speak a new language

Being an introvert through and through, I struggle with certain communication challenges that extroverts just don’t get. I often speak more slowly, and have trouble finding the right words. And that’s when I’m talking in English. Trying to speak a new language is a whole other story. It’s not really my fault.

Introverts have longer neural pathways for processing stimuli—at least that’s the scientific way of explaining it. Another way of putting it is that we get tong-tied. A lot.

Over the years, I’ve learned how to work with, rather than against, my thoughtful, slow-talking ways. I’ve got some small talk tricks up my sleeve and I know how to communicate with confidence. But that doesn’t change the fact that I’m an introvert, so occasionally my brain decides to go on strike mid-sentence—especially when I speak a new language.

The struggle to speak a new language as an introvert

I’m in Puerto Vallarta right now. Having spent a lot of time in Spanish speaking countries, I feel like I’m familiar with the language. That doesn’t mean I’m anywhere close to being fluent. Still, I’m pretty sure I know more Spanish than my brain allows me to reveal in conversation.

For example, the other day I went through a list of 2000 of the most common Spanish words . I skimmed the first few hundred or so and was surprised to find that I knew all of them.

Yet, in conversation I stumble over simple sentences, and constantly forget words that I know are floating around in the dark recesses of my mind. When I consider the fact that I still forget English words a lot of the time, it makes total sense. Because here’s the thing.

My brain needs time to warmup. It’s like a car that must to be switched on and left to purr for a while in the winter. Try to start it too soon and everything is stiff. My conversation skills are anything but smooth first thing in the morning or after a long stint of silence.

I need to get my verbal muscles in gear by easing into conversation. All these challenges are amplified when I speak a new language.

I’ll be honest, you’ve probably already guessed that I’m no expert at learning to speak a new language. But I do consider myself an expert on introversion and a lifelong autodidact. Here is what is helping me to improve my Spanish:

1. It’s all about motivation

One of the reasons that I don’t usually learn to speak a new language as quickly as some extrovert travellers I’ve encountered is that, in the past, I simply didn’t have the motivation to learn.

Being an introvert, I didn’t have the same burning desire to talk to people that many extroverts have. I was content to just sit and observe, scraping by on the bare minimum of Spanish I needed to stay safe and fed.

Nowadays, I feel more motivated to learn because I genuinely want to connect with people while I’m in Puerto Vallarta for the next month. Why?

Well, having spent a good portion of my twenties travelling or moving to new cities on my own, I realized how lonely such a lifestyle can be. I vowed to make connection a top priority during future travels. So far, I’m doing a good job of keeping my promise to myself!

2. You have to know your learning style

Having taken a few French and Spanish Classes in grade school and college, I know that the traditional approach to teaching one how to speak a new language does NOT work for me.

Everything is out of context. You mindlessly try to memorize verb conjugations and learn neat and tidy sentences that you’ll never use in a real conversation.

Learning to speak a new language mostly through writing and reading is also pretty useless for me. I’m an introvert author who writes on a daily basis, but that doesn’t mean I speak in prose.

I’ve always been able to write better than I speak. This is because written communication uses different parts of the brain than verbal communication. Knowing this has forced me to face a difficult truth:

3. You’ve got to actually talk the talk

To this day I don’t want to believe it, but I know it’s true. If you want to speak a new language, you have to actually speak the new language. Out loud. To another living breathing human being.

Preferably this other human will respond in a natural way, including slang, umms, and aaahs. I learn more in a single conversation with a taxi driver or Airbnb host than I’ve learned in several Spanish classes combined.

4. Take breaks

All of that said, I have to admit that it’s tiring and pretty damn embarrassing to try to speak a new language everyday. Sometimes, you need to give yourself a break. Set a goal to have one or two conversations a day. Once you’ve reached your quota, treat yourself to a margarita and enjoy some well-deserved silencio.

Y tú?

Have you ever struggled to learn to speak a new language as an introvert? Share your challenges, tips, tricks, and stories in the comments below. 🙂



Michaela Chung