Extroverts have one natural advantage over introverts when it comes to learning a language: their urge to socialize leads them to more interactions with people and therefore more experience speaking. Compared with introverts, extroverts can build spoken fluency in a relatively short amount of time.
I’m an introvert. When I was first immersed in Spanish in Chile years ago, I spent a lot of time alone with my grammar books. I would go to classes and listen, take diligent notes, and go home to study them at night. When it came to form, I was an expert, but in everyday conversation, I was too lost and too reserved to say anything.
I still count learning to speak a second language among the hardest things I’ve ever done. But my time abroad wasn’t wasted—with some effort, I managed to overcome the difficulties of introversion and actually use the strengths of my personality type to achieve my speaking goals. Here are some things I did, and a few tips to help you overcome the hurdles and start speaking today.
Re-evaluate how you spend your free time
Alone time is not just something I like, it’s something I need. During my stay in Chile, I found myself declining invitations from classmates and avoiding unnecessary interactions with people. It didn’t take long to realize that I was holding myself back, so I made a deal with myself to spend at least two evenings a week doing something social and even though I didn’t talk much at first, it helped me make connections and build friendships that would later allow my language skills to flourish.
While you can’t, and shouldn’t, ignore your need for alone time, you may need to adjust how you’re spending your free time in order to spend more time interacting with speakers of your target language. Do you usually spend your free time reading? Look for a book club. Do you like exercise? Join a gym or look for a hiking club.
Use your writing skills to inspire your speaking skills
All that time alone with my grammar books wasn’t wasted. After a few weeks immersed in Spanish, I started to anticipate the daily opportunities I would have to speak and to plan and rehearse things to say ahead of time. Writing and practicing things that I was going to say before I actually said them helped me speak more confidently and accurately.
So, use your writing skills to work out what you want to say before you plan to say it. You know you need to make an important phone call at work tomorrow? Write out how it might go: what will you say, and how might your listener respond? Then actually say these sentences aloud, several times; identify words or structures that are difficult, and say them until you no longer need to look at what you wrote. When it comes time to speak, you’ll find the words and phrases you need are much more ready on your tongue.
Form a close relationship with a speaker of the target language
I was lucky to be living with an incredibly kind and patient host family during the beginning stages of my speaking development, and had the great pleasure of eating lunch alone with my host mom three or four times each week. Even though I couldn’t speak, she talked to me the whole time, and after a few weeks I was able to start testing out a few sentences with her. From then on, I essentially had a conversation class with her over the delicious lunch she prepared every day. If I hadn’t had that safe interlocutor during my beginning conversations, I may never have made any progress at all.
Luckily, you don’t need to be a social butterfly to develop your speaking skills. The key is to find one person who wants to hear what you have to say badly enough to be patient while you struggle to say it in your new language. Friends and lovers are ideal, but they are by no means the only option. If you struggle to find conversation partners, consider looking for conversation clubs at your local library or an online tutor. Another option is volunteering with the elderly; they often have a lot of free time and a lot to say.
Remember that while introversion can be a barrier to spoken communication, it can also be a strength. Though you may need to push yourself to the types of interactions that will make you fluent, when you do you’ll be surprised at the depth and accuracy with which you can communicate.