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.
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. 🙂
Hi, I don’t think this is necessarily an introvert issue. The first big hurdle of anyone speaking a second language is to start converting the passive knowledge into active. It is a huge hurdle that can be very discouraging, but once you get the hang of it, speaking a second language really starts being fun.
The second hurdle is when you stop mirror translating – when you first start, you compose a sentence in your head in the first language and then you try to translate it word to word. It takes a long time and a lot of practice with native speakers to get through this one. When you start putting those idioms from the textbook to good use and start creating new metaphors is when you really made it.
I have been using my second language for 16 years both in my personal and professional life. It really adds a whole new level of fun and experience to life. Enjoy!
I tried learning French in college and it was the class I struggled with most out of any subject (even math, which was my high school nemesis). Even more frustrating was that after over a year of studying it in a classroom I couldn’t speak a word of the language when I met a group of French Canadians. I knew enough words to put sentences together, but I just couldn’t get them to actually come out my mouth (and by the time I’d arranged them neatly in my brain the conversation had moved on to something else and then I got distracted trying to translate). I’m pretty sure if I really wanted to learn a new language I’d have to do some kind of immersion program where I’m actually forced to speak and use it in everyday conversation.
Aren’t INFJ supposed to be…like…super good at languages? Or is it truer that we are super good, generally, in communicating (active communication with active listening that is holistic…broad spectrum)?
For a new job, I once took this communication style test. It tested for the presence of 4 different communications styles during, both, normal and stressed situation.
The results almost didn’t get me the job. While under normal life situations, I tested significantly and measurably high in all four communication styles. Under stress, I resorted to only one style exclusively. It was called, “Control/Take.”
It was this last that was of concern, but they hired me anyway. I found out after I left the position “In tears” that the reason they were so concerned was because my manager ALSO tested “Control/Take” under stress. I think she only tested in two areas under normal situations. I also witnessed her actively create a hostile work environment (as demonstrated by my peers always in some sort of duress and fear state when she was around, and I also saw her actively bait and demoralize other people. This brought out my “Advocate” in a big way…and then I left…went back to hospice field nursing…which requires dynamic communication…language nuance which, if done well, creates peace, harmony and compassion…and no triggers for control/take.
Indeed, being an INFJ good with language has been a great benefit.
And…I did take German in high school back in the 80s. I excelled! Still remember a lot of it. I loved it. I took Spanish, too…didn’t like Spanish so much, but oddly, I still remember what I did learn all those years ago and still use it in my work here in California and Arizona. “Donde es tu dolo?”
I have tried many methods to learn Spanish. I always assumed that I just don’t learn languages well. Interesting comments Michaela. It never crossed my mind it might be an introvert thing. I have been using Synergy Spanish for 9 months. There is no doubt in my mind I will be speaking Spanish very well by this time next year. All my Spanish friends ( I live full time in Honduras) speak English to me. Now I will be able to speak Spanish to them. The course is all about speaking and less about classroom. If you want to learn Spanish, try it. It sure is working for me.
Totally get where you’re coming from. I’ve lived in Mexico since 2000 and my Spanish is still survival Spanish. I get by, but just. A big part of this is wanting to engage in meaningful discussion but being surrounded by mindless chit chat.
A very timely reminder for me as I am planning to learn some Indonesian in preparation for a trip I will be going on later this year.
I’m not sure in my case. I speak 5 languages (native Spanish, English, French, Portuguese and Italian); I learned the last 2 at my current job. After writing some work-related e-mails in these two languages, I thought I was fluent in them… after speaking with native speakers, I actually was!
For those considering learning Spanish: please keep it to one region only. I’m Colombian, but I moved to Argentina about 5 years ago. Easy, no need to learn a new language… Wrong: the first 3 months were a struggle, because I could not understand anyone. I could not even join call conferences alone because of the language barrier! But basically, for me, the best way to learn is to actually talk about anything in the new language you’re learning.
Hello, Michaela! I once knew how to speak simple Japanese. I was blessed to have the time and chance to learn. For me, I learn best by speaking it first, then read a bit and write…along with learning the history and culture of the people who speak the language. And yes, as you said, we must want to learn.
Here’s what I did to learn to speak it:
– borrowed one book specifically made for use in classes.
– borrowed one book meant for self-learning.
– watched a lot of Japanese TV shows/movies to hear the language being spoken and see body languages as well.
– listened to some Japanese songs.
– memorised phrases, then breaking the sentence down into single words.
– read up on their tradition and culture to understand their sentence structure and intonations.
– attended some Japanese festivals (not anime/manga conventions).
It helps to understand how they think. It makes you sort of ‘feel’ the language, even more when you try to be one of them (though you will never actually be one of them).
As for reading and writing, I think they go hand-in-hand:
– casually memorise the characters (alphabets).
– bought the easiest and most fun source of Japanese text, a manga of my favourite story at the moment.
– tested my skills reading Japanese blogs too, but those have the more difficult characters (kanji).
– read some Japanese poetry, simple ones like haiku.
I never did get to learn counting, though. Something happened and I lost my memory on Japanese language almost completely. A good thing, I guess, since speaking Japanese was cool only back then and now, I might get people calling me names like weaboo/weeb.
Oh, one funny thing was that I knew two Japanese people from my varsity days. I figured that while constant exposure to the language helps, mingling with them would be totally awesome for some live experience. Nope, only made my lose my focus entirely, so that did NOT help, hahaha.
The same thing happens to me, too! I studied abroad in China, and with most people I stuck to speaking English, mainly because my Chinese was super slow and I didn’t want people to have to wait for me to get my sentences together or find the right word. I am definitely WAY better at reading and writing Chinese rather than speaking, as is the case in English.
So naturally, I spoke a lot of English with the Chinese friend I met, which I tried to view as ‘well, at least I’m helping someone else out with their language skills’. Once, we went to a bookstore, and because she asked if I could, I read the covers of books and sentences from books to her. She was really impressed with how many characters I knew!
Anyways, I know and understand that learning a language by speaking with natives (which I now definitely wish I did more of while I was abroad, because that is the best way to learn a language) is hard. This is a personal recommendation because it definitely helped me, not a sponsored ad or anything: Last month, I completed an online 30 day speaking challenge where the goal was just to speak a little bit each day. It’s free, you just sign up and participate! If anyone here is interested in that (especially good if you are super shy or it’s hard to find a native speaker of your target language in your area), here’s a link: http://hugginsinternational.com/30dayspeakingchallenge/. If your target language is commonly spoken, you might receive feedback on your recordings!
I am not in English language.
I have been learning it for nine years, but I don’t speak in fluent English.
My brain is so busy to pay attention, but it doesn’t make me to give up learning.
Michaela, what an insightful message. I think your observations apply more to extroverts — like myself — than you might think. After 3 years of high school in California where I first learned Spanish, I did not excel in the language until I got to college. Porque? Because I had a latino college classmate who became my roommate and loved letting me stumble through the language on a daily basis. As a result, I had more than a few lovely lantinas as girlfriends! Now many, many years later I live in Michigan (not so diverse in my opinion) where I am not encouraged to even try my Spanish. Hence, I think you got to be in an environment that embraces multi-lingual people. Or at least be persistent to find the communities that practice that. That is why I plan to move to either Arizona or Southern California to get back in the zone. Another area where introverts and extroverts struggle together.
“Talk the talk” – it couldn’t be more true! I’ve been in Nicaragua for 5 months now but started to learn Spanish only two months after I had come here. I met the guy – who is now my couple – who didn’t speak any English, so our first kinda dates were very weird because the talking part was only him. Me… Well i was the part that was doing her best to understand Spanish:D Eventually he made me talk. I’ve spent no more that 4-5 hours on the websites with grammar and vocabularies, and everything I new so far is what I picked up from him. My spanish is far far super far from perfection, but at least I don’t feel deaf or confused or scared anymore when talking to other people. Putting myself into the situation where i had to speak didn’t work for me. But putting myself into the situation where I had motivation to speak did the trick