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If you’re anything like me – incredibly shy – then I’d make a firm bet that most of the language learning advice you’ve read online sets off at least mild anxiety.
How many times have you heard this when you run a Google search for how to learn a language:
The best way to learn how to speak a language is to speak it.
I wish I earned a dollar every time I’ve read this. I’d be super rich!
But despite its popularity amongst language learners, it’s still advice that makes me want to run away and hide… and forget about language learning.
The only problem with that is I love languages. It’s an itch I’ve got to scratch. No matter how much I try, it won’t go away.
What to do about it?
What it Feels Like to Be a Shy Language Learner
I’ve struggled with shyness for as long as I can remember.
At parties and social gatherings, I’m a wallflower (if I’m there at all). I prefer my own company to a crowd. Books are my favourite companions. And big groups of people make me really nervous. Especially if they’re people I’ve never met before.
So, being told that in order to speak a new language I must strike up conversations with strangers was terrifying.
Simply reading the advice for language learners about “just getting out there and speaking” made me tense up. My natural impulse was to reject that advice and look for a different route.
I’d much rather stay home with a language textbook and labour through grammar drills than I would go out and speak. And there have been several occasions where that’s exactly what I’ve done. I punished myself with tedious and difficult exercises as a way to make up for not doing the work I should have been doing: speaking.
I Was My Own Worst Enemy
Like most people, I wanted language learning to be comfortable and easy. The problem? I veered between two extremes. I either stuck myself in the centre of my comfort zone (not speaking at all) or I stepped so far out of my comfort zone that I thought “I’m never doing that again”.
Over time, I became more and more afraid to test my limits and try things that challenged me. So instead, I allowed my shyness to hold me back from accomplishing a lot of the things that I would have loved to do.
In hindsight, after having tested the advice I am going to give you, I am the first to admit that I was getting in my own way.
I allowed myself to become the biggest obstacle to my own success and happiness.
When I took a look at where I was and what I wanted to achieve, I decided it wasn’t worth taking the comfortable road. There was so much more I knew I was capable of and I knew I couldn’t give my shyness any more power over my progress.
Eventually, I got tired of using my shyness as an excuse. I had to make changes.
Here’s what I did.
4 Steps to Overcome Shyness and Achieve Your Language Learning Goals
Step 1: Admit that You’re Shy
You’ve got to start by being honest with yourself. If you’re shy, admit it, and get comfortable with that fact.
This seems rather obvious, but you’d be surprised how easy it is to become used to ignoring shyness rather than recognizing and dealing with it.
So how do you know if you’re shy?
If you’re shy you may have a hard time doing things like:
- Meeting new people
- Being called on in meetings, gatherings or classes
- Being the focus of attention
- Speaking up when you have an opinion to share
- Initiating conversations
- Being watched while trying to do something
- Accepting compliments
All these things can be hard to do in our native languages, let alone when adding a new language into the mix!
Being shy is totally okay. In fact, it can even be an asset! But if you’re running from your shyness, you’ll never learn how to make the most of it.
Step 2: Ask for the Support That You Need
One of the hardest, but most important things you can do to start addressing your shyness is to get the support you need. Ask for help.
This can be friends, family, or professional advice and support.
Asking for help is rarely easy. Even more so when you’re shy. But the outside perspective and input can go a long way in providing you with ways to work through your shyness.
This could be asking your friends about how they deal with their own shyness (you'd be surprised at how many people see themselves as shy). Or it could be to have them help you get into new social situations. It could mean delving into your past and working out where your shyness comes from (perhaps with the help of a coach or therapist). Or it could mean investing in a course.
Step 3: Take Small Steps Outside of Your Comfort Zone
We are creatures of habit. Taking action beyond the border of your comfort zone feels scary. That’s why it’s called a comfort zone. Anywhere outside it is uncomfortable.
But when it comes down to it, you can only beat shyness by taking confident action – and to start with, that’s unlikely to feel comfortable.
This doesn’t mean that you need to push yourself too far, too fast. It’s not about leaving your comfort zone entirely, but it’s more about stretching where the boundaries lie and making that zone just a little bit bigger, one small step at a time. Take action – but make it gradual.
Step 4: Recognise That Language Learning Can Be a Huge Confidence Boost
If you’re shy, learning a new language can help you discover a “new you”.
When you speak another language, you can be whoever you want to be. You can reinvent yourself. There’s no need to be held back by the expectations your friends and family have about you. Nor do you need to live your life trying to fit into labels that you feel define who you are.
We are so much more than labels. They may help describe certain aspects of who we are and what we do, but they are by no means all-encompassing. No one is shy in every part of their life, and so, you should never let the term hold you back from being who you really are and pursuing the things you’d love to do.
Learning a new language can give you a whole new way to express yourself and redefine how others see you. It can be a great outlet for trying new things – especially since the people you interact with will likely be in the same place as you. It’s often said that we develop different personalities for each language that we speak, so perhaps your persona in that new language will be a little more outgoing than the one in your native language!
Wanting to speak another language is an excellent reason to tackle your shyness and become more confident. Plus, you’ll get a boost in confidence by developing a new skill such as learning a language.
Beat Your Shyness by Learning a Language
You are not alone. Everyone is shy about something. According to a study by Stanford University professor emeritus Philip Zimbardo, approximately half the people in US alone claim that they are shy to some degree. But your shyness doesn’t have to prevent you from pursuing your dreams.
We often use “I am shy” as an excuse to avoid doing things we’d rather not. But the only way you’ll ever overcome any feelings of shyness you have is to get out there and experience different social situations so that your discomfort and nervousness dissipate.
Learning to comfortably navigate conversations can be hugely rewarding, especially when it means that you get to practice speaking your target language. And the greater effort you make to put yourself in social situations, the quicker you’ll grow comfortable in them, resulting in more opportunities to participate in interesting conversations and get to know great people.
There’s no magic answer to overcoming shyness. It takes hard work and a concerted effort, but it’s worth taking the required steps.
I hope you’ll join me in saying “goodbye” to shy today.