What is Xenoglossophobia (and how to cure it)?

What is Xenoglossophobia (and how to cure it)?

by Alison Maciejewski Cortez

Updated November 9, 2022

If you have ever taken online language lessons or tried to learn a language at home, you might be familiar with xenoglossophobia. In the time leading up to your lesson, have you ever felt apprehensive? Do you get more worried and nervous as the time for your lesson draws near? Do you get a feeling of uneasiness that you can’t share, no matter how prepared you are or how much you studied?
If so, then you are familiar with xenoglossophobia, the fear of foreign languages. We all know the best way to learn a language is total immersion, but many language learners deal with this very specific fear. Today we are going to learn about xenoglossophobia and what steps we can take to overcome it. 

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What is xenoglossophobia?

The word xeno means foreign in Greek while the word glosso means language. Xenoglossophobia is literally the fear of speaking and foreign languages, a language learning phobia. Though it sounds like mild anxiety, it does exist in extreme forms.

A new scientific report by Böttger and Költzsch (2020) published in the Training, Language, and Culture journal describes how bad the reaction can be. Symptoms can include “extreme anxiety, dread and anything associated with panic such as shortness of breath…irregular heartbeat…excessive sweating, nausea…dry mouth and shaking.” 

What causes xenoglossophobia?

As with any phobia, the symptoms can vary from mild to severe. Essentially, xenoglossophobia is no joke. It’s what psychologists call a specific anxiety reaction because it is limited to a specific situation affecting people who don’t typically have anxiety. Much like a fear of public speaking, this phobia shows up right before a scary situation.

Scientifically, two neural systems are involved: the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. When you need to speak a foreign language, your brain automatically has a reaction causing you to feel anxiety.

Ever wonder why children are brave when speaking a foreign language (and thus learn faster) while adults are shy? The same Böttger and Költzsch study explains that the prefrontal cortex finishes developing between the ages of 20 and 25. If you are over the age of 20, your fear is biological.  

Traumatic events can even make things worse. How many language learners have the unfortunate experience of being ridiculed for making a mistake? What about the micro-trauma of trying your best just to have the other person switch to English? Things like this cause your brain to react more often and more severely. This makes it more likely you will be nervous in the future. Whether you are 25 or 45, let’s see how we can fight xenoglossophobia.

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Overcoming language anxiety

Just as with any phobia, you can train your brain to overcome the fear. It takes time and practice, but you can create an environment of positivity so that your brain is fooled into feeling good about speaking a foreign language.

Follow these five steps to cure xenoglossophobia:

  1. Identify and understand your fear. Hopefully our post today helps with this step!
  2. Improve your confidence. Start by working on listening skills instead of focusing on speaking.
  3. Be easy on yourself. Remember that you are a learner. Nobody is perfectly fluent right away. 
  4. Lower the stakes. Seek out one-on-one conversations instead of group settings. 
  5. Accept your mistakes. Don’t be discouraged by a slow conversation or a mistake.

Mistakes are a part of learning. Understanding why you feel so badly is the first step towards overcoming your fear. You can become a happy and carefree language learner. You just need to teach your brain how to learn in a more positive way. 

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Alison Maciejewski Cortez is Chilean-American, born and raised in California. She studied abroad in Spain, has lived in multiple countries, and now calls Mexico home. She believes that learning how to order a beer in a new language reveals a lot about local culture. Alison speaks English, Spanish, and Thai fluently and studies Czech and Turkish. Her tech copywriting business takes her around the world and she is excited to share language tips as part of the Lingoda team. Follow her culinary and cultural experiences on Twitter.

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