worsened over several months during my time as a temp in retail. My ability to understand the language had not been troubled, I could still understand every single word. But could I for the life of me have a simple conversation that didn’t involve me stressing about whether or not I would stutter? No. Obviously this made the entire situation 3000x worse. If you start thinking about what you’re going to say and whether or not you’re going to stutter in any language, you’re going to bloody stutter. And once you stutter it’s almost impossible to get back on track. The worst thing about the situation was by far the assumption that I was losing my French. I wasn’t translating things from English to French in my head, I think in both languages. I was just blubbering. People may have heard one poor conversation and assumed that I simply lost the ability to speak it completely (though I’m pretty sure it was my anxiety making me think other people were actually picking up on it); I think that illustrates just how big the problem had become. I was afraid to speak.

Anxiety affects speech-patterns. I have no issue speaking French when I am in a relaxed, comfortable state. When I’m with my friends the conversation flows like a stream. The same thing goes for telephone conversations, or writing. However whenever I was faced with a client asking me a technical question I couldn’t answer in either English or French, my brain would go into overdrive and all of sudden I just could not speak. It’ embarrassing when you can’t even think of a simple word. When I opened up about this to Summer, she gave me the answer I needed to hear: “You’ve just got to not give a sh*t”. She’s right. We love her for her blunt honesty.

From an outsiders perspective this probably isn’t perceived as a big deal. But for those of us whose lives are split between two or more countries, languages and cultures, the comment cuts deeper. It can make you feel like a failure. I would hear my brother, who is undoubtedly more French than I am, speak the language in such a natural way (Summer too) and it hurt me to think that I was trying to catch back up. The only positive I can draw from this experience is that it has made me stronger (queue cringey moment). It has definitely toughened me up a bit. Nothing has ever impacted my vision of self-worth more than my struggle to express myself in an articulate manner.

Anxiety is such a complex thing. I’ll never forget the moment I realized I was suffering from it. It’s quite strange to think about how much it has impacted my life in recent years, truly. I didn’t understand that it was the root of so many personal problems, including this one. When I finally made that connection, it was such a ‘oooh’ moment. I was actually overwhelmed with gratitude at that realization. Yes, it’s frustrating that it was/is somewhat out of my control but I’m comforted by the thought that doubt is all it is. It’s all down to self-confidence. Since beginning a new job, a bilingual job, I genuinely cannot believe how much this situation has improved. I actually had to edit all of this article into past-tense before publishing because my speech improved that quickly. To be honest, it was almost instantaneous. During my previous job in the summer, I took Summer’s advice and forced myself to calm down when I could feel myself slipping. Slow and deep breaths was all it took most of the time. In hindsight, I can see that the anxiety wasn’t just triggered by the people, it was triggered by my frustration, my lack of stability, my unhappiness.

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During my final week as a temp back in August, one of my colleagues noted how pronounced by English accent was, and it made me feel awful. I tried to explain that it was worse when I was stressed but I didn’t exactly feel like sharing all the details relating to my struggle (like how my job was contributing to my anxiety), so I just smiled and shrugged it off. I wasn’t able to express myself properly at the time anyway, I wanted to avoid any further embarrassment. A month and a half later, at my new job, my new French colleague tells me I have no accent and that my French is brilliant. I’m not afraid to speak anymore, nor am I rehearsing my sentences in my head. Isn’t it astonishing how quickly your mind can just bounce back when you’re in a better place? I will have to write a follow-up article about my experience working with a team of extra-ordinary multi-lingual people in the next few weeks. Hearing their stories and insights about language has been life-changing.

Having opened up about this struggle online I now know that Anxiety Related Speech Issues is actually a very common thing. It is a recognized phenomenon. I could not believe how many people got back to me and shared their own unique experiences with language and anxiety. We just haven’t had enough discussions about bilingualism or the impact it can have on our perspective on life, our relationships, our work - it is a complex subject that is begging to be explored.

I will strive to keep this dialogue open, because it is a universal issue. In such a strongly connected world, being bilingual is becoming more and more common. There is a very large community out there who may experience this for themselves one day and I’d like them to know that it is okay. I didn’t speak about it for so long because I truly thought I was just losing my French, and I felt deeply ashamed about it. It just wasn’t the case. You can never unlearn a language. Anxiety just sucks.

I hope you found this article interesting and informative. I would absolutely love to hear from other multi-lingual people!

Wishing you all a lovely Sunday,

Holly x

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