Language Learning for Introverts

As the title suggests, this is a language learning guide for introverts from a fellow introvert.

But before we start, let us first examine the definition of an introvert.

According to most psychology experts, introverts are people who prefer calm, minimally stimulating environments. They are more internally focused, and are more prone to overstimulation when exposed to external stimuli, including social interactions, for a prolonged period of time. It is not the same thing as shyness. I’m not shy at all – I just find social interactions, among other things that require me to engage externally, draining. It happens even with my best friends. As much as I adore them and enjoy our time together, I max out quickly.

One of the reasons why introverts are the way they are is because they are more sensitive to external stimuli. Their brain kicks into hyper-alert mode and tries to take in as much information as possible from their surroundings. As you can imagine, having to keep the conversation going while your brain is trying to process all that can be tiring. It’s like trying to work while your kids run around the room screaming for your attention (that’s kind of how some social settings feel like to me, and I don’t even have kids).

Throw in the incredibly complex, demanding task of thinking and expressing yourself in a foreign language, and it’s not hard to see why we burn out as quickly as we do.

Many introverted language learners end up avoiding interacting with native speakers altogether and neglecting their speaking skills completely, but it doesn’t have to be that way. This guide aims to discuss ways to minimalise such overstimulation without losing out too much on the benefits one gets from interacting with native speakers, as well as how to prepare for when you actually want to, or have to interact with one.

What You Get from Interacting with Native Speakers

In order to make up for the learning opportunities you’re missing out on, you must first identify what those opportunities are.  

Exposure to Natural, Organic Speech

Talking to native speakers exposes you to how the language is used organically, especially in everyday scenarios. This includes everything from expressions and words that aren’t commonly taught in textbooks, to the unique ways they word things. If you’re speaking to them directly (through voice-chat or face-to-face interaction, as opposed to in writing), you will also be exposed to their pronunciation and intonation habits, which will in turn influence yours. It’s also a great opportunity for practicing your listening skills.

Speaking Practice

Again, this is assuming you’re speaking to them and not just exchanging text messages – it provides an opportunity to practice your speaking skills. It helps you get used to the process of expressing yourself verbally in the language, which is different from writing (it requires a much higher level of improvisation). It also helps hone your pronunciation and intonation, so they sound more native-like.

Learning to Express Yourself in the Language

This is perhaps the most important thing that you can get out of your interactions with native speakers. You learn how to express yourself in the language through expressing yourself in the language – by attempting to communicate your thoughts, feelings and experiences in the language you’re learning. In doing so, you will discover how others describe theirs, and begin to form your own way – and later, style – of expression. You begin by mimicking others, and then, once you’ve gathered enough information on how others express themselves, you will be able to break that information down and reassemble into something that feels like you.

Substituting Interactions with Native Speakers

Now, in order to not miss out on the aforementioned opportunities, you’re going to have to incorporate exercises that bring you more or less the same benefits, without risking overstimulation:

Consume a Wide Range of Content

First of all, you should consume as much content as possible, regardless of whether you’re an extrovert or introvert, as doing so exposes you to natural, organic usage of the language. You get to learn new words and expressions that your textbooks don’t teach you, as well as reinforce things you already know – you get to see how all those tenses you’ve learned are used in actual conversations, for example.

Make sure to keep your content selection balanced though. While not all introverts are avid readers, many of us are. It’s natural because we tend to favour activities that allow or encourage an inward focus – like reading, writing, or just thinking. And while listening is similar to reading in that it is a largely passive activity, listening in a foreign language isn’t. The cognitive process our brain goes through in order to parse the things we hear – to identify the sounds, analyse them and organise them into comprehensible chunks of information – is incredibly complex and demanding.

It’s literally mental acrobatics, which can get tiring really quickly, especially when you’re a beginner. And if you’re an extreme introvert like me, it can be very overwhelming. But just because it’s uncomfortable or potentially stressful, it doesn’t mean you should shy away from listening completely. Doing so will only lead to an uneven development of your language skills (i.e. struggles to understand relatively simple content, despite being able to read pretty well). What it means is that you should work on figuring out your limits, and pace yourself carefully – like studying audio-heavy content in small chunks – so you don’t strain yourself.

And it does get easier. I remember feeling super drained after just listening (albeit intensively) to a 10-minute clip in Korean. Now I can enjoy hour-long documentaries with ease.

Shadowing

Language learners who neglect speaking practice tend to have problems with their pronunciation and intonation. That’s because we improve those things mainly through actively mimicking what we hear from others, the same way babies learn to speak by repeating after the adults around them. Fortunately, there is a way to somewhat replicate that environment without needing to talk to an actual person, that is through the method of shadowing.

Shadowing refers to the act of repeating what you hear. This is usually done by picking an audio material to focus on (a dialogue in your textbook, a vlog on Youtube, a scene from a show in your target language), listening to it repeatedly, and then mimicking what you hear. Here’s an article on how I do this with Netflix, in case you’re interested.

While you can’t replicate the interactive element of conversing with an actual person using this method, it is a pretty good way to work on your pronunciation and intonation. Most of the native speakers I met when I first started speaking in my target languages said they were surprised that I sounded the way I did, given that I hadn’t done much speaking prior to my interactions with them. I personally think it was due to the amount of shadowing I did.

Write, and Talk to Yourself

Talking to others isn’t the only way to express yourself. Personally, I try to write in my target language as often as I can. The format doesn’t matter – it can be a simple diary entry, or a random essay on whatever topic I feel like writing about that day. I try to picture the topics I would like to talk about with someone, one day, in that language, and I write about it. Sometimes I would look up essays or articles on that same topic for inspiration. Sometimes I would come up with dialogues based on scenarios I can see myself being in some time in the future, and then read it out loud as speaking practice.

You can also record yourself speaking on your phone. I used to do this before going to bed. It’s a really simple exercise – just turn on the mic and start talking about… well, anything. I would talk about my day, or whatever that was on my mind. If you write often enough, you should know enough words and grammar to pull off a monologue. The key is to figure out what you would like to be able to talk about in your target language, and then figure out how to do them – whether it’s by looking up references online, checking the dictionary, or asking on forums. There are ways to practice communicating your thoughts in a language without having to speak to someone.

Interacting with Native Speakers at Your Own Pace

But just because you enjoy alone time doesn’t mean you should avoid interacting with native speakers altogether. Perhaps you even want to. I know I do. As humans, we all crave connection with other people from time to time, even though our preferred means may be different. Being an introvert doesn’t mean cutting out all social interactions – it means engaging in them at your own pace, and in ways that don’t cause you to burn out.

There are plenty of ways to do that. Here’s a list of things I do – and I do try to spread them out so I don’t end up overstimulating myself:

Writing Letters

I love writing letters. It’s one of my favourite ways to connect with someone because it provides a great degree of control – I get to choose when to write the letter, and when to send it out. I also get to take my time to formulate my response, and choose my words carefully. There’s no rush.

If you’re looking to incorporate letter-writing into your language learning routine, here’s an article that may help you out.

Join Online Forums

One of the first things I do, when I start learning a language, is seeking out online communities in that language. I was active on a number of sites and online forums growing up, and they provided a space for me to comfortably practice what I’d been learning by watching American sitcoms and reading novels. I think I owe at least half of my fluency in English to the time I spent in those communities. Like writing letters, there’s no pressure to reply immediately (unless it’s a chat room, which I tend to stay away from). And nowadays with social media, it’s a lot easier to curate things according to your hobbies and interests, too.

Text Chats

Once you’ve become more comfortable with talking to people online through forums and social media, you might want to try something more real-time, which demands a certain level of comfort with improvisation. Start small with text messages – there are language-exchange apps like hellotalk and Tandem that are made specifically for this – and then maybe slowly move on to voice messages, if you’re feeling brave.

Scheduled Calls

These are usually scheduled language exchange sessions on Skype or Discord where you spend half an hour talking in your target language, and another half talking in your partner’s target language (usually your native language). They’re awesome for improving your speaking skills, but can be nerve-wracking when you’re just starting out. My advice would be to ease into it – start with the simpler ideas mentioned above, and slowly work towards it. It’s not even about shyness – it’s the fact that you have to stay super focused for at least half an hour in a foreign language you’re not yet 100% comfortable with, which can be very tiring, and even more so if you’re nervous. And to think some of us get exhausted just from zoom calls alone.

What if You’re Just Shy?

There’s a chance that you clicked on this thinking it was a guide for people who are shy and insecure about speaking. ‘Introverted’ doesn’t mean ‘shy’, although you can be both. I do think, however, that it’s important for you to figure out what’s causing your reluctance to speak. Is it simply because it’s draining? Or are you afraid of making mistakes, or being judged?

If your answer is the latter, then I think what you need to do is create an environment where you feel comfortable and safe to make mistakes, and in doing so, slowly develop a tolerance for making mistakes. You can’t completely eliminate the fear of being judged right away, but you can reduce it by taking the necessary steps for you to feel safe and at ease, such as finding a tutor that you click with. Instead of diving straight into language exchange, which might put you in situations where you feel embarrassed or worried about troubling your partner with too many questions, studying with someone whose job is literally to help you make mistakes and improve may be more effective.  

You might also find yourself craving for interactions with native speakers, especially if your issue is shyness and not necessarily introversion. In that case, try to start small – test the waters a little, so to speak, with something small, like joining an online study group, or sending text messages to someone on hellotalk or tandem. Pace yourself, go slow – there’s no need to rush into video calls just because other people are doing it.

Conclusion

To sum it up, there are plenty of other ways to enjoy the same benefits (more or less) of talking to people who speak your target language without actually talking to anyone. There are also other ways to interact and connect with them that are less intense and draining – you just need to be strategic about it.

Like all things, introversion is a spectrum – it’s not a ‘you’re either an introvert or not an introvert’ situation. There are degrees to how introverted a person can be, and it can shift from time to time due to a host of factors, some of which are circumstantial.

Some of the strategies mentioned here may even seem kind of extreme to you – I consider myself to be extremely introverted, and I manage my time spent on socialising very carefully. I cherish them, but I know my limits. It’s a bit like being on a diet for health.

What I hope is that this article may provide you with ideas that you can plan your own diet with. Incorporate the ones that work for you, throw out the ones that don’t – or tweak them so they fit your needs. We’re all different, which means there cannot be a one-size-fits-all solution that works for everybody. I hope you find yours, and if you have any ideas, please don’t hesitate to share them in the comments!