Introverts Vs Extroverts in Language Learning

There are many myths surrounding the qualities needed to become a successful language learner.  

 

You have to be musical, or have an ear for music. Yet I know many poor singers who do well at language, and vice versa. You have to have a special language talent, as if some people are genetically predisposed  to be good at language learning. You have to be surrounded by other languages as a child. Yet, when I asked a group of 500 polyglots at last year’s LangFest how many grew up in a bilingual or multilingual family, hardly any hands went up. You can’t learn past a certain age. Yet I have learned eight languages since the age of 60.

 

Another one of these myths is that extroverts are better language learners than introverts. Some people seem to think that a gregarious sociable extrovert, cheerful, keen to engage people in conversation, is going to do better at learning a language than a quieter, perhaps more thoughtful, more introverted person.

 

So who is a better language learner? – Introverts Vs Extroverts

Language learning comes down to the three keys: The attitude of the learner, time spent with the language, and the ability of the learner to notice what is happening in the language, something that takes place mostly subconsciously.

 

The most important of these, more important than age, talent, ear for music, sociability etc. is the attitude of the learner towards the language, towards him or herself, and towards the language being learned. You have to be interested in the language. You have to like the language. Above all you have to believe you’re going to achieve your goal, and that the effort you are putting in is worth it.

 

If you’re looking for something around the house. If you look in a closet or through your different pants pockets and you’re convinced that the item you’re looking for can be found, you are more likely to find it. But if you’re not really sure that the item is to be found, if you only half-heartedly look, it is more likely that in the end you won’t find it.

 

Your belief that you can achieve your goal is very important. First-time language learners have a problem: they’ve never done it before. The can’t see themselves as speakers, fluent speakers, of a second language. It’s like climbing a mountain not expecting to reach the top. This kind of attitude can lead to easy discouragement. It means less enthusiasm and commitment to the task. It is vitally important to believe in oneself, and that has nothing to do with introversion or extroversion.

An equally important factor is time. Language learning takes time, in fact it takes lots of time. Unless the new language is very similar to one you know, it’s not a matter of a few weeks as many language books promise. Successful language learners commit to study daily, even if it is only an hour or so a day, and they continue for months and years to reach their goals.

 

The time referred to here is not just time studying the language by reading grammar books or sitting in class. The time needed for success in language learning is time spent with the language, listening, reading, speaking, and writing in the language. Time spent reading grammar explanations in your own language or vaguely connected to the language in a classroom, or studying word lists, this kind of time doesn’t count as much as engaging with meaningful communication in the language, listening, reading and speaking. Much of this time can be in the form of activities that are enjoyable and interesting. Indeed, they need to cater to the interest of the learner.

 

Here again, an introverted person with a strong interest in some aspect of a language and its culture, who devotes the time necessary for success, will learn faster than an extrovert who is just looking for opportunities to practice the limited bit of the language that he or she has learned.

 

Finally we need to improve our ability to notice. We need to notice sounds, how the language is pronounced. We need to notice words and we need to notice structures or patterns in the language. Fortunately most of this increase in our ability to notice comes through exposure to the language. At the initial stages of learning a new language, repetitive listening and reading makes us more and more aware of what is happening in the language. We gradually gain a clearer and clearer awareness of the pronunciation. We notice how thoughts are expressed in patterns of speech that differ from what we are used to.

 

Noticing normally improves with exposure, but we have to want to notice. We have to be determined to notice. It is obvious that the ability to notice is dependent on our attitude and the time we devote to the language. These three keys are interdependent.

 

Neither the learners’ attitude, nor their willingness to spend enough time with the language nor their attentiveness to the language require them to be extroverts. Introverts can just as easily have those qualities.

If I look at the many successful language learners and polyglots that I know, from polyglot conferences or just from our LingQ community, I find introverts, extroverts, and a range of degrees of both personality traits. The fact is that it’s irrelevant. Both introverts and extroverts are capable of learning languages to whatever level they want.

 

Extroverts may want to speak earlier. They’re perhaps more likely to be unfazed about not understanding or making mistakes. That’s good. Perhaps introverts are more shy, more reluctant to speak until they are more confident of their ability in the language. However, once they have achieved a large vocabulary and a solid level of comprehension, they will develop their speaking skills quite quickly. They may speak more quietly, more hesitatingly, but their knowledge of the language will not be inferior the that of extroverts, in my experience.

So both introverts and extroverts can learn a new language fluently

Introverts are no less capable in their own language than extroverts. Introverts don’t have a smaller vocabulary, or read less, or understand less. Nor are they interested in fewer things. In fact, the passive activity of reading is one of the most effective ways of improving language skills in both one’s own language and a foreign language. Introverts may behave differently in the new language or speak less at some social gatherings than extroverts, but introverts typically have a lot to say when they are comfortable; a lot of things of substance to say.

If you’re an introvert, devoting yourself to input-based activities such as we do at LingQ, lots of listening and reading and building up your vocabulary, this is going to make you more comfortable so that when you start speaking you will have better listening comprehension and a bigger vocabulary. You’ll be better able to defend yourself and that’s going to make you more confident.

Language learning is an individual pursuit. Regardless of who we are, we can succeed. We just need to tailor our learning activities to suit our interests and personality.

 

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7 comments on “Introverts Vs Extroverts in Language Learning

Carol

Hi Steve, Thanks for the post. I wanted to tell you that I have gone back to many of your posts and also Tha Way of the Linguist for a second time. I have gained so much by hearing your ideas repeated two or three times. I think the reason for this is that it takes awhile to change your point of view. It takes awhile to be convinced that yes, you really can do this! Then, it takes a bit longer to actually accept responsibility. When you finally accept the idea that you can do it, well, why haven’t you? Even though your ideas may seem to be common sense, it takes a LOT of encouragement to really put them into practice! Thanks for this encouragement.

Erin

Thank you for this! I’m an introvert who would love to learn a few languages, but I’ve been discouraged because I’ve always been told that to be fluent I have to get out there and do a lot of talking. But, it only occurred to me the other day that I’ve never been a big talker, not even in my own language. But, through spending my life listening to people in real life AND on TV and being an extensive reader, I’m a great communicator when I do choose to speak and I have a much larger vocabulary than most people I know. This helps confirm my suspicion that, at least for a while, I can learn quite a bit through methods that come much more naturally to me.

Robert Macaulay

The goal is to enjoy learning, developing and using the language.

I’m having fun learning my first language Japanese.

I can understand basic sentences and catch words here and there on TV shows.
Reading Hiragana is amusing. It’s like reading English.

It’s like a fog that is slowly clearing and it’s an interesting experience.

Mel

This article is very important for introverts. I have been struggling for two and a half years to learn Mandarin. You have identified the bottom line for successful language learning.

Attitude, time, alertness and attentiveness. I can do all of these better than most extroverts.

The next thing you made me think about was how I learned my native language compared to introverts. I hardly spoke a word before the age of four. I was always shy and scared of drawing attention to myself. I would rather be alone with my pet cat. By the time I became an adult, my skills in my native language were better than most introverts.

Why? Attitude, time, alertness and attentiveness.

I was not an avid reader but my mother would always do crosswords. She had difficulty completing about half of her crosswords. My mother would get very frustrated with the last few words. I learned to treat words as a puzzle. It sometimes took me a very long time but I nearly always finished the crossword. It was not my word knowledge that gave me success but my problem-solving skills.

I now know that my pathway to learning Mandarin will be very unique and a problem-solving approach will be strongly interwoven with my attitude, use of time, alertness and attentiveness. Thank you for helping me achieve this clarity.

Congratulations, you have successfully communicated with an introvert.

Vinay M

Okay, as a linguist you know better. But nobody said that introverts can’t learn languages. Irrespective of the introvert/extrovert difference, some people are better language learners than others. You seem to be perpetuating the old adage that hard work alone is the key, and that there is no such thing as an unfair advantage. There very much is. It is indeed easier for some people. Some people can learn just by listening or watching movies, although this is mainly true of languages similar to their own. They dont even need to use an app or attend classes to learn it. While others need to formally learn the grammar and expand their vocab little by little. And introverts are differently hardwired than extroverts, their brains work differently. And since extroverts are higher on interpersonal intelligence they are better communicators they pick up a language faster.
This is not to give excuses, but yes it is indeed easier for some than others. And the unfair advantage is there.

Name *Slow Rider Daniel

It is always a pleasure reading your articles. I agree with your statements especially the final one about the learner looking for his own path. You are an inspiration for many of us. Thanks.

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