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 ten 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 learning process itself. 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.