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Someone on the internet is wrong.
Specifically, there are a group of people in the language learning space who assert that to learn a language, you must speak it right from day one.
Perhaps, somewhat more charitably, we can understand them as saying that speaking a new language immediately is one way to learn a language that can work. That’s fair enough.
But speaking from day one isn’t going to work for everyone. And especially not those of us who identify as introverts.
Being plunged into conversation with only very basic language skills is terrifying for lots of people.
Perhaps you are already a bundle of nerves when you’re meeting new people or participating in a group discussion.
Now imagine not really knowing any words. Yikes.
Well, there’s some good news.
You don’t need to force yourself through awkward small talk with a stranger to learn English—at least not right away. And you still can be just as successful as those loud, slightly obnoxious extroverts even if you’re a little shy.
In this guide, I’ll show you how.
Some of you may already be a little sceptical.
“Being introverted isn’t the same as being shy!”, you might be saying to yourself.
If I’m using pop psychology stereotypes about introverts as quiet, nerdy people that would rather knit than have a conversation with another human, I’m really just doing it to be funny.
But while “introversion” certainly isn’t the same as “shy”, it’s also far from having a clear definition—even within psychology.
Carl Jung, who coined the term, used it to describe “inwardly directed psychic energy”.
He meant it as someone who is particularly reflective and has a rich inner life. But the Big 5 personality test, one of the most important personality tests in psychological research, looks at introversion in terms of behaviour. On that test, things like the need for positive stimulation and gregariousness make you more of an extrovert.
So it’s not exactly clear what it is.
One definition I like is the one given by Susan Cain, author of Quiet.
She says the difference between extroverts and introverts is about stimulation—that extroverts crave large amounts of external stimulation, whereas introverts feel at their most capable and alive with much less stimulation, in quieter, low key environments.
Socially, that often ends up with extroverts seeking the stimulation of large groups of people, and introverts preferring the quiet corner of the coffee shop.
That’s a little simplistic, but I think it’s a useful way to think about introversion.
I like it because it distinguishes being introverted from having poor social skills.
Being introverted doesn’t mean you're bad at social interaction. You can be an introvert with superb social skills. (And, similarly, just because someone’s an extrovert doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily socially skilled.)
It’s more about where you’re looking for stimulation.
So with that broad definition of introversion, let’s look at how introverts can learn English.
Introversion can be a blessing for English learners
You’re feeling heart palpitations just thinking about introducing yourself in your English class.
How can that be a blessing?
Well, for a few reasons.
Introverts are often observant.
You’re perhaps used to watching in group interactions. Noticing what others are doing and what they’re saying.
It turns out that noticing is an essential part of learning a language.
Paying attention to the language used, and then trying it out yourself, is part of the learning process. Introverts may have a leg up on that front.
Introverts may process information faster. Some research suggests that introverts may actually have higher neural processing speeds. Indeed, that’s proposed as one of the reasons people seek out solitude in the first place—they are already so stimulated, they seek quieter environments. That faster information processing could help you learn faster.
The introvert’s toolkit for learning English without talking to strangers
Okay, so you appreciate the strengths that being an introvert gives you. Can you learn English without talking to strangers?
You can certainly get pretty far.
Here are some of the best activities that you can do to learn English without feeling over stimulated by extensive social encounters or conversation.
Unsurprisingly, podcasts are our favourite resource here at Leonardo English.
Podcasts are a very effective way to learn a language.
I remember one student of mine when I was teaching English in France. He went from an A1 level to a B2/C1 level in English in 6 months. And while I’d love to take credit for that as his teacher, his secret really was listening to hours and hours of podcasts every day.
That’s borne out in the research too. Stephen Krashen, the famed linguist and language learning researcher, has shown that comprehensible input is a requirement for language learning. And research demonstrates that extensive input, including from podcasts, can improve all our English skills—even speaking.
Podcasts are flexible, interesting, and sometimes even come with a bunch of learning supports like key vocabulary and transcripts.
But the best feature of podcasts for introverts?
No small talk with strangers.
Reading is a close second to podcasts in our view. Reading is to language learning like what dark leafy greens are to health: essential.
And introverts will appreciate staying at home and curling up with a hot tea and a good book.
This is my favourite of a number of speaking exercises that you can do by yourself because it really works.
Shadowing is essentially repeating the speech in an audio text immediately after you hear it. The idea is to do your best imitation of a frustrating 7-year-old sibling and just repeat everything you hear.
It is an extremely effective way to practise the physical aspects of spoken English, like its rhythm, musicality, and pitches.
It’s also a great way to improve your English pronunciation.
It’s one of the favourite activities by many members of Leonardo English. Not necessarily because they are introverts, but because it is so effective, you can do it on your own, and (when you get used to it) it can also be a lot of fun.
Recording your voice and playing it back
Here’s another effective solo speaking activity: just record yourself speaking.
Does that feel awkward? Pretend that you’re hosting your own podcast. Heck, maybe even start one yourself like some of our members (Daniel and Kristian) have done.
Of course, you get the benefit of the speaking practice. With time, all that practice will add up and help you improve.
But you also get the benefit of getting to actually hear your own improvement. When you go back 6 months from now and listen to yourself, you might not even believe how far you’ve come.
YouTube or Netflix
Both YouTube and Netflix, when used properly, can be really effective learning tools.
An ex-roommate of mine had a family friend that learned Portuguese entirely from novelas. Lýdia Machová, a polyglot who speaks a lot on the subject of language learning, has said that she used TV to learn German. And most recently, I watched an episode of Carpool Karaoke where a member of BTS was explaining that he learned English entirely from watching friends over and over.
By the way, the “BTS method of learning English” (as I’m now calling it) is this: watch all 10 seasons of Friends with subtitles in your own language. Then watch them all again, this time with English subtitles. Then watch them all again without subtitles. Bam. You’re fluent.
That’s all consistent with the advice I’ve given previously on using Netflix, YouTube, or other video streaming platforms for language learning: it only really becomes an effective language learning activity once you don’t have subtitles in your own language.
Introverts rejoice: now you have an excuse to skip your social engagements and pop Friends on the telly.
No activity is more “introverted” than writing. It requires quiet reflection.
And, like recording your own speech, writing lends itself well to seeing your improvement over time.
I don’t usually recommend for most of my students to spend a lot of time writing. That’s because most people don’t really have as their primary goal to be an excellent writer in English.
And most people don’t find writing in their second language to be very pleasant. If you’ve been around this blog very long, you’ll know that my idea of the perfect English activity is the one that you enjoy the most. Because then you’ll actually do it. For most people, that’s not writing.
But introverts may actually find the quiet, thoughtful process of writing to be rewarding.
So by all means, introverts, find that darker corner of the cafe by the window, plug your headphones in to your favourite chill hop or rainscape sounds, and see where your pen takes you.
How to cope with speaking—when you get there
The above are all introvert-friendly activities for learning English that really work. You can go really far doing just them.
But at some point, you really do need to speak in English. Here are some ideas for introverts to have interactions with others that don’t completely drain you or make you feel overwhelmed.
Prioritise 1:1 conversations
Groups can be intimidating for anyone in their second language (ask me how I know).
So avoid them. Stick to one-on-one conversations that feel comfortable and where you can focus.
Ideally, you’ll be able to find a conversation partner in your group of friends or acquaintances. If you can’t, there are lots of ways to find conversation partners online. For introverts, I might suggest one of the options where you can develop a relationship with the same person over time. That might be better than meeting a new person every time.
Join a community of other non-native speakers
Part of why it's so uncomfortable speaking in another language is that we’re worried we sound stupid.
You’re not alone in that—I’ve found it’s a nearly universal experience of the language learner.
That’s why joining a community of other language learners is so powerful. You know that they feel just as clumsy in English as you do. Knowing that they are struggling too may make it easier for you.
Leonardo English has a particularly vibrant and supportive community of English learners. And our monthly Zoom conversation meetings are the perfect place for an introvert to join in a conversation without feeling overwhelmed.
Look for other introverts
Yes, they may be hiding. But you can find them with some work.
Introverts make great language partners, especially for other introverts.
They reflect on what you say.
And they’re the perfect person to commiserate with about how difficult it is to speak English to other live humans.
Start with writing
Working up to a full spoken conversation? Start with text.
Typing or texting gives you a bit more time to think. And since you can’t see the other person, you can focus just on what you’re going to say. It’s a lot less intimidating.
For example, join a WhatsApp group, a discord server, or simply start sending some texts to your friends. Then use those text conversations to build up to spoken ones.
Introverts can learn English, too
I’ve been talking about “introverts” as if it’s a distinct group of people. But really, we all have at least a little introvert in us. Social interaction is draining for everyone.
And in my experience, the less comfortable I am in a language, the more introverted I feel. The more anxious I am and the more the social interactions seem to require energy to manage.
So I suspect that “introversion” may be something many language learners can identify with. Even if they’d put themselves more in the “extrovert” box in their native language.
Luckily, introverts can learn languages too.
Some language teachers might say that you need to “speak from day one”, but it’s not true. I’ve provided you with a bunch of examples of effective learning activities that you can do by yourself. For more, check out our guides on speaking and listening activities that you can do alone.
Eventually, you will have to speak to other people, and that’s fine. You can start small and build up. Remind yourself that it’s okay to make mistakes and that no one’s perfect.
And eventually, when you’ll start having full conversations, all the work you put in ahead of time will help you not find those interactions so draining.
You might even enjoy them.