My students had a chance to meet with an American dignitary a while ago. The guest wanted have a conversation with the young people of Okinawa but I was later told most of the student could not voice their opinions well because they were too self-conscious of their English. Most of the students just sat there, smiling awkwardly. It was such a waste of a great learning opportunity.
My students are not yet fluent but they are able to make small talk in English with their classmates. I think the problem was that they tried to speak beyond their speaking level.
I later told some of my students this story.
Speaking English with foreigners is like serving green tea to a Japanese friend who has come to your house for a visit.
There is a way to serve a perfect cup of green tea. You bring water to a boil and then cool it a little. Then you measure the correct amount of high-grade tea leaves into the teapot and carefully pour in the hot water. When you pour the tea into teacups, you do not fill one cup at a time. You pour small amounts of tea into each of the teacups and continue until there is an equal amount of tea in each cup and the color and flavor is even.
When your friend comes for a visit, would you hesitate serving tea to your friend because you are not confident you can make a perfect cup of tea? Or would you just do the best you can and serve an OK cup of tea?
Your friend did not come to test if you can serve excellent tea. He just wanted to see you and have a nice chat. He is more interested in you than the quality of the cup of tea. A perfect cup of tea is nice, but not a requirement.
When a foreign person talks to you in English, she just wants some help or information. Or she may want to get to know you. Whatever the case, the foreigner is more interested in what you have to say than how well you say it.
For example, let's say a foreigner is looking for a travel guide book called "Rikka" at a convenience store and asks you to help find it. You cannot find it and ask the clerk, who tells you that the guide book is not in stock but you can find it at the bookstore next door. You are nervous and you cannot explain the situation in English. It is OK to just blurt out a few words:
"Let's...bookstore."The foreigner will understand from those two words that the guide book is not in stock here but you will help him find it at the bookstore.
What is most important in this case is that the man gets his guide book. It is not important that you speak in excellent English. He would not care. He will just be very happy that you helped him. He will never think "Wow, her English was terrible." Foreigners who come to Japan do not expect Japanese people to speak King's English.
On the other hand, he is the one who should be trying to speak in Japanese. After, all this is Japan, not his country.
Your speaking English to a foreigner is like serving green tea to a friend. It is omotenashi. Do your best with the skills you have and everyone will be happy. Perfection is an option, not a requirement.