The introvert’s guide to practicing a foreign language

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Studying a foreign language can be challenging for introverts. Read on for my language-learning strategies and a few unintended consequences.

Some time back, I wrote The introvert’s guide to choosing a foreign language. In the months since I wrote it, that post has helped thousands of introverts–okay, hundreds of introverts… Dozens? Fine, one or two introverts if you want to be generous about it–to decide what foreign language to study.

With all these introverts studying new languages, it’s now time to provide some reliable information on the best way to study a foreign language as an introvert.

You might ask why I’m qualified to write this post. I’m qualified because I’m a proud introvert and I’ve successfully failed to learn at least five different languages.

Any more questions?

Books

Learning to read a foreign language is the easy part for an introvert.

Books are probably already your friends because they smell good, never get drunk and obnoxious, and actually prefer that you don’t go out to bars or loud parties.

Unfortunately they’re not fond of coffee, because it gives them perpetual frowns. The easy solution is to not spill coffee on them.

Books will also cheerfully and patiently teach you to read a foreign language, and will never whisper about your ineptness behind your back, no matter how many times you have to look up the meaning of quamquam.

But suppose you want to move beyond reading a foreign language to actually speaking it.

Audio courses

The first audio course I had for a language was on a series of cassette tapes, and the narrator’s voice was like mating cats. Needless to say, I never learned anything from that course.

But audio courses have come a long way since then, and the better ones give you most of the practice of talking to a real person without you having to actually talk to a real person. This is a bonus if you prefer to limit your interaction with other human beings to the incidents of your birth and your cremation.

Although they’re ridiculously expensive and don’t have a lot of content, the Pimsleur courses are still among my favourites.

You don’t need to sit down with a book to do them. Just stick in your headphones and go. I did this for several years while cycling on my commute, which, conveniently, took almost exactly half an hour, or the length of one lesson.

Being a dedicated introvert, I did this for two years before ever trying to talk to a real live person, at which point I discovered something interesting.

The roads I was biking on were pretty quiet, so I mostly didn’t feel like too much of an idiot riding along and talking to myself, but of course I modulated my voice the way you always do when you are your own audience.

After two years of speaking to myself in my new language using my “I don’t want to be heard” voice, I finally took an opportunity to use the language on a native speaker (who was a very good friend).

Then I discovered that the only voice I could use when speaking the language was my “I don’t want to be heard” voice. It wasn’t just a quiet voice, it was also weird. I know this because my friend told me.

Mortified, I was forced to abandon that language and emigrate. (Okay, it wasn’t quite that bad, but close.)

Drinking

One of the hardest parts of practicing speaking a foreign language is getting over your fear of sounding stupid. You know what’s good for that?

Alcohol.

Sometimes it can even be a cultural experience.

At one point I spent three months in Italy learning Italian. Naturally this involved a great deal of coffee and wine. Italian wine, specifically.

I want to say the wine helped me relax and made me comfortable trying out my babyish Italian on the locals, and it’s true. But it went further than that.

After a while my drunk (or at least slightly tipsy) brain actually knew more Italian than my sober brain. It still does.

Having had considerable time to forget the Italian I learned, my sober brain now struggles to come up with the simplest sentences. My tipsy brain, on the other hand, quite happily produces Italian phrases that might even make sense.

I shared this story with you so you can make an informed decision for yourself. Yes, drinking is a valid way to practice speaking a new language, but it could require you to spend the rest of your life drunk.

Cinque Terre - learn a foreign language

Bonus: Crashing through the 5-hour wall

I’ve given you all the tips you need on studying a foreign language as an introvert, so consider this one a bonus.

I went through a three-month period once of eight hour days entering data into a computer. It wasn’t the most intellectually stimulating work I’ve ever had, but it needed to be done. To keep myself from going crazy (on my own, working in a silent room), as I worked I listened to the radio in the language I was learning.

I found a great radio station that I could stream for free: it was mostly talking with minimal music, and it rarely lapsed into English.

My language skills were nowhere near good enough to understand most of what was said, but I figured the exposure would get me used to the rhythms of the language.

At first my brain resisted. We don’t understand this! it would say. It would grasp one word I recognised and translate it while the radio host finished his sentence. The result: I understood the odd word out of context, and had no idea what the show was about.

But I kept listening, and after five hours straight of grasping at individual words something weird happened. My brain gave up. It stopped translating specific words, and started listening to each sentence as a whole.

As a result, I finally understood a whole lot more. I didn’t know more words, but I recognised the words I already knew and to some extent even understood them without translating.

The moral of the story? My foreign language brain wants to run off and do its own useless thing, but it can be beaten into submission. Very helpful if you happen to have five quiet hours to spare.

Do you have any tips for introverts learning a foreign language? Anything that has worked badly or with unintended consequences?

 

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Author: A.S. Akkalon

By day, A.S. Akkalon works in an office where the computers outnumber the suits of armour more than two-to-one. By night, she puts dreams of medieval castles, swords, and dragons onto paper.

18 thoughts on “The introvert’s guide to practicing a foreign language”

  1. Great tips, I think. Ha ha. I have the very basics of Spanish down, but would love to become fluent. Sadly, no one around me speaks it or is willing to learn. I tried watching Spanish television, but couldn’t take it. (I can’t handle TV in English). Maybe I need delve into Netflix, have a glass of wine and watch foreign films without subtitles? Doesn’t sound so bad. πŸ™‚

    1. I’ve tried to watch TV in the languages I’m learning and I could never get into it. Maybe because I wasn’t advanced enough to get what was going on. But wine could definitely help. I’d give it a go!

      1. I find that watching TV/movies in the target language, with subtitles in the target language, is the best way to go. If the subtitles are in your native language, you just end up reading them; but without subtitles, you get lost too quickly. Also, watching kids’ movies is a great place to start–they use simpler words and talk more slowly. (Plus, everyone loves an excuse to watch Disney movies.)

        1. That’s a wonderful idea. I love Disney movies, especially when they’re in a language I don’t understand. πŸ™‚ Though my husband tends to be less keen to watch them, for some reason.

  2. Very funny! The alcohol part is so true! I first learned English watching Friends with subtitles and reading the very first book of Harry Potter. I studied it at school, but hated it. Funny how life turned out.

    1. Haha, I used to try watching Friends in Italian (massive fail), and I “read” half the first Harry Potter book in Italian too. I never realised you’re not a native English speaker. I guess Friends and Harry Potter worked for you. πŸ˜‰

      1. LOL it helped, but living in the US and speaking the language everyday is what made me speak English fluently. I’m at times more comfortable in English than in French. I mean that’s probably why I write my book in English. I still have a French accent though. This one doesn’t quite seem to go anywhere. πŸ˜‚

        1. The market for books in English is bigger anyway. πŸ™‚

          I’ve seen audio courses where you can learn either a British accent or an American accent (assuming you already speak English). You should learn a really poncy British accent, because that would be hilarious.

  3. You’re exactly right. Our own fear and inhibition is the classic barrier to later language acquisition. When I was in linguistics in college, we often discussed how native speakers would much prefer you to try their language and sound a little goofy than to stick with English and force them to come to your level. It’s hard to get yourself to believe that though….

    1. Exactly. My big breakthrough was discovering that it’s okay to get things wrong, even if you know you’re getting them wrong, because it means you’re producing the language and practicing. Once you’re accustomed to practicing you can try to improve so you get things right more often. I didn’t know you studied linguistics. πŸ™‚

  4. I love studying languages! I’m not so good at forcing myself to sit down to practice, but I definitely love that I can practice with a computer. It’s far less intimidating and introvert friendly. πŸ˜€

    1. Me too! Even the boring bits like drilling vocab. Flashcards are like a one-person game show, and I love winning.

  5. I’ve always loved movies, and I prefer to watch them in original language, so I kind of learned English by accident while watching every Hollywood action movie I could get my hands on (okay, maybe the obligatory school English helped too). Learning German has been harder because there are fewer German movies that I’m excited about. But yeah, movies. I don’t know what my language skills would be without them. πŸ˜€

    1. Movies are great, but I think you need a certain basic level of comprehension before they start to help. Otherwise you just sit there bewildered (that’s me a lot). πŸ™‚

  6. “This is a bonus if you prefer to limit your interaction with other human beings to the incidents of your birth and your cremation.”

    I have found my people!

    I’ve tried to learn other languages a few times but it’s hopeless because I have nobody to practise with. It’s not that I avoid talking to foreign people, but that I avoid talking to any people.

    I can count to ten in Polish though. And tell people “My eyebrows hurt” in French. Life skills.

    1. Yay! Welcome to the club! Now go somewhere on your own and don’t try to talk to us. πŸ™‚

      I found that with foreign languages too. Yay, I can talk to Italian people now! But I don’t have anything to say to them and they’ll think I’m weird.

      Being able to tell people your eyebrows hurt is definitely important. It could save you from all kinds of problems… like having eyebrows that hurt and not being able to tell anyone.

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