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My philosophy in language learning is, always has been, and always will be to Speak From Day One.
But for many people, this is terrifying! And because I have been talking so much about how effective I've found using Skype and language exchange websites, or in-person meetings early on in a language project to chat with native speakers right away, I've been asked a lot of questions about what to do if you're too shy to speak from day one.
So today I'm going to answer these questions.
I used to be very shy
But before I do, I want to make something very clear: I used to be extremely shy.
It may be hard to believe because I seem so outgoing now–and I am!–but I had to overcome a lot to get to the point where I am now, where I can gladly walk up to a stranger and proceed to make an ass out of myself in their language considering I've just started to learn it. This fearlessness is a skill I have crafted, a learning process, and definitely not something that is inherent or genetic.
But I had a hard time of it. I don’t drink, so I never had “liquid courage” to give me any advantages.
And until into my 20s, I wasn't very good at talking to girls–having attended an all-boys high-school and a mostly male (engineering) university course (luckily, I now have my wonderful girl in every port and can make both male and female friends equally easy now).
The first years I started to go out, I was always the guy in the corner who would play with his phone or pretend to send a text message, rather than be seen as awkwardly not able to speak to people. For a while, all social events did for me was make me a better player of “Snake” on the old Nokia phone.
But that’s behind me now. And I want to share with you all some funny stories of the insane things I did to force myself out of my shy delusion and to have no choice but to become good at talking to strangers. These stories are crazy, but true!
1. HOST Couchsurfers
Even a couple of years into my travels, I was still a little awkward around people that I didn't know very well yet. I didn't know what to talk with them about. The catch-22 here is that you can get more comfortable the more time you spend with people, but how do you get that time in the first place if you are too awkward to be around?
That's when I discovered Couchsurfing, and realized that I could invite interesting people to my city and hang out with them for several days at a time. I felt useful because I knew the city better than they did, and I would research the history to give them a walking tour. Talking about my home was easy, provided instant conversation ideas, and helped us get into other topics.
As well as this, if someone stays at your home (even on the couch, hence the site name), you have breakfast together and hang out more than you normally would with people. They are a complete stranger at first, but you get comfortable and can learn to open yourself up a little better to people you don't know extremely well. Best of all, the site has a review system so you know you can trust them before you even invite them to hang out.
2. Become an amateur photographer
I've never liked the idea of drinking to become more social. The placebo effect may often contribute to people being more “tipsy”, and even if it didn't, I think it's very limiting that you can only be more outgoing on Friday and Saturday evenings. What if an opportunity to be social suddenly springs up at 3pm on Tuesday?
As idealistic as I can be here though, the fact of the matter is that people drinking at social events feel uncomfortable at times if you don't have something in your hands. So rather than give in to peer pressure, I've found that having something in your hands can actually ease the tension, and give you an interesting conversational starter.
So what I did in university was save up for one of the very earliest digital cameras. The display was a tiny LCD screen, but big enough to see the photo just taken. I made myself the official “campus photographer” and went around with that camera and no actual photography skills–and amazingly having a full hand meant that nobody would push drinks at me any more.
Another great thing is that the camera itself helped me make friends. I would simply walk up to people and say “Hi, can I get a photo of you for the university website?” and they'd say yes every time. All I had was a basic static page that that happened to be hosted at the university, and I'd post the photos I'd taken to the page for everyone to find later. It worked great, and soon after this I got more popular as “the photographer”, since nobody else at the time was putting photos online!
This tip is harder now (everyone and their dog can upload photos online in an instant), but there are many other things you can do to help make people's parties run better. When I was at Burning Man, I handed out free ear-plugs (a tub of 200 of them cost me $10) since it was a noisy event and sleeping was hard. At concerts, I've activated an app on my phone that makes the phone look like a candle, and hold this in my hand instead. Made me so many friends!
Another fun one was when I was in Valencia (the first time when I was 21), I managed to find a tandem bike for a really good price. I made friends (nearly always male) by offering a ride home to anyone who needed it, since I had space to carry them.
Finally, I've found that carrying around random confusing items as a conversation starter can work wonders to encourage other people to talk to you and take some of the edge off you always having to initiate conversations.
I find people's “peer pressure” to drink is not as much that they need you to drink, but they don't see you doing something or having fun, and want to change that. Simply not looking like you're awkwardly missing “something” changes everything at these events, and if you can bring something that can make the event more fun, all the better!
3. Clink first, ask questions later
I think the biggest problem I had when I was shy though was thinking myself out of perfectly good opportunities to meet people.
Someone interesting would be right there, beside or in front of me, and I'd start thinking about what I should say to them, or maybe phrase out a good opening conversation thread that could last at least 10 minutes, or wonder if maybe I'm too boring to talk to them, or what if they are in a bad mood tonight and don't want to talk to me….
And before I knew it, I had been thinking so long the opportunity had come and gone.
Now that I do interact with so many people at social events, I can let you in on a little secret: most people don't have very clever conversations and nothing needs to be over-analysed. In fact, I have indeed messed up and said something really strange in my intro, but laughed it off and gotten into a normal conversation.
This is why now I have a strategy of simply walking up to someone and saying “Hi! I'm Benny from Ireland, what's your name?” and seeing what happens. The most important thing that I think about before I approach anyone new… is nothing.
I like to call this my “glass clink trick” at times, because I introduced it to a friend in Germany who wanted to practise English, and simply grabbed her hand and forced her to clink glasses with some Americans and I then ran away. Her time to think of something “clever” to say had been taken away, and she simply had to say “Hi” and go from there. Two hours later she told me she had been practising English all night!
4. Embrace your inner Klingon
While actually speaking Klingon (yes, I do) can be equivalent to nuking your chances of making friends if that's how you start a conversation, I've found that finding extremely specific common interest groups and attending them has made making friends WAY easier.
When I first started travelling, and was still unsure of what to talk about with strangers, I found groups about particular topics that I know that I can talk about, to be a great way to get me to open up! Since I was into language learning, I attended meet-ups with language learners (like the kind I'll be organizing myself this year, where I'll be encouraging people to mingle among one another to make new friends and practise their languages).
I've found that there are events on meetup.com, on Couchsurfing's meet-up pages, on Facebook if you search for events in your city, where people informally get together to talk about what they are passionate about. If you are into chess, flying kites, dog walking, yoga, coding websites, or anything else, you can find a group that you can meet with.
And whenever I'm in the states I find it so curious how specific conferences can get! There are conferences not only for bloggers, but specifically for travel bloggers, wine bloggers, or finance bloggers. I of course attended the Star Trek convention, and finally found my online polyglot conferences.
So think about what you are passionate about, and search around for events where people with that same passion come together. You may be surprised how your specific interest has so many people finding one another thanks to the Internet, and coming together every week or once a year.
Talking about language learning when I first started travelling, and then talking about my passion for travel at Couchsurfing meet-ups, really helped me get over the “What do we talk about?” problem with meeting strangers, because we already had a topic I had lots to say on.
At the Star Trek convention (by then, I was much more outgoing) I remember meeting someone who was clearly very shy, and who I had seen alone the entire weekend, but when I said hi to him, we had a lively debate about the merits of the temporal prime directive, and I was so happy to see him shine.
5. Aim to fail
One of the most intimidating things for me in my early travels, when I'd arrive somewhere new and know absolutely nobody, would be to go to a social event completely alone and need to make friends.
How well those initial attempts to make friends are crucial to having a positive experience over the next months, and this is a lot of pressure. At times I felt like if I didn't do it perfectly, then I'd not have any friends at all for months.
And then I had an idea from a friend of mine to try social skydiving, and just go up to as many people as possible and realize that the more I try, the more likely I am to make a friend. While quality trumps quantity every time, you need a little quantity at first to meet the right people.
Otherwise your first attempt could be to make a friend with someone totally unsuited to hanging out with you, and how poorly it goes can intimidate you and deflate your ego for the rest of the night.
That's why my new approach was to not get nothing but positive interactions, but to go into each interaction with the mindset that “this attempt to make a new friend may crash and burn, and that's OK”. I would try my best and accept failure to be not only an option, but a likely outcome most of the time. Aim to fail.
Amazingly, it turns out strangers don't want to bite your head off, and you get pleasantly surprised the vast majority of the time and your confidence comes across as a charming character trait and people want to get to know you better. When I go up to new people I faked being confident so many times, that now I kind of am.
Go up to more people, act confident and accept that maybe they won't buy it, and excuse themselves. Shrug it off and try again. Rinse and repeat and you will have new friends by the end of the night.
Language learning tips for introverts
But Benny… I like being shy! I don't want to share my bike seat with strangers or tell anyone about my passion for Star Trek! What about me??
Using your language skills to be social and make new friends and connections across cultures leads to so many fulfilling experiences, and I’d love for all of you to go out there, overcome your fears, and become the life of your own parties!
But, not everyone wants to “overcome” their shyness. So here are some options for you, my introverted friends!
If you WANT to talk to a native, but are too shy or scared to pull the trigger:
- Have a Skype chat with the camera off!
There’s no rule that says you have to speak from day one face to face—you can simply ask your exchange partner to do a voice only chat. This means you can lounge on your bed, and not have to worry about the other person being able to see your nervousness or hesitation.
And this comes with an added benefit! Because you can’t rely on facial or other body language cues to help you understand the language you’re practicing, you can really focus on the language itself, the way it sounds and it’s intonation, for bonus listening practice!
- Have a Skype chat with a dictionary and Google Translate open
I actually do this all the time myself in the beginning stages. If you’re nervous about an impromptu conversation, one thing you can do is to tell your exchange partner in advance that you’re a beginner, and that you will be using a dictionary or translator throughout the entire conversation. Then, learn how to say “I don’t understand. Can you please type that out?” in your target language (you can have that phrase translated for you on the italki message boards or submit it to hear it spoken by a native in a day or so on Rhinospike).
Then have your Skype call (camera on or off—your choice!). Go sentence by sentence, and EVERY time your teacher says something new—which could be every sentence, but who cares!—simply ask them to type it out, and then submit their written phrase through Google translate. This is a great way to learn as well, because you’ll learn new words and phrases through casual conversation, and don’t need to have a plan for what to talk about, or any prior knowledge of the vocabulary in advance.
When you want to respond back to a question, the process stays the same. Put your phrase into the translator, and repeat it to your partner. They’ll correct you on any mistakes in word order or pronunciation—and BAM! You’re learning vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar all in one, without having had to study beforehand.
If talking to a native at all makes you nervous:
- Use multimedia!
It’s really important to hear a native speaking under natural circumstances, and you can do this by watching TV, movies, or listening to podcasts in the language–there are so many options to this end.
- Write down phrases you want clarified and post them to message boards
One of the benefits of speaking with a native is that you can get instant clarification on anything you don’t understand by simply asking, “What does that mean?” or “Can you say that slower?” This is harder when you’re just listening, but not impossible. Let’s say you come across a phrase while listening to a podcast in your target language that you don’t understand. Write it down, and ask someone in a language community, like the Fluent in 3 months forums or the message boards at italki. They’ll tell you what it means happily.
- Get pronunciation/writing clarification
Another major benefit of speaking with a native is that you begin to internalize their speech patterns and will get better over time with replicating their accent. But, you can also do this with a lag—using a voice or text submission system like Rhinospike and Lang8, and get natives giving you what works back.
I really hope these tips help and that many of you can get more active in using your target languages. My speak from day one approach is what works best for me–but even if you're more on the introverted side, you can still use your language from day 1 by implementing these tips.