Talking about being an introvert is a hip subject this moment in time. What made it so? Maybe it was the popularity Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. Maybe it was the fact that taking the Myers Briggs test with your breakfast is a much touted way to start your day while determining your personality type. Maybe it’s because introverts are really starting to speak up, from within their comfort zones, tucked safely behind witty Internet usernames.
The important thing is that introverts are now being catered to. Silently.
If you’re an introvert learning a foreign language, you’re probably not very thrilled about the seemingly simple advice to “just get out there, meet people, and start speaking”. Seriously? If it were that simple, we’d all be doing that.
I’m a language teacher and a language learner. I am also an introvert. And living proof that introverts are not shy. If I can speak in front of a classroom for four hours a day, surely I don’t hate people, and I’m not afraid of public speaking. But a lot of my students are also introverts, and they don’t have it as easy. I’m writing here to offer the same advice that I offer them.
1. Seek the company of other introverts
I know I might as well have said look for the holy grail, but bear with me. What makes introverts tired is the constant social pitter patter, the forced interaction and the meaningless small talk. Especially face to face. Especially in a large group.
You don’t have to be a social butterfly to interact in a foreign language. You just have to find your people. I recently joined a Facebook group for introverts that has 4000 members. Other introvert language learners are out there. I can guarantee it. Roughly half of my language students were introverts, and probably a quarter of the rest were introverts posing as extroverts (Is it ever the other way around?) Other introverts know and understand the struggle, because they live it too.
Because connecting to other people doesn’t come so natural for introverts, they tend to choose their company very carefully. Very carefully. Avoid the meaningless chatter. Train yourself to have enough patience to get to the deep conversations that you thrive on. It won’t happen with everyone, but you will find your people.
2. Find your language buddy
We already know that we don’t like large groups. But interacting with only one person is manageable. What if, it just so happens that the other person is your “language buddy”, someone who either speaks the language natively or who is at a more advanced level than you are. Once you built trust, ask this “buddy” to offer corrections to some of your mistakes. Remember, some mistakes, not all mistakes should be corrected at the same time. For example, one time they will correct your use of idioms, while another time they’ll help you improve the pronunciation of certain words.
This person can be a language tutor, but that’s not a necessity. However, you do need to make sure you create a mutual trusting relationship in a safe environment. Peer-to-peer interactions should aim to create a “learning ecology”, in which peers should be both a teacher and a learner.
3. Do it in writing first
Some introverts will even find the previously described interactions as too overwhelming. If you do, my advice to you is “do it in writing first”. Other people can be a tremendous source of inspiration, ideas and resources when you’re learning a foreign language. But you don’t necessarily have to interact with them verbally. You can always ask and answer questions in writing. It’s less intimidating. It gives the contemplative introverts more satisfaction, and it’s a good way to start or join a “learning ecology”.
You don’t have to limit yourself to language learners either. You can exchange written advice with lifelong learners, people who like to travel, or people who like to learn about other cultures. Once you become comfortable with your written exchanges, then nobody’s stopping you from switching to Skype conversations, voice chats, or even face-to-face discussions.
4. Limit it
As I’m sure most introverts would agree, introverts don’t hate other people. They’re also not shy. It just so happens that social interaction leaves them drained of energy and depleted of words. So one workaround that would be to limit the time in which you’re willing to interact. Pick a language class that doesn’t focus on games. Leave a language meetup earlier. Say no to a networking event or to a Skype conversation if you feel it will drain you. This is not about looking for excuses to stay within your comfort zone. It’s about being protective of your choices so that you can give the best of yourself when you do choose to connect.
5. You don’t have to talk your day away
A lot of language learners focus on speaking a foreign language from the get go. But nobody talks (shocking, I know) about the learners who just want to read in a foreign language, or whose aim is to be able to watch movies or listen to music. Don’t feel guilty if your learning goals are not “speak language fluently”. You’re not the only one. The speakers are just more vocal about setting their objectives.
6. Talk to yourself
Introverts recharge their depleted energy by spending time with themselves. They often get lost in rumination and contemplative states. Just use that time to learn too. Reformulate your thoughts in a foreign language. That doesn’t sound scary, does it?
7. Use it to your advantage
Because introverts are used to doing a lot of thinking and observing rather than interacting, they’ll pick up on things that extroverts might not. They’ll be the first to pick up on cultural cues and non-verbal communication. They have the ability to focus on others, and perceive the nuances of their personalities. This is a valuable asset, especially in an intercultural environment.
For introverts, listening comes easier than speaking, so a lot of the times they develop good listening and comprehension skills. This gives introverts the advantage of accumulating a large passive vocabulary, and a knack for the right twist of the phrase.
In addition to this, because they pay close attention to details most introverts are good at picking up grammar notions, phrases and structures that might escape others.
If you’re an introvert who pays attention, you’re already ahead of the curve of the unfocused, wavering chatterboxes.
8. Own it.
See your introversion as a superpower. What can you use it for? Introversion/Extroversion is a spectrum, not an either/or. So figure out where you stand on that spectrum, at any given time, and make the best of it. Ultimately, don’t bow to the pressure to be the life of the polyglot party. Learning a foreign language should be a fun, fulfilling and thoughtful journey. If you associate it with something that depletes you of energy, you will come to dislike it. Don’t let it be a drain on your disposition. You’ll end up resenting the language, the process and ultimately learning.
You’ve been reading a guest post by Mickey Gast
“My name is Mickey Gast. I have been a language teacher since 2007, in corporate and classroom settings. I specialize in teaching adult learners because I get a tremendous amount of satisfaction when I see my students gain the confidence to use the new language. I’m also a freelance writer for hire. I read, research and write about the best ways to study a foreign language as an adult, techniques for learning and retention, language software and apps, career development and language learning, personal development and language learning. I blog about language at Panglossity. I also created a course called 15 Strategies to Learn a Foreign Language for Swedish startup Daily Bits Of.”