How Introverts Learn Languages

by Irina Ponomareva (Ирина Пономарева)

Is there a difference between the way extroverts and introverts learn languages? There has to be, obviously. Even one well-known fact - that introverts hate talking for the sake of talking - just has to affect the whole language learning procedure. And there is more to it than just that.

Unfortunately, since introverts are doomed from birth to live in the world dominated by their opposites (and that’s not just about sheer numbers), most language learning courses seem to be tailored to meet the needs of the extroverts. The wide-spread opinion that “languages are to speak in” doesn’t make the lives of introverted language learners any easier, either. But there are, in fact, four major skills the command of a language is built upon: reading, listening, writing and speaking, all equally important. And if the person is not going to move or travel to the country where the target language is spoken, the chances are that speaking will actually be less important than the other three and required less often.

It doesn’t mean that introverts should not be taught to speak - far from it. All skills should be developed in harmony. But the teachers should understand that there is a significant difference in how different people process information. For an extrovert the “speak from day one” approach might be perfect, but an introvert will very likely prefer to concentrate on listening, reading and translation for months, thus acquiring comprehensible input, and only later convert it into active vocabulary through writing, text-messaging and, lastly, speaking. Left to do as they please, such people - with motivation and determination - can one day reach very high levels in their target languages. But pushed to do it the “normal” way - which for an introverted person is the upside down way - they might grow to hate the language and give it all up. Unfortunately, teachers are often reluctant to change their ways and tend to teach all students in more or less the same way, regardless of their personality traits. And when those traits show, it is not uncommon for a teacher to get nasty to the unfortunate student.

That, of course, is the shortest way to nowhere. Instead of pushing the student to engage in small talk at all costs, it would be much more effective if the teacher found a topic that would be interesting to the student. It is a well known fact that when you suggest a topic that is really close to an introvert’s heart, it miraculously makes the said introvert very eloquent.

Similar rules apply to the choice of reading material. Usually teachers shy away from originals and prefer to use graded readers even for the more advanced students believing that unabridged books are too complicated for those who are just learning the language. But an introvert of the bookworm type would most likely overcome all the difficulties for the sake of a really fascinating book and show unbelievable stubbornness - in a good way - in getting to the bottom of each sentence. At the lower levels, such as A2 or B1, the bilingual reading technique can be very helpful, and you will be surprised to find out that your quiet student will happily wade through the same text twice and even find the experience amusing. Of course, such exercises require a lot of motivation on the part of the student, but since without motivation no language learning is ever possible, for the purpose of this article we have to assume that our hypothetical introverted student is very strongly motivated.

Okay, so we have learned it. What now?

The ways extroverts and introverts use the languages they have learned are different also - at least in terms of priorities. Extroverts will always go around looking for someone to talk to, and if there is no one, will always find a workaround, but introverts will be contented to wait until life provides them with such an opportunity and in the meantime occupy themselves with writing poems, fairy tales or even some web content.

Both categories of language learners will happily frequent web forums on the topic, but an introvert may spend hours, if not days, overcoming the initial indecisiveness before he or she finally fills out the registration form and makes the first post. Also, for an introvert it will be very important that the forum has the right kind of “atmosphere”, whatever that may mean, whereas an extrovert will probably just go and create the necessary atmosphere. And, doubtless, to be interesting, resonant and full of life such forums need both types of participants, because, like in real life, extroverts and introverts are equally important to create harmony.

Both categories know exactly how important it is to read in one’s target language, but for an introvert it would be very natural to get immersed in a book. Extroverts may love their books just as much, but they are more likely to get distracted from their reading, if only because they typically have more friends and hang out with them regularly.

On the whole, the question is raised from time to time on whether the extroverts or the introverts make better polyglots. That’s hardly the right way to put it, because both types of people can achieve amazing success if they put their mind to it. There are benefits and drawbacks to both traits and, anyway, we can’t change what we are, but we can always decide what we can - and will - achieve.

About the writer

Irina Ponomareva is a Russian language enthusiast who is now on her way to full-scale polyglottery. She works in the IT industry and in her free time collaborates with a new language learning platform


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