If you often find yourself hiding in the corner during any public event and mentally kicking yourself throughout the whole evening for not being able to come over and join a conversation, there’s a 99.9% chance that your diagnosis is introversion. Now, if severe attacks of expressive aphasia happen to you in your normal English-speaking environment, we both know what terror you experience when attempting to communicate in a language you barely know.
As an introvert, who habitually tries to avoid any type of oral communication in whatever tongue, I know how challenging it can be to start speaking a foreign language. Nevertheless, with the right approach, it is more than possible and even not so painful.
Read on to learn how to overcome this fear of expressing yourself in your target language – the introvert-friendly way.
Why is it harder for introverts to start speaking another language?
Susan Cain, the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (which, in my opinion, is like an analog of Bible for introverts), describes our typical “character bugs” with the striking precision:
“Introverts, in contrast, may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pajamas. They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions.”
The major problem should get clear by this point. To learn to speak a language, you have to start speaking in it at one moment or another. But, as an introvert, you tend to see speaking in general as a last resort.
If you have zero desire to express yourself, nothing will make you open your mouth. You may have the perfect understanding of a foreign language – but still don’t speak it. (Unfortunately, it is a fairly common phenomenon: introverts tend to be better language learners but our extra-low willingness to communicate undermines our success when it comes to using the language).
Quiet power: a different approach to language learning
Does all this mean that you are doomed to stay mute, no matter how much time you devote to learning a foreign language?
No. You can start speaking another language and have great conversations despite being an introvert. However, your approach has to be very different from one proposed by “speak-in-a-week” courses. You want to adjust it to your personality type and address your tendency to:
- Slip into the listening mode;
- Seek deep conversations and do everything possible to avoid small talks;
- Open your mouth only when you have something to say;
- Look for one-to-one conversations and shun group discussions.
So how, with all this in mind, can you help yourself start speaking another language?
How introverts can prepare themselves for conversations in a foreign language?
There are way too many courses out there that promise to turn anyone from an introvert to a hamster into a fluent speaker of the language X in a week.
And these courses work – for people with a certain personality type (here is a hint: it starts with E). Introverts, however, often get disappointed and for a simple reason: we have a different understanding of what a conversation should look like.
Is small talk unavoidable?
Introverts don’t need to share a bottle of wine to start one of those deep conversations that last for hours. But despite your drive for this kind of stuff, you simply don’t have linguistic tools for maintaining such discourse in a foreign language as a learner.
Simply put, you can’t keep a valid conversation going when your vocabulary size is limited to 1000 words. What you will have is a small talk of the type “Hey-how-are-you-my-name-is-Alina-I’m-from-Russia-yes-I-like-Spanish”.
Let’s admit it: anyone can memorize 10 simple phrases to present themselves. The question is whether this is all you want. For most introverts, the answer would be no.
In this case, forget about the common advice to start speaking a foreign language from day one. Do the opposite: learn to listen first.
Conversation is not speaking
Many learners miss out a very important point. A good conversation in whatever language starts with listening and understanding another party. There is little point in speaking if you are completely off topic. For this reason, learning to speak a foreign language starts with learning to understand it.
There is no rocket science behind this. Comprehension can be improved through and only through the massive exposure to the target language. Read, listen, and read and listen a lot, while ensuring that you are getting comprehensible input, and you will be ready to play your favorite listener’s part in two-three months.
Once you start to understand people, half of the problem is solved. You will feel less anxiety at the thought of having conversations since now you are less likely to get caught off guard by a question you didn’t get. Moreover, when natives see that you understand them (even though you don’t speak much), they would be more likely to keep talking to you in their language.
Wait for that feeling
After bombarding your hemispheres with foreign language input for long enough, you´ll see an interesting thing happening. More and more often, your brain will start throwing at you fragments of thoughts in the language you´re learning, justo como ahora.
It will feel like you think in two different languages simultaneously, and that’s a great sign. It means that you are ready to move on. Once you catch yourself thinking in your target language, try to put yourself into a variety of ‘F***, I have to say something‘ situations with speakers of your target language.
But do it smart.
Practice in the controlled environment
We introverts are great at having long and deep conversations – with ourselves. You yourself should be the first person you want to start speaking a foreign language with.
Once a part of your brain switched to your target language, you should slowly progress from having these silent dialogs with your alter-ego to thinking aloud, to having one-to-one conversations with a real person.
Exiting the silent mode can be a tough task. The only solution I found so far for making this transition smoother is Pimsleur courses. Hands down, Pimsleur is the best friend of introvert language learners. I don’t know any other program that would create a safer environment for practicing speaking skills on your own.
I used Pimsleur (and nothing else) to prepare for the speaking part of French DELF B2 exam and I still passed the test. So, yes, this thing trains you to speak even when you don’t get to talk to real human beings of flesh and blood. And since most of our problems with speaking stem from our psyche rather than from anything else, I find that overcoming this mental barrier with Pimsleur saves me a bunch of nerve cells.
Many of us suffer from what Dr. Krashen would call “over-monitoring” our language use.
Introverts tend to be very good language students with the quasi-perfect knowledge of grammar rules. So we tend to monitor everything we are about to say so that it sounds more or less grammatical. Needless to say, it slows down the response from our party and creates long uncomfortable pauses.
What needs to be understood here is that knowing a rule does not necessarily lead to applying it unconsciously.
Even after years of practice, you will still make stupid errors just because you are not a native speaker. I’ve been learning English for the last five years and lived in an English-speaking country for the last two. Nonetheless, something like “it doesn’t seems” or “I didn’t listened” may still come out of my mouth despite all my linguistic education.
You will have enough time perfecting your grammar once you start speaking a foreign language regularly. But before that happened, avoid fixating on the grammar and focus on conveying your thoughts instead.
How introverts can start speaking a foreign language without anxiety?
Introverts do not necessarily come in the form of nerdy individuals that avoid big companies like the plague and barely say a word on the meetings (as the society likes to portray us).
We do speak and we do enjoy socializing the same way the rest of the world does. The only difference is how and with whom. Some of us need to create aquarium-like conditions to feel comfortable speaking, such as:
- limit your interlocutors to people you know very well;
- reduce the number of humans per square meter to the minimum;
- remove any external source of noise.
From the personal experience, the quieter the environment is, the fewer people are there in the group, and the better I know them the more comfortable I feel expressing my thoughts.
If you can relate, then creating such an environment should be your first priority if you want to start speaking a foreign language.
Two ways to find the right people
The perfect learning situation for introverts would be to have a nice face-to-face conversation over a cup of tea with a good friend. But let’s be realistic: you have to go through nine circles of hell to just find that person and then invest a good amount of time in getting to know them well.
Unfortunately, more often than not any attempt to find a conversation partner awfully resembles looking for a date. HelloTalk becomes a linguistic analog of Tinder and Polyglot Club in my eyes turns into a blind date. Yikes, right?
I find that the better way to find the right people is to build on your interests and to look for communities of like-minded people abroad. For instance, one smart decision of mine was to depart to Spain for a couple of weeks and take a scuba-diving course with a Spanish-speaking instructor.1 Needless to say, such an experience did help me loosen my tongue quite a bit.
Keep in mind that to do so you have to already have reasonably good language skills and a certain level of determination. In any case, I don’t recommend disembark at foreign lands with a phrasebook.
Change your environment
What I noticed from the personal experience is that there are only two ways I can get myself speaking (whatever language): in a group of close friends or out of necessity.
This “out of necessity” option is worth considering. When you don’t have another choice rather than to start speaking another language (given that you know that another language), you have a better time getting out of your shell.
There are various ways to burn your ships. Go to another country for a study exchange, employment, volunteering or learning a skill. Or do similar things in your home country, if you find your target-language community there. Everything goes as long as it puts you in a regular and – what’s more important – inevitable contact with native speakers. Create an environment that pushes you to speak the language – going “just for travel” never works.
For example, while I live in Ontario (which is an English-speaking province of Canada), I committed to completing a part of my university degree in French. This way, every year I have to take at least a couple of linguistic courses in French. So far, having a boatload of coursework has done a good job at forcing me to speak, write and think in French on a regular basis.
Start speaking another language the introvert-friendly way
If you are an introvert, speaking will always be for you one of the hardest skills to harness. But you need to accept that you have a hard time speaking not because you’re bad at languages. It’s because you use language differently.
You may have a good proficiency level, but some part of you would still insist that you can’t speak your target language. What you have to understand is that this sense of insecurity comes from the lack of practice, and the latter stems from your personality.
But eventually, it all comes down to preparing well and putting yourself into the right situation. You won’t have any problem to start speaking another language if you already understand it well. So get to know yourself, sharpen your comprehension skills and create the environment that would push you forward. Leave all the rest.
Image credits: Photo by Mihai Surdu on Unsplash