How To Overcome Brain Blocking When You Learn French

by | Jul 26, 2021 | French language tips, Learn French

How many times has this happened to you? You finally muster up the courage to speak French — whether it’s ordering food, calling the bank, or a conversation with relatives. Feeling ready and rehearsed you start to speak … and then all of a sudden… frozen, you go totally blank, trou noir

These are brain blocks, and they happen to the best of us. Let’s take a deeper look. 

Picture this. Here’s the set up: Today is your French day! 

You’ve decided that you won’t speak English today. You’re going to speak 100% in French, oui ou oui. Even if the bartender or shop assistant notices your accent, you know the key sentences to continue in French:

  • Je voudrais continuer en français 
  • Je vais vous répondre en français 
  • Est-ce que nous pouvons continuer en français ? 

Once you arrive in front of your interlocuteur, you confidently say the first sentence you had carefully prepared in your head. But then, getting an unexpected and incomprehensible answer back, you start to panic. 

You blush. You sweat. You start to hate yourself. You feel like you should be able to understand what they said. You feel stupid. 

Ugh, I should be able to do this by now. 

Do these kinds of situations sound familiar to you? How many times have you felt guilty and disappointed for not understanding? 

If yes, you’re not alone! Welcome to the world of language learning. So many language learners on this planet (including myself) experience this. This phenomenon is what I call “brain blocking” and it happens in lots of situations. And many people experience them, even polyglots. 

Brain blocks may feel horrible and slightly traumatizing but actually, brain blocks are amazing — a blessing in disguise. Why? Because they give you very specific signals about your learning journey and your progress. 

In this article, I’ll help you identify what a brain block is, where they come from and why they happen. I’ll also explain to you why they’re not as traumatizing as you think they are and how you can overcome them. 

What is a brain block? 

an inability to concentrate, think or reason clearly, resulting in a lack of drive.

As mentioned earlier, brain blocks happen to maaaaaany people. I’ve been brain blocked myself for almost 25 years with Dutch. I hated my teachers, I couldn’t identify with Dutch speakers and the Flemish community in Belgium, and my mom used to tell me that they were bad people when I was a kid. 

Where do brain blocks come from? 

Brain blocks come in many shapes and sizes. Maybe you can relate to the following:

  • Self doubt: You don’t feel smart enough to learn French. You believe you’ll never be fluent.
  • Indecisiveness: You’re too scared to make decisions or take action. So you standstill and don’t make any at all.
  • Fixed mindset: Your mindset is not in “learning French” mode yet and everything is firmly anchored to your native language. You translate absolutely everything in your mother tongue and refuse to let it go or change the way you think.
  • Comparison: You constantly compare yourself to others — your kids, partner, friends … and you feel bad about your performance and progress in French.
  • Limitless and Impractical Goals: You set yourself unrealistic and unattainable goals. You want to do it all immediately. Like being bilingual in 3 months.
  • Comfort Zone: You don’t want to leave your comfort zone because you’re not used to it. You need constant confirmation in English or your native language. You hate being uncomfortable. 

Brain blocks don’t appear out of the blue. They can be accelerated or enclencher by one of the following factors and completely destroy your learning journey and motivation…

  • Your teacher is a biyatch. You feel humiliated when you speak during your class and the learning environment is toxic (read me).
  • You just don’t understand. And you aren’t surrounding yourself with comprehensible input.
  • You don’t practice enough to advance or notice improvement.
  • The connection to your native language is impossible. French is just too different.
  • Your environment is discouraging and depressing.
  • Your partner (and native speaker) is not a good teacher or not a teacher at all: you are constantly corrected by your partner with sentences like « on ne dit pas ça comme ça » , « non, c’est pas ça, c’est ça » , «  je ne sais pas pourquoi on dit ça comme ça mais c’est comme ça »
  • You don’t study enough.
  • You study the wrong way. You don’t do your exercises or homework. You don’t read out loud. You don’t try to think in French. You think that attending a course is simply enough.

All these above factors will lead to the same stressful result: brain blocks. 


Now that we know what block brains are, I’ll explain to you how block brains happen and how they create anxiety when you speak French. 

Brain blocks are dependent on our memory skills.

Our short-term memories help us remember things like a door code, an address you need for a specific moment, or how many beers are left in the fridge…

You remember for now, but your brain will quickly forget. It needs the space for other more pressing things, after all.

To make our long-term memory work effectively the one and only secret for success is… repetition. 

Here are the things you’ve mastered thanks to repetition: 

  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Driving 
  • Speaking in your native language 
  • Swimming 
  • Riding a bike
  • Counting  

It’s the same thing with learning languages, including French. In other words, only attending a course without any extra practice, repetition or self-study will probably lead you to uncomfortable situations that will provoke brain block. 

Okay but, can we pause for juuuust a second?

I have one question for you. Please answer very very very honestly…

Do you study, reread your notes, or practice outside of your regular French class? 

If the answer is no, then please keep reading…  

The main reason students face brain blocks is because they don’t study on their own. 

In other words — if you freeze and panic in French, it’s because you don’t study enough by yourself.

Self-study is mandatory for progress and overcoming brain blocking. Unfortunately, many students skip this step. 

Here’s what happens when you skip self-studying: 

You know you’ve studied X,Y,Z in class and when you face X,Y,Z in real life, you freeze because you didn’t practice how to implement it.

You know you’ve studied X,Y,Z and you should have remembered it by now. Your intelligence and memory is challenged and you feel guilty and deflated because you think you should know by now. 

There is also another reason why brain blocks happen and this one will most probably reassure you if you didn’t identify yourself so far… Your teacher! 

If your teacher gives you a vocabulary list to study without putting words and grammar in real-life context, chances are you’ll struggle to implement it in your life. 

I grew up in Belgium when I was asked by my Dutch teacher to translate word by word sentences. How can this be useful when you need to speak? Unless you want to become a professional translator, this teaching approach is total rubbish. 

It was similar in English classes where students were asked to study a list of irregular verbs and fill in the blank for a quiz. 

In my opinion, these two teaching approaches should be forbidden, once and for all. 


Why brain block are not as traumatizing as you think

Brain blocks give you a very clear signal about your progress in French:

1) You are almost there — yay! 

2) But your self-study thus far is not enough

Ultimately, it means that you’ve given enough effort to know that you need to do more. 

Putting in effort and working hard is mandatory for your learning journey. Take these signals as a way to understand that even if you are on the right track, your journey is not over just yet. 

Knowing that, consider changing your way of studying (or diversifying it):

  • Handwrite your notes, vocabulary, phrases or grammar rules and exceptions you’re struggling with
  • Practice in front of the mirror (talk to yourself aloud!)
  • Seek out materials for native speaks so you can train your ears

Once you diversify, shake up and amp up your studying, it’ll be an amazing feeling of accomplishment and progress — I promise. Success is waiting for you on the other side! 

What to do to overcome brain blocking? 

So now that you know you still have work to do, you have 2 simple options. 

  1. You can continue to feel totally discouraged. Infact, you can abandon your French studies here. In the short or long term, this will probably add a traumatic feeling of failure that will be challenging to overcome.
  2. Tu prends le taureau par les cornes, and you don’t let yourself be defeated by these signals that are challenging you. No, it’s not pleasant. No, block brains are not flattering. But how amazing they can be to help you increase your resilience and self confidence not only related to your French skills — but the way you approach life.   

If you want to go for option 1) you can skip the rest of this article and leave this page. You’re not ready to implement a real change in your life and that’s totally fine. 

But if you are part of option 2) keep reading for my secret tips to face and overcome brain blocks. Because you’re ready to reach the next level and the following is for you… 

The best solution to overcome brain blocks is to … practice! 

It may sound obvious but find opportunities to meet, connect and practice with other learners and native speakers. 

  1. Join a language exchange group on facebook 
  1. Talk to yourself 
  2. Read 
  3. Listen to the radio or to a podcast 
  4. Join an online course 
  5. Take private classes (if you are not on a budget) 
  6. Do activities in French — yoga, cooking classes, game nights etc.
  7. Get outside your comfort zone 
  8. Practice at least 15 minutes a day. (Immerse yourself with movies, books, articles, social media accounts, radio, podcasts, …) 

As the old saying goes, practice makes perfect. 

And besides, you’re not the only one who’s felt flustered, embarrassed and stressed out during a brain block. But the question is — what are you going to do about it? The choice is yours. Remember, you’ve come this far already!  Join my weekly newsletter and share your story with me. 

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