on April 15 2010 08:12 am 7

Foreign Language Learning for Introverts: Speaking Practice Tips for Immersion Situations

Sure, reading we like. Small talk? Eh, not so much. (Painting: Woman Reading by Candlelight by Peter Vilhelm Ilsted)

Sure, reading we like. Small talk? Eh, not so much. (Painting: Woman Reading by Candlelight by Peter Vilhelm Ilsted)

Being an introvert doesn’t mean you can’t get lots of conversation practice in another language and you don’t have to pretend to be an extrovert to do it, either.

Just to clear up a common misconception, technically “introverted” and “shy” aren’t the same thing. A shy person often wants to be more social, but finds it difficult.

We introverts can be social with no problem, but avoid doing so very often because we find it draining. We usually prefer one-to-one or small-group conversations and avoid mingling in large groups. A lot of us hate pointless chit-chat, preferring more serious, deeper conversations.

“By Myers-Briggs’ definition, an introvert derives energy from his or her internal world of emotions and ideas, while an extrovert draws from the outside world of people and activities for spiritual sustenance.” (Source: CIO )

If that sounds like you, here are a few thoughts on increasing your speaking fluency in a foreign language without draining your “social batteries” too much.

Find a Roommate

At first, this may not sound like a very introvert-friendly thing, especially if you’re used to living alone. But if you find a good roommate who understands you need some space, it can work out pretty well. I’ve found this absolutely invaluable both for language practice and getting to know the local culture. It’s handy to have someone you can ask for useful phrases, as well as ask to clarify etiquette issues or explain exactly what today’s holiday is all about. And for an introvert, it’s often much easier to have one person you can get to know well than to try to be a social butterfly.

At thirty-*cough-cough,* though, I’m not comfortable with couch-surfing or staying in hostels (they’re called “youth” hostels for a reason). Away from home, I usually rent with one other person. I’ve usually just stayed in a tourist apartment until I can either meet a local who can advise on apartment-hunting, but you could also find out on your own which local newspapers or websites have “roommate wanted” ads.

If you don’t know much of the local language, look for someone who speaks just a little of your language and, even better, isn’t working on learning more. Since you’re immersed in the local languages, chances are you’ll learn that much faster than your roommate will learn yours and soon it will just be easier to speak the local language. If you work at home, you might want to avoid students, since they who tend to be in and out all day, which can get disruptive.

For short-term stays, an alternative to the loud, boisterous youth hostel is the guest house or boutique hotel. Guest houses outside the main tourist areas are not only cheaper, but also have fewer foreigners. Try to get a room near the lobby and hang out in the lobby as often as you can. These places may have long-term residents you can get to know if you spend enough time out where you’re visible.

Seek Out Interesting People

Are you the typical introvert who hate superficial chit chat, gossip, and conversations that go nowhere? The fact that you’re looking for people to practice talking to doesn’t mean you have to talk to anyone and everyone.

Go look for new friends anywhere you’d go if you spoke the language fluently and wanted to meet some people you can really connect with. When I first arrived in Budapest, I went to book readings even though I hardly understood Hungarian at all, much less literary Hungarian. (Mind you, I tried to let people think I understood so I didn’t feel too silly.)

Put up an ad offering language exchange sessions and list your interests. By mentioning the things you like to talk about, you increase your chances of meeting someone like-minded. This more structured type of socializing puts less pressure on you because there’s no wondering when to invite the other person or when they’re going to home.

Another strategy that can be more structured and intellectually engaging that fellow hostel-occupants is to look for volunteer opportunities. You’ll almost certainly be given a job that doesn’t require knowledge of the local language, but you’ll come in contact with people who speak only that language.

Make the First Move

This is much easier in some cultures than others. In some places you can hide behind a book and people will still come up and try to chat with you. In other places, you could sit there in silence all day.

Within the local norm, try to strike up conversations whenever you can. It doesn’t matter that, as an introvert, you wouldn’t chit-chat with strangers even in your native language. You don’t need to go into it with the intention of “getting to know” the other person. All you’re really trying to do is practice a little. You say something like, “Hey, those are great looking shoes. I bet they’re really comfortable.” and you’ll probably get one of the following reactions:

  • A disgusted look
  • A surprised look
  • A polite brush-off comment such as “Uh-huh.”
  • A thoughtful, engaging reply

I’d say the first is unlikely and the second isn’t so bad. With the third, you can decide based on other social cues whether you want to press on or drop it.

Obviously, it’s the fourth we hope for. Depending on the person and the culture, you might exchange a few words or end up exchanging phone numbers with plans to meet. Either way, you got in a little speaking practice.

Getting enough foreign language speaking practice may take a little more planning and effort for us introverts, but it’s entirely possible to do while still being true to our wonderful little introverted selves.

Related posts:

  1. How to Overcome Fear of Speaking a Foreign Language
  2. Learning a Foreign Language Online: Cheap and Convenient or a Waste of Time?
  3. Fear of Speaking a Foreign Language? Consider This When You Travel
  4. Five Myths about Immersion that Can Ruin Your Language Holiday
  5. Learning a Foreign Language: Tips for Learning Grammar

Filed under Mindset

7 Responses to “Foreign Language Learning for Introverts: Speaking Practice Tips for Immersion Situations”

  1. […] here: Foreign Language Learning for Introverts: Speaking Practice Tips … Posted in Uncategorized | Tags: guest, house-or-boutique, houses-outside, only-cheaper, […]

  2. miriam says:

    thanks for this article; I am so glad someone took the time to address introverts and language learning!

  3. Amelia says:

    Thanks for your comment, Miriam! Yes, there’s a lot of advice out there for shy language learners, but not all of us introverts are shy. We’re often just put off by shallow small talk.

  4. Keith says:

    Are you sure you understand Introverts? you start well but then describe a plan that involves nothing more than chit chat.

  5. Amelia says:

    Thanks for your comment, Keith.

    To answer your questions, yes, I think I do.

    You’re right, the last one isn’t what most introverts would do naturally, as I mentioned in the post. If you’re not able to get much speaking practice in other, more introvert friendly ways, though, this is better than nothing.

    And if a person’s shy about using a foreign language (in addition to being naturally introverted) sometimes just making a passing comment to a stranger can provide the proof that communicating in that language isn’t so hard.

    If meaningless chitchat really drives you crazy, though, I’d stick with seeking out “interesting people” (per your own definition). That way you’ll have something in common worth talking about.

    Of course, you could also find a speaking partner over Skype. That way you can pick an interesting discussion topic ahead of time and your conversation time is limited so it doesn’t become too tiring.

    Do you have any other suggestions? How do you like to get speaking practice?

  6. Karen says:

    I have found that when I speak a language that I am not yet fluent in, I don’t mind chit-chat, because that’s all I can muster! For example, last summer I attended several parties in Greece, the sort of event I would hate at home, but I enjoyed it – at least when I could get people to slow down and not use English, either – because it was all language practice instead of mindless socializing! On the other hand, my French is very good, so I am being driven crazy by the superficiality of the conversation in the class I am attending at home now; the French is high-level, but the discussion is just the opposite!

  7. Amelia says:

    Hi Karen!

    Thanks for your comment. You make a good point. If it’s just “basic practice,” the content doesn’t matter as much as when you’re actually living in the language. I remember once a Russian friend of mine noticed I was reading a particular newspaper and commented that he didn’t like that paper for some political reason or other. I said I was only reading it to learn vocabulary and he said, “Well, I suppose it’s all right for that, but I can understand everything they write.”

    In your case, it sounds like you’d be better off hanging out with well-educated native French speakers. That, or maybe suggest some more interesting topics to your teacher.

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