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?
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.
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.)
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?
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.
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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