Introverts and Language Learning

When I take one of those silly online personality tests, I will score moderately high in extraversion; which is funny because I am introverted by nature. I’ve learned to emulate the skills of an extravert — such as speaking confidently in a meeting or lecture.

Introversion is often conflated with shyness or sensitivity (such as Sensory Processing Sensitivity). I’d recommend Susan Cain’s book Quiet if you want a better understanding of Introversion (as distinct from shyness).

That said, whether you’re shy, introverted, or a highly sensitive person — you’re likely going to face unique difficulties in language learning.

This is why I don’t advise, “just go talk to people”, and I kind of hate when people tell me that (even though I know it works for some people). I’ve learned the hard way that I will not learn a language by “just” doing anything. For me, and people like me, “just do it” is extraordinarily unhelpful advice.

But let’s be clear: language learning requires practicing mundane and simple conversations, like basic pleasantries about the weather. It’s a lot of small talk.

Zone of Proximal Development

This is similar to the concept of a comfort zone, and it is the psychological state just beyond the comfort zone, sometimes referred to as the zone of proximal development. This is where learning actually happens; for clarity I call this the Learning Zone. Beyond this is the danger zone, where you have no idea what’s happening, and you’re not actually learning anything.

Comfort Zone

Learning Zone

Danger Zone

No learning happens in the comfort zone, nor in the danger zone. For some people, especially introverts, the learning zone for a foreign language can seem razor thin. Let’s say you try to practice something you’ve learned, and the person doesn’t understand — or worse, they understand but reply in a way that you don’t understand! In both cases, you freeze. Your thinking just switched into what Daniel Kahneman called System 2, the slow effortful thought process that is essentially a conversation killer if you don’t resume the fast-paced System 1. If you freeze like this, you’re in the danger zone. Learning has failed!

Extravert language learners navigate this kind of situation much differently. They may freeze momentarily, but they bound right back and rarely fall into the danger zone. To them, it’s as if the learning zone is a wide easy-to-navigate path. This is why they might say, “just go talk to people.”

Yeah, right. I just tried talking to someone and froze.

“Just do it again,” the extravert might say, unhelpfully.

Let’s think about this psychologically. The extravert possesses a highly developed set of strategies for navigating out of their danger zone. Because of the curse of knowledge, they’re not aware that you don’t possess this set of strategies. What comes naturally to them does not come naturally to you, and vice-versa.

Learning from the Outside-In

If you’re completely unfamiliar with a language, then any conversation in that language will put you in the danger zone. In a conversation, the danger zone is unpleasant for everyone, including you. The goal is to move from the danger zone and into the learning zone.

Remember, language learning requires gaining automaticity, effortlessly recalling the meaning of words. You can do this through repeated practice of a given word or phrase.

Rather than build from the inside out (which is what most schools do), you can build from the outside in, developing responses to the danger zone. Here are examples in English to Chinese:

Danger Zone Responses

I do not understand => 我不明白
can you say again? => 你可以再說一次嗎?
can you speak slowly please? => 請你慢慢地說?
I do not know how to say => 我不知道怎麼說
let me think => 讓我想想
help me to learn => 幫助我學習

You can do this in any language, I just happen to be thinking about Chinese while I’m writing this. Basically, every time you find yourself in a danger zone, take that as an opportunity for learning. Even if you fail during a conversation, later on you can write down what you should have said. Practice these kind of simple phrases until you gain automaticity with each of them.

Importantly, you want these phrases to become an unconscious response, like a Pavlovian response. Imagine you’re in the situation, and then say the phrase. Repeat this until you’ve gained automatacity. Your brain desperately doesn’t want to be in the danger zone, give it something to say.

You can even add in a joke or a local idiom, anything that helps you and others get out of the danger zone. Remember, if you’re in the danger zone, the person you’re talking to will also feel uncomfortable — if you let them know what they can do to help you, most people will be happy to help (as it’s more comfortable for them as well).

Continuing from the outside in, you can develop a similar set of phrases for better navigating the learning zone.

Learning Zone Navigation

how do you say … in Chinese? => …的中文怎麼說?
what is this? => 這是什麼?
what is that? => 那是什麼?
what does that mean? => 那是什麼意思?

All of these kind of phrases will be discovered naturally, but remember, the whole point of language learning is to short-circuit the natural discovery process and make learning easier. The most powerful thing to learn in any language, is how to learn more in that language.

You’ll want your learning zone to be as wide and easy to navigate as possible. It’s important to stay out of the danger zone, but (for learning) it’s also important to get out of a comfort zone.

Creating Comfort Zones

If learning happens in the Learning Zone, communication happens in a Comfort Zone. As a result, most language learning resources focus on simple phrases to build comfort zones, like saying “hello” and “goodbye”.

To get yourself communicating, creating comfort zones will be vitally important. This will serve as a foundation and will be necessary whenever you talk to someone, as it gives you something to say, and more importantly, it gives a person in your target language something to say to you. If you’re outside of your comfort zone, don’t expect other people to be comfortable talking with you, your comfort zones will put others at ease.

You can build a comfort zone about yourself (who you are, where your from), or about traveling, or about art, or about sports, or about agriculture, or about mathematics, whatever it is your want to talk about.

In a way, the Learning Zone Navigation and the Danger Zone Responses listed above are a type of comfort zone.

A well-developed learning zone can help you to build specific comfort zones. Fortunately, this part of language learning is easy, but it takes time and can be boring. You might feel both fascinated and exhausted when you learn a completely foreign concept, but building automaticity can be practiced for hours every day without breaking a sweat — you can do so with flashcards, memrise, anki, or watch movies, or listen to the radio. Simply repeat the hard-learned concepts until you can recall them effortlessly; this creates and builds comfort zones. Learn the hard stuff first, and then practice until it can be automatically recalled.