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One of my (many) blog posts that stirred up controversy is my cry to timid people to stop being so shy. While the premise made sense to many who want to be more outgoing, a lot of people felt that I didn't appreciate introverts' perspective very well. As such, I've invited Adam from the Road to Epic to share his thoughts as a language learner and introvert.
Note that I still don't agree with the extrovert/introvert divide as understood by many introverts, and say as much in a comment below to not take attention away from this great post. Despite my thoughts I know that a lot of you who can genuinely relate to Adam in not enjoying the social aspect of language learning in as high doses as people like myself, but who are still interested in improving your speaking skills, will find some food for thought here!
The Road to Epic a site about helping you find that path to living the life you really want to live and becoming the person you want to be. On it, Adam encourages people to live their own life, rather than follow someone else's rules.
Over to you Adam!
Speaking a language is a skill. Like any other skill, if you really want to get good at it then it's going to require practice. For languages that means lots of time talking, meeting new people, socializing, getting out there and making mistakes. If you're an extrovert that all sounds great.
But if you're an introvert – that's terrifying.
Introverts and extroverts just don't function the same as each other. As a result, trying to force an introvert to study like an extrovert or vice versa is never going to work as well as finding a learning style that's tailored to how that person learns best.
Thankfully if you're on the introverted side of things, all is not lost.
Am I an Introvert?
A little housekeeping before moving forward, being introverted and being shy are not the same thing. I'm going to say that again. In bold. Because it's important.
Being introverted and being shy are not the same thing.
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.
Of course there's a broad spectrum here. This isn't a binary system, and you can be a weak introvert or extrovert or even an ambivert, someone who's roughly in the middle.
Shyness, on the other hand, comes down to a fear or dislike of social interaction. It's possible to have a shy extrovert (someone who craves social interaction but is terrified by it) or an outgoing introvert (someone who loves social interaction but can only handle it in small doses). It's a lot easier to stop being shy than it is to change where you are on the into/extroversion scale.
If you have no idea where you fall, the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory is a fairly reliable test to get an idea for where you probably are in that spectrum.
Outgoing and Introverted?
Personally, I fall into that outgoing introverts category I mentioned. I'm a personal trainer by trade, which means my entire living is based off of being social. I'm paid by commission and have to find my own clients, which means I have to be walking the floor chatting with people, introducing myself and essentially networking a good chunk of my day if I want to do important things like eat and keep a roof over my head. On top of that I spend hours each day with my clients.
It's not just counting out reps and telling them not to give up, every one of my clients also becomes a friend and we talk quite a bit. My success is contingent almost entirely on being friendly, outgoing, approachable and comfortable chatting with strangers.
This is a lot like the situation most language learners find themselves in. Their success in language learning, like mine in meeting new clients, is tied heavily to their ability to get out and chat with people. That's scary for introverts.
So how do I make it through every day? By understanding how to manage my energy levels.
Energy Management for Introverts
Imagine you have a cup of water. Every time you meet someone, that person takes a drink out of the cup (sorry mysophobes, bear with me here). They may take a little sip or a big gulp, but each person gets some. The only way you can refill your cup is by spending some time alone at the faucet.
That's what being an introvert is like. The question is at the end of the day when you need to quench your thirst, is there any water left in your cup for you?
That water is your energy, and your ability to monitor it and understand how and when to refill it are the keys to not ending your day thirsty. Part of that is knowing yourself well enough to know what re-energizes you. If you don't know where the faucet is how are you going to get more water? The other part is being mindful of how much is left in your cup and knowing when to step away from things to spend a minute at the tap.
Now energy management is easily an article in and of itself. The key takeaway is recognizing that your learning strategies need to take your energy management into account. If your strategy for learning hinges on you socializing with as many people as you can as often as you can and you never refill your cup, you're bound to wind up miserable and being miserable is not terribly conducive to success in anything.
Introverted Learning Strategies
So what can we do to get the most out of our learning as card-carrying introverts but not end up with cups drier than the Atacama desert? Here are some strategies I've found particularly helpful.
- Control Your Interactions – Everyone's got a different sized cup. Initially you might not have a good feel for what size yours is – diving into an uncontrolled social situation like a party with no idea how big or small your energy reserves are is like going on a road trip with a broken fuel gauge.Couple that with the fact that most introverts consider large, uncontrolled social situations the most draining and it's just asking to burn yourself out.Instead, at least at the beginning, try to focus your efforts on interactions that you're in control of. That means ones where you can extricate yourself from things without too much trouble or situations where there's a concrete ending. Set a time limit for yourself if you're going to go to a larger event like a meetup. Letting people know you can only stay for an hour for example is a polite way to give yourself a finish line to reach.
- Emphasize One On One Time – Introverts tend to strongly prefer deeper one-on-one conversations than more open larger group conversations. Previously, you had to go through the group conversations to find people to have the other kind with, but now the Internet has pretty much removed that step.Using services like iTalki you can easily find someone to chat with for a while to practice your speaking. I think iTalki is a fantastic tool in general for language learning, but for introverts it's pure gold. Whether you find someone to practice with for free in exchange for helping them practice your language or pay a tutor for their assistance you get instant access to a one-on-one conversation with a native speaker.Best of all it's on your terms, in the comfort of your home and with a clear time limit. It's not the only option, you can find people on Couchsurfing and ask to meet for coffee or message people in a local Meetup group for example, but it's one of the best ones in my opinion.
- Don't Be Afraid to Leave Your Comfort Zone – All this energy management stuff isn't about staying cloistered up as much as possible to hoard your energy like Smaug and his gold. Learning and growth only happen outside of your comfort zone.You do need to push yourself a little bit to make progress. You just need to know where your limits are and when you need to take a little time out to collect yourself and fill your cup with some well-earned alone time.
- Play to Your Strengths – That alone time doesn't have to be unproductive though. If you're recharged by time spent alone in your head, why not recharge studying the other aspects of the language you're learning?Now I want to be clear, this is not free license to abandon speaking practice in favor of vocab, reading and watching movies. You have to speak to become better at speaking. End of story. If you want to learn to drive, you can't just read books about it – you have to get behind the wheel sometime. Same goes for speaking a new language.That being said, there's a lot of benefit to filling your ‘me' time with both active and passive learning. While you're recharging why not learn some vocab with Memrise, read something in your target language, watch a movie or TV in your target language, write a post for Lang-8 or listen to some audio you pulled from Rhinospike?That alone time, which an extrovert would find taxing, is your biggest asset to filling in all the groundwork while you recharge for your next round of speaking practice.
These are just a handful of things I've found that make language learning as an introvert easier and more manageable. Everyone's a little different though and there's definitely a lot of gray areas, so some things mike work better for you than others – try things out and experiment for yourself!