IWTYAL 041: Introverts and language learning

itunesButtonIn this episode, I discuss how introverts deal with learning foreign languages.

In this episode:

  • I am an introvert by nature, despite what you may guess from my public persona!
  • How I suffer from shyness in groups
  • How this has impacted my language learning
  • Why living abroad hasn’t been a “no-brainer” for me
  • How I nevertheless enjoy speaking, and base my language learning on speaking with people I genuinely like

Are you an introvert?

Please let me know how this has affected your language learning in the comments below!

Resources mentioned in todays episode:

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  • Johnny

    You could have just profiled me to a t in episode 41! I have real difficulties entering a gathering when I don’t know people. I tend to go for my tried and tested divide and conquer approach. For me language learning allows me to be a person, or have a persona that I don’t have in my normal day to day life. I’ve done intercambios in the past through meetup and enjoyed them, the problem there is that you’re limited by the strength or weakness of the group. I’ve found that in established groups usually the least profficient have the largest voice. I love your podcast and have gotten onboard with hellotalk, so much so that I now whatsapp people that I’ve met on hellotalk. I know I should start talking again, but I really want to crack certain elements of the subjunctive first. Hay tantos detonantes, pero poco a poco tendré exito. ¡Un saludo!

    • Hey Johnny. “Language learning allows me to be a person, or have a persona that I don’t have in my normal day to day life.” … I really identify with this. When I speak Brazilian Portuguese, for example, I feel I am in many ways the person I really want to be.

  • Jessica Denham

    Ahhhh! Episode 41!!! This hit on my main problem with languages. I’m not an introvert but rather a shy extrovert. I like meeting new people, and being in crowds, but it’s much harder for me in an unfamiliar context. Initiating conversations can be tough, and more so if it’s high-stakes. I get wound up about wasting my chance with someone. But your observations about having a persona for this were really helpful!

    • A quiet extrovert… I love it. I also have that feeling of “wasting chances”… I sometimes think about how much more successful I could have been if I’d only taken every opportunity I’ve ever had to speak with people.

  • dcv

    Great topic. This is definitely me. I tried going to language exchange meetups, and it usually went horribly because it was this huge group and I’m not someone who easily can insert myself into the group and have a productive study session in that environment. The only time I had good experiences would be if one of the members of the group, usually someone pretty extroverted, would make the effort to work with me one-on-one. Also, because different people tended to show up every time, I hated having to constantly meet new people.

    I gave up on that, and now I have a regular language exchange partner who I Skype with every week, along with a couple Italki teachers, and that’s much more comfortable way for me to learn.

  • Max

    I’d like to second Olly’s recommendation of the book Quiet, even if you’re not sure if you’re introverted (perhaps you consider yourself just shy or antisocial). I found the book very enlightening and even empowering in some ways; kind of like: it’s okay to want alone time and not feel guilty about blowing off social events now and then, and in fact this may even be a good idea to prevent social burnout (not the language she used, but I’m sure fellow introverts understand what I mean).

    I haven’t found its effected my language learning too much yet, as I’m good in one-on-one situations, especially if both parties are clear about why they’re meeting (eg as in a language exchange). As I’m learning Japanese and not in Japan, I haven’t run into situations that require using the language spontaneously (except once at the end of a sushi meal, when I had finally worked up the nerve to say ‘gochisosama deshita’ [something like ‘thanks for the meal’] and the chef replied “I’m Korean” 😛 ); I’m sure this spontaneous use of the language in face-to-face interactions with strangers will initially give me some anxiety but that I’ll get used to it with experience.

  • ToGusDS

    You an introvert? really?? I wouldn’t guess :p
    I thought you were an extroverted
    My problem is that I’m not only introverted but also perfectionist so I don’t want to talk until I feel I have enough vocabulary and grammar to understand and keep talking.
    But when I went to study Italian I was really surprised that I can keep talking to whoever wanted to talk about whatever and my personality switched to something more easy going I don’t understand why i can’t do the same with my mother tongue.

    • Luís Romão

      I think I have the same problem. I don’t feel like talking (because I know I’ll make mistakes) and because of that I end up hindering my progress…

  • Yeah I’m not alone ! Thank you for this podcast.
    Sometimes I find it easier to speak in foreign languages because being a foreigner sort of “authorize” me to do mistakes. But still. My main problem are the new possibilites like skype and italki. I’d love to use them, but they are as bas as the phone for me : I am just way too stressed about using them (even in my mother tongue this is a problem). I am slightly more at ease in real-life situations because I feel like I can manage better at understanding and making myself understood with a real person in front of me, whereas skype and phone talks are only an option once I know somebody well and I speak the language well … So it’s quite out of the question when I’m learning a language, which is very problematic and prevents me from enjoying really great tools, it seems.

  • Kaylin Worthington

    Hey! I feel similarly. I found it hard to score well in speaking on the AP tests for Spanish and French because I was so worried about what people thought of me, even though they said the classroom was the place to make mistakes. I can speak much more fluidly when it’s just me and my thoughts, or when people are counting on me to translate. I felt empowered then. But It’s hard to stop fear from holding me back!

    • It is indeed, Kaylin – thanks for taking the time to comment!

  • I’m also an introverted language learner, and am socially quite anxious. I try not to let this stop me from doing anything (inc. learning languages), but it’s not always easy. My anxiety is worse when doing things in groups or talking to people for the first time. I have been talking to my online tutor for moths now, but can still feel panicked, sick and all those horrible anxious feelings for hours before a session. I have a couple of mantras I repeat to myself, one is ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’, the other is ‘what’s the worse that could happen?’…I’ve found that imagining the worse case scenario can be quite helpful! For example I’m always worried that I won’t understand a thing my italki tutor is saying and feel like I’ve forgotten everything. When this has happened on occasion it’s never been as bad as I’ve imagined, and I’m still here! Nothing terrible happened to me! I think a lot of my anxieties come from fear of being wrong or making mistakes, and worrying what other people will think. These things are quite counterproductive for language learning, so it’s been important for me to try and work on my anxiety. I’ve also found things like rescue remedy, chamomile tea, meditation, yoga and talking to others helpful. Will try and get a copy of the book you mentioned. Thanks for an interesting podcast.

    • You’re welcome Emma, and good to hear from you. I’m curious, how close do you feel to your tutor now? You mentioned you’ve been studying with them for month, but you still suffer from those feelings of anxiety even though you must know them quite well?

  • Ritchie Smith

    For me the effect is one of hesitancy. If I hesitate to speak at all my confidence goes out the window and I appear much less competent than I am. Acting on first impulse provides confidence to build on. In social settings, similarly real or perceived pressure (external or internal) can result in my either just listening to others enjoy talking to one another or having a conversation sounding very hesitant and uncomfortable. Again speaking at first impulse helps but also being comfortable with the person you’re talking to is just as important. Groups are less manageable that way ; )

    • Yes absolutely. That’s generally why I like to find language partners I’m comfortable with, so I can express myself more freely.

  • Katie Kermode

    I have just become acquainted with this podcast and have to say that this particular episode resonates very deeply with me – it feels as if I could have authored it! I agree with the point that introversion and shyness/social anxiety are two separate but closely related things. While I am completely comfortable in my introversion and see it as a distinct advantage in many ways, feeling anxious in social situations is a hindrance for me (even in my native tongue) and is certainly amplified when I don’t have mastery of the language. I have always been good at picking up grammar but found conversation classes stressful and hard to enjoy. I’ve recently realized how that has held me back from fluency and it struck me as a bit odd that I would gravitate toward learning languages as a hobby when I struggle with talking to new people. I, too, am perfectly happy spending a lot of time by myself or with a small group of people with whom I’m close. It really gave me hope to hear that you’ve been able to make that approach work for you even in language learning circles. Thank you!!!

  • thiago

    I really loved this podcast and I wish you talk more about introverts. I am an introvert myself and I think it was an advantage, ’cause people tend to like listeners than people who talk a lot. I am a Brazilian, and when I was learning English I always liked listening to people talk, and they liked it about me. Of course I like speaking but I don’t care much about it, and I make real friends with this tactic. I’ll definitely read suzan’s book this year. Actually I have already watched her speech on TED Talk but I didn’t know she had a book about it. If anyone wants to watch, here is the link: http://www.ted.com/talks/susan_cain_the_power_of_introverts

  • disqus_xoxEKB3QRB

    I think you being an introvert

  • Steve Coupe

    Hi Olly. I love your podcasts and am just catching up with some of your past ones so my response is somewhat belated. I was interested in your thoughts about introversion and social anxiety. As I see it introversion is the trait that often underlies and is played out as social anxiety or lack of confidence. I’m very aware how social anxiety can be a huge hurdle to language learning and was interested when you spoke of your own experience of overcoming social anxiety by focussing on what you were trying to achieve and accepting the anxiety that is generated. I’m not sure if you’re aware but there is a whole area of psychology that adheres to these very principles; Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). There is a very good/readable book on this subject by Dr Russ Harris, ‘The Confidence Gap – From Fear to Freedom.’ Thanks for all the great podcasts!

    • Hi Steve, great to hear from you. I’ve come across ACT before, but never looked into it in detail. I’ll definitely order the book you mentioned, thanks for the recommendation!

      • Steve Coupe

        No problem, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on it.