Language Learning for Introverts: An Anxious Guide to Mastering a Second Tongue

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Image source: Thomas Hawk, CC.

This is a step-by-step collection of successful anecdotes and ideas that might come in handy if you are planning on learning a new language — or can’t seem to find a way to do it without betraying your much treasured solitude.

I’m not just an introvert. I’m an international introvert, albeit the type that during most of their stay will go to sleep before or after anyone else at the hostel to avoid clumsy interactions. I’m highly functional when circumstances demand it, yet extremely anxious in most social situations (those that require +2 or 3 people.)

These, I soon realized, are not the ideal characteristics for someone moving countries and/or having to learn a new language on the go. Oh, well, I’m here now, I might as well try.

See, I had began my journey with two assumptions:

a) I was good at languages; and

b) I would absorb this one just by living in the country.

Let me tell you, I was absolutely wrong about both.

The story doesn’t end here, though. After a long struggle I kept my one decision: I would learn the damn language, because I damn wanted to, and I would do it in a way that didn’t make me miserable or betrayed my quiet balance. And guess what? Ich kann Deutsch! (no, not really, but I’m getting closer.)

As an introvert and a regular ball of nerves, but having succeeded at finally being able to communicate some ideas, here are the five+ steps I find the most logic for learning a second language when you are too scared to interact with anything that moves. Please feel free to share yours if you also carry the beautiful burden of introversion.

Step 1: Observe.

I personally find phone calls particularly anxiety-inducing. After heavy reading, I have sort of come to the conclusion that this probably originates in my fear of not reading social situations well. Communication means all sorts of verbal and non-verbal expressions, and I’m scared of becoming clumsy x10 when I only have words and tone to help me.

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Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/55999734@N00/5027914314/sizes/l

The reason I said before that I’m highly functional now is because of years of (what my mom would gladly refer to as) creepy observation.

Yes, observation is essential when it comes to learning basically anything, but it’s also an introvert’s safe haven. We pay attention, we listen, we derive meaning from what we see. Moving to a new country means learning a whole lot of clues about what’s culturally appropriate and not, and this is not something that is easy to find in a book (although I recommend this series wholeheartedly.)

So, step one is quite simple: Watch and listen. Absorb, my dear sponge! Everything from how people salute each other to the simpler words that kids say in a park.

Step 2: Get the Basics Right.

I need my sweet time to get familiar with a topic, because I enjoy exploring every possible angle of a problem or discovery. I need to feel confident I have understood -not just the thing itself but its ramifications,- before I can express my opinion. It’s the same with a language.

Introversion and being a freak for grammar are not necessarily related, but if you feel insecure about how a language is supposed to work, you might be a bit more reluctant to actually use it (introversion and not making a fool of yourself might be closer related.)

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Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/charlotte90t/8437484533/

So this is my advice: Get the basics right. Study the hell out of that structure, kiss those cases’ butts and embrace the awfulness of tenses, for all will be worth it in the end. If you get the grammar right, the vocabulary will follow.

Step 3 (optional): Test the Waters.

You can skip this step and go directly to n. 4, but I would recommend to give it a try since it feel damn good when you succeed, and not much is required to make it work.

This step is to basically learn a few simple phrases, for example, how to order food. Check the whole story, from the greeting to the picking to asking for the bill (or, if you prefer a self-serving place, just saying Hello, Thanks and Goodbye.) Then, go for it. Once, twice, as many times as you want. I can guarantee each time will feel better — and, if you used the example, you will also get some yummy food in the process! That’s some motivation right there.

Step 4: Think.

This is not a very descriptive title, but it’s as simple as that: Try to think in the language you are learning. This step, by the way, can be done in simultaneous with Step 5 and is my ultimate favorite breakthrough-inducing activity.

It just means constructing simple sentences in your head. I try to think about the same stuff I would in my language, although any mundane sentence is useful (anecdote: Ever since I started thinking in English as a way of practicing, I haven’t been able to stop. My brain finds it better than Spanish for expressing its convoluted ideas.)

This step is particularly important for learning the active use of the language. If you are like me, you might become really good at understanding but utterly suck at speaking. Opening your mouth might be required at some point, for pronunciation purposes, but this is something you can get better at with time — and at your own pace. Sentence building, on the other hand, is a timeless jewel. And a great exercise for the inner philosopher as well.

Step 5: Read, Watch and Explore.

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Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ytwhitelight/9392145396/sizes/l

I gave this a try way too early in my process, which frustrated me quite a bit. However, it’s a grand final step that can trigger the biggest breakthrough yet.

This is the step I am at right now. A little bit of mental sentence building, a lot of movies, podcasts and books.

The best thing about Step 5 is that books, audios and movies won’t laugh at you if you don’t fully understand them. Also, unlike real life, you will be able to pause and replay them as needed.

If you are not that savvy yet, pick a book or movie you have read or seen before, or something that is a little mindless. Documentaries are also good, because the explanations are usually quite clear and there are images to support what is being said. I also like to listen to podcasts with eloquent presenters and slow news, meaning the report of the day read in super-slow motion (funny, weird, but useful.) These also go well with my need for paced information.

We are all different individuals, so it makes sense that we all learn in very different ways. I don’t believe you need to chat like a parrot to become good at a language. Interacting is important, but what interaction means varies from person to person, and so does the definition of success. Know thy strengths and challenges, embrace them.

I see no reason why an introvert and/or anxious person would fail at learning or using a second language, and I have a collection of friends and myself to prove it. Some have learned English through reading AD&D books and watching movies. A lot picked up an accent in no time afterwards.

Whatever you do with your learning, however you do it, that is the right way. Enjoy the journey, and good luck!

Written by

Anthropologist & User Experience Designer. I write about science and technology. Robot whisperer. VR enthusiast. Gamer. @yisela_at www.yisela.com

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