An Introvert’s Guide to Navigating a Foreign Language

Learning another language can be hard.

Seeing as you have to speak a lot to master a language, being an introvert can make language learning even harder.

Since introverts choose listening over talking, proceed cautiously and spend more time alone, jumping in and just speaking a language is not how we prefer to do things.

When you look at these traits of an introvert from the outside, they don’t seem to mesh well with a skill that requires a lot of talking.

But just like extroverts, we bring our own unique strengths and learning styles to the mix, which we can use to our advantage.

As an introvert learning French, I’ll admit that my introversion can present some challenges — but only if I let it. With practice, patience and time you can overcome any hurdle you might face as an introvert learning a foreign language.

Here are some strategies that have helped me:

Let Go of Pride

The most important lesson any language learner can gain is that you can’t let your ego get in the way. Meaning you can’t be too proud to start at the elementary level. Yes, you might have to watch kid’s cartoons for a while just to understand the basics but wouldn’t you rather build on a solid foundation first?

It also means admitting that you don’t know everything yet.

If someone corrects you, don’t be ashamed — be grateful that someone cares enough to help you.

If you’re unsure about something, ask.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

I think as introverts we pride ourselves on being very self-sufficient, especially when it comes to our learning. Letting go of this tendency and seeking help from others can be difficult but is an important step in developing a growth mindset.

If you feel embarrassed or silly, don’t worry. It’s a very normal part of the process. Being vulnerable and open doesn’t come easy for introverted people but it’s part and parcel of learning another language.

Give yourself credit for the work you’re putting in and strive to improve everyday. Don’t let perfectionism get in the way; just keep being humble and keep on learning.

Prepare Yourself Beforehand

One of my French teachers began every class with the same question: Qu’avez-vous fait la semaine dernière (what did you do last week?) Before I went to class, I’d write out a sentence or two in French about what I’d done the week before, listen to in Google translate and rehearse it a few times just so I wouldn’t be floundering when she asked me.

This was a good exercise in being prepared because — as we all know — introverts absolutely hate being caught unawares. 😄

Speaking a foreign language is very much a spontaneous activity and it’s something you have to adjust to as an introvert. However, being as prepared as you can be really helps you feel more comfortable and in control of the situation.

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Brush up on your grammar, conjugation, vocabulary and anything else before you go to a class or language meetup. Learn some basic conversational phrases, even if it’s just hello, goodbye and how are you?

This way you won’t draw a blank and will have something to say.

Edge Out of Your Comfort Zone

It took me a while to move from practicing French in the safety of my own home to venturing outside of it to speak with others. Stepping out of my comfort zone was one of the best decisions I’ve made.

I started first with online classes and Duolingo. Then I attended a few language meetup groups in my area. After that, I met someone in my neighbourhood who had also taken the same online class as me and suggested I take on-site classes because they had had a good experience with them.

Intrigued, I enrolled in an on-site class. It was a little unnerving to speak in front of people at first, but slowly I became more comfortable and confident in my ability to speak French.

Photo by Kimberly Farmer on Unsplash

Us introverts love to observe and study (and this can be a real advantage) but language is not a skill that can be mastered by independent study alone. We learn more when we listen to others and interact with them.

It can even help to be put on the spot sometimes, believe it or not.

Just the other night, our teacher suggested a group activity — the French equivalent of hot potato — and we had to quickly think up a word with whatever letter someone gave us. Inwardly, I cringed because I don’t like being the centre of attention and I don’t like thinking on the spot.

Especially when all eyes are on me.

When my turn came, I nervously wracked my brain for an answer but found one surprisingly quick. The panic vanished and I relaxed. I realized I had been making a huge deal out of something so small… 😅

It wasn’t as bad as I thought.

That’s the common theme I’ve observed from venturing out of my comfort zone. That it’s often not as scary as I think. I survived and you will too.

Allow Curiosity to Drive You

Something that has always helped me overcome any fear or hesitation is curiosity.

Curiosity can be a powerful emotion and if it’s strong enough, it can drive out other powerful emotions like fear.

Speaking up in university seminars didn’t come easy to me until I allowed myself to become genuinely curious and interested in what I was studying. I was still nervous but more focused on my burning curiosity than anything else — like my nerves.

Photo by Jessica Da Rosa on Unsplash

When I’m curious to learn, experiment and grow, I become less inhibited.

When I stop overthinking things, I speak up more in French class and offer answers.

It’s helpful to remember that, at the end of the day, speaking another language is about having a conversation. It’s not a test but a dialogue between two or more people. Having fun and not taking yourself too seriously can help you relax and enjoy the process more.

As introverts, we’re super focused but sometimes too serious about stuff. So just remember to go easy on yourself and have a good laugh while you’re at it too.

Know Your Energy Limits

This tip is more about owning your introversion. I can push myself as much as I’d like but at my heart I’m still a quiet, homebody introvert who needs enough time alone to recharge. I like to talk a little in class or at my language group but I also like to sit back and listen to others have the floor.

I realize that I learn a lot this way too.

In fact, as an introvert, you have a unique set of traits that give you a real edge in learning another language.

“Language exerts hidden power, like a moon on the tides.” — Rita Mae Brown

Some advantages are: excellent listening and reading skills (meaning excellent pronunciation and a good understanding of grammar), an observant mind and a quiet nature (which actually may be better suited to the culture of the language you’re learning), as Léa Tirard-Hersant explains.

The great thing about going to classes, groups or events is that you can always go home. You always have the choice to continue, leave or go another route to learning a language. I’ve been to one meetup I didn’t particularly like but then I tried another French-language group (my current one) and love it. Classes and clubs are usually only a few hours out of your day, so you can attend these without feeling drained.

Venture outside of your comfort zone to learn and explore but also take a step back when you need to. Sometimes we do need time for quiet, individual study and reflection. If we push ourselves with too much socialization, we’ll feel depleted and unhappy.

I’ve found that the more I’ve recognized my own limits and tendencies, the more I’ve allowed myself to grow.

In fact, my sister made a great point about this. She reminded me that everyone learns at their own pace and that I should stop comparing myself to others (who all have different motivations for learning and varying comfort levels). It seems like common sense to remember this but it can be difficult to shift your mindset when everyone else around you seems much more fluent.

But this seems to be a common feeling among language learners. More than a few of my classmates have mentioned that they feel this way and I think these people are pretty good at French! Just goes to show we’re our harshest critics.

Taking my sister’s advice to heart has really changed my perspective and helped me go easier on myself. I’m content to step out a little but also happy to just be myself, especially if that means learning French by listening or reading on some days and talking more on others.

Adopt a growth mindset to language learning, build a solid foundation of knowledge, give yourself time to venture out of your comfort zone, allow curiosity to drive out fear and own your introversion because it does give you strong advantages as a language learner.

Communications and digital marketing professional, interested in creativity, personal development and mindful living.

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