Do you struggle with language learning because speaking with other people terrifies you? Or drains you of energy?
If it does, I can relate to what you’re feeling because that used to be me.
After years of trial and error (yes, I made lots of mistakes on the way) I’ve found a way through and charted a course that means I now love language learning – including speaking with other people.
In fact, I’d say that language learning has helped me beat my shyness.
I’d like to share some of my journey. Are you with me?
[Note: If you’re super-confident around people, you probably don’t need to read any further, except for the sake of curiosity].
My first real exposure to foreign languages was through Spanish and Arabic classes at school. I found learning a language in a group setting stressful.
Every time the teacher swept her eyes across the classroom in search of her next victim, I tried everything I could to make myself unnoticeable, diverting my eyes, slouching at my desk, focusing on my book, or even directing my attention to another student in the hopes that the teacher would follow my gaze.
But it often seemed as though those very tactics I attempted to use to avoid having to read aloud, speak in front of the class, or answer a question only made my teacher call on me even more. And my behavior definitely didn’t earn me any points when it came to class participation.
Those few years in language classes at school made me feel like a terrible language learner.
As it turned out, my feeling of being a “terrible language learner” wasn’t the whole truth. In fact, I’m now fluent in eight languages, and I love language learning.
I’ve recognised that I’m an introvert and I’m shy. In other words, I enjoy my own company, and I can often feel uncomfortable in social situations.
At school, it seemed like the only students who excelled at languages were those who weren’t afraid to speak in class. I was certain that language learning was something reserved for those who were outgoing or extroverted because they were the only ones that seemed capable of speaking and getting ahead in class.
I saw my introversion and shyness as problems I needed to overcome.
Now, I know differently.
I’ve learned to embrace both these personality traits as assets in my language learning.
I could only embrace these traits by recognising them and accepting them.
In a moment, I’ll show you can find out whether you’re shy, an introvert or both.
Do You Make These Introvert Excuses for Failing to Learn a Language?
Yes, it can feel that language learning is best left to outgoing, daring people. You might even say to yourself “I could never learn a language like that – it’s just too scary”.
I’ve heard plenty of excuses from people who want to learn a language, but believe it’s impossible for them. I’ve even made one or two of these myself:
- I’m too old.
- I don’t have enough time.
- Some people have a natural ability to learn languages, I don’t.
- Everyone speaks English nowadays.
- I’m too scared to speak a new language with other people. I prefer my own company.
None of these excuses needs to hold you back.
I Stopped Using My Personality as as Excuse – and You Can Too
As I said earlier, I am an introvert, and for the longest time, I was certain that my personality kept me from learning another language as well as my extroverted classmates. But rather than either working harder at learning a language, or looking for more creative ways to learn knowing my personality type, I used my introversion as an excuse to just “get by” in my language classes.
I allowed myself to settle for “good enough”, assuming that my language learning goals were out of reach because of who I was.
These days, I know better.
My personality was never anything that should have kept me from pursuing my language learning goals. It was just a barrier I threw up to avoid doing the real work (and because I didn’t really know any better).
But if there’s any one lesson I’ve learnt these past few years, it’s that if you really want something, you’ll find the time, energy and means to go after it.
I’ve always loved learning languages and there’s something extremely satisfying about learning them well. If I didn’t work to overcome my shyness and use my personality as an introvert to my advantage, I might not have ever known what that feels like.
And I would have never met the amazing people from around the world that I’ve gotten to know through language learning.
It isn’t always easy – I have to step out of my comfort zone to do it – but the end result makes any temporary discomfort I might feel totally worth it.
So let’s take a moment to step back and define what introversion is, what shyness is, and why they aren’t the same thing.
What is an Introvert?
So… what is an introvert?
Simply put, introverts are re-energized by spending time alone.
Introversion is one of the most misunderstood aspects of personality, and like those who are shy, introverts often feel at a disadvantage.
The line that moves from introversion on one end and extroversion on the other is a sliding scale. No one is entirely introverted or extroverted. We all fall somewhere in the middle with tendencies towards one or other (for example, I’m about 75% introverted which means that I’m 25% extroverted!). In fact, there are even those who are ambiverts, people who fit into neither the introvert or extrovert categories.
Generally speaking, introverts are defined as deep thinkers, introspective, uncomfortable in prolonged social situations (usually due to exhaustion or overstimulation), and lovers of alone time.
Is Introversion a Negative Trait?
Introverts are often thought of as being a little self-absorbed because they prefer solitude and they also have a reputation for being antisocial, but neither of these assumptions are true in every case and they are often only put into place by those who are looking at those who are introverted through an extroverted lens.
Society often sees introversion as something negative – this even dates back to Greco-Roman times when rhetoric was seen as a valued skill – but it doesn’t have to be something bad or that needs to be “fixed”.
In fact, none of the negative stereotypes about introverts needs to be true.
Some introverts even have active social lives. They just prefer spending time with one or two friends at a time rather than large groups of friends and they need a little time afterwards to recharge.
What is Shyness?
Shyness, in contrast to introversion, is the fear of social interaction and is closely tied to feelings of apprehension and nervousness. It can be easily overcome once you grow comfortable with the environment and people around you.
A shy extrovert may have a hard time initiating social interactions, but they crave them. An outgoing introvert may love interacting with other people, but they can only do it for a short time before burning out.
It’s worth noting that everyone is shy about things they’re not comfortable with regardless of whether or not they might generally define themselves as “shy”.
Beating shyness around people means eliminating your fear of initiating conversations and meeting or engaging with new people. The only way to do that is through practice. The more times you do something you’re uncomfortable with, the more familiar it becomes and the more comfortable it is for you to do it.
So What if “Shy” and “Introvert” are Different – Does it Matter?
Many seem to treat the words “introvert” and “shy” as the same thing when they’re anything but.
In fact, both an introvert and an extrovert can be shy as much as they can both be outgoing. Even so, the traits of introversion and shyness are often confused.
Where an introvert is totally okay with being alone and engaging in solitary activities, someone who is shy is more likely to crave social interaction but feel as though they are incapable of it. They may find themselves alone and unable to reach out to their peers, but longing to feel comfortable around a big group of friends.
How Non-Introverts Use the Introvert Excuse
I am not the first, nor will I be the last, to say “I’m an introvert” and use that as an excuse for failing to learn a language.
Even non-introverts use this excuse.
How does this happen?
In the field of psychology, being an “introvert” is a personality trait. As we’ve looked at already, it means you enjoy time to yourself, you do your best thinking when you’re on your own, and you can be reticent in social situations. Introverts recharge through alone time, rather than being around people. Introverts aren’t necessarily shy – though they can be.
I really like the way that Adam Wik of Road to Epic breaks it down:
“Introversion and extroversion relate primarily to how a person refills their energy tanks. In basic terms, if social interaction depletes your energy and alone time replenishes it then you’re an introvert. If being alone drains you and you need social interaction to feel energized then you’re an extrovert.”
Here’s the problem: lots of people (including dictionaries) confuse being an introvert with shyness. I typed “introvert definition” into Google, and it told me that an introvert is “a shy, reticent person”. In popular culture, being an introvert is confused with being shy.
So, shy people often say “I’m an introvert” whether or not that’s true.
In fact, it’s possible to be a shy extrovert or an outgoing introvert.
Using Your Introversion and Shyness to Your Advantage as a Language Learner
So to recap, we’ve looked at how introversion and shyness are often used as excuses for failing to learn a language.
But that’s all they are when used in that way – excuses, not legitimate reasons. Anyone can learn a language – introvert, extrovert, shy or outgoing.
And when you get a little creative, shyness and introversion can actually become assets for your language learning – I call these “introvert superpowers”.
How Do You Know if You’re an Introvert or a Shy Extrovert?
The best way to find out whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert is to take an online test. For free!
One of the more popular tests is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. This questionnaire was constructed by Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers based on the theories of Carl Jung.
Taking this test will tell you whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, as well as much more about your personality.
Humanmetrics.com offers a free test to determine where you fall on the introvert/extrovert scale that you can take here.
Take the test, and let me know your personality type in the comments.
And finally... One of the best ways to learn a new language is with podcasts. Read more about how to use podcasts to learn a language.