The Struggles of Language Learning as an Introvert

This post was contributed by Casira Copes.


Apps are great, shows with subtitles are bomb, and Spotify playlists are a godsend. But when it comes to languages, nothing beats having an actual conversation with a real human being. So what do you do when you prefer to room alone, don’t go anywhere without your headphones or a book, and can’t stand small talk? Well…. there are some hurdles to jump. When it comes to traveling, here are the main reasons this introvert wasn’t talking, and how I learned to open my mouth.

“Who am I supposed to talk to?”

Whenever I hear people’s travel stories, they always start with “I made some great friends.”

But they gloss over the how – like, that’s the most important part. Where did you find these strangers? What, exactly, did you say?

Some instructions and a script would be nice, thank you.

Where I come from, it’s perfectly normal to never see your neighbors for years. I couldn’t give you names for any of the people in any of the apartment buildings I’ve rented from. Sometimes it’s strange going from a more isolated environment to one with a friendlier, chattier vibe like some little village in Europe. And us introverts are not known for stellar small talk.

So how do you find a target and break the ice?

Answer: Plan for company.

You can plan activities that will require you to be around other people. Schedule a walking tour. Join one of the many “experiences” every travel site is hosting nowadays. If you’re like me and just like to wander around independently, it will feel out of your comfort zone at first. But once it’s all said and done, how often do you really regret meeting new people?

On my first trip to Italy, I signed up for group Italian lessons for foreigners. Fast forward a few lessons and one of my Swedish classmates is teaching me how to do my first Tequila shot in an Italian dive bar. You’ll be surprised where a little after class aperitivo can lead.

Another way to push yourself is by being more conscious of your hosts when choosing accommodations. Because I have a tendency to keep to myself, I like arrangements where the host is polite but pretty hands-off. Sometimes I’ll book places where the host isn’t even present. This, however, has never helped me learn a language. Surprising, right?

Whether you’re a Bnb-er, a Couchsurfer, or whatever else – pay attention to the hosts who are putting themselves out there to make friends and connect with people. They’ll let you know who they are, and they’re the ones who will get you talking about everything from your last trip to your next one.

And finally: Travel with a best friend.

Take your cousin with you. As long as the people you’re with are also committed to language learning, it never hurts to pack your conversational partner in with your luggage. Just make sure you’re firm about using the language and don’t slip back into your native tongue whenever you stumble. Speaking of which…

“I don’t want to mess up.”

For someone who gets nervous about saying something weird or off-beat in my native language, I’m absolutely tongue-tied trying to speak anything else.

(Not to mention constantly worrying about my American accent.)

Often in conversation, even if I have something that I want to say, I’ll keep quiet if I’m not 100% sure how to say it. And while it may save me from a brief millisecond of embarrassment, it doesn’t do my language skills, or my new friendships, any good.

Answer: Embrace the mistakes (i.e. Get over it)

One thing I always hear from native speakers is that I speak really slowly. They can tell that I’m taking a long time to perfect the sentence in my head before speaking. It really stunts my speech and my confidence.

But here’s the thing: Messing up is great. Messing up is probably one of the quickest ways to learn something new about a language. If you say something wrong, most native speakers will correct you, and boom! Now you know what’s right. In my experience, it’s also easier to remember corrections from a real conversation than from a random paper your language teacher graded.

Just talk. Seriously. Just say the words as they come into your head.

Have some filler prepped too. Figure out what the equivalent of “um” is in your target language. In French, it’s “euuhhhh.”

Learn how to say, “What’s the word?” and “I forget what it’s called.” Practice speaking off the cuff (alone in your room first) and inserting a few filler lines into your dialogue:

“Yeah, um, yesterday I went to the – what’s it called? The theater? Anyway, I saw a great show!”

It sounds more natural than you think. People’s brains get tied up all the time, and having filler sounds way more fluid than stone cold silence the minute you forget a verb tense.

And trust me, people really aren’t judging your mistakes as harshly as you think.

“I can’t keep up, and I don’t want to ask anyone to slow down…”

My listening comprehension skills always need the most work. I read most languages a lot better than I understand native speech. While that’s great for WhatsApp, when I’m actually in-country the struggle begins.

My first language love was Italian, and (unsurprisingly) Italians speak fast. Sometimes it can feel hard to interrupt someone when they’re in the middle of a very animated story (hand gestures and all).

Answer: Keep a few key phrases in your arsenal.

“You went where?”

“You did what?”

“What’s_____?”

Having these phrases ready makes it easier to clear things up quickly, and they typically work both when you didn’t hear something and when you’re unfamiliar with vocabulary. Try to find translations that sound casual. For example, if I’m talking to my friend, I’ll say, “Run that by me again,” not “Can you please repeat that?”

It also helps keep the conversation flowing on both sides. Interrupting people when you misheard them, or to get more details, is totally normal in any language (plus it shows you’re listening). And it’ll save you from staring blankly at someone after they’ve finished their whole story, only to reveal that you lost them within the first ten seconds…

Ultimately, my advice is: Know yourself and be prepared to sabotage your self-defeating habits. There’s no need for a personality overhaul, and learning a language doesn’t mean you have to become an extrovert.

But every once in a while you do have to speak up and GO!


Meet Casira: My name is Casira. I’m an aspiring polyglot and self-described world citizen! Keep up with me on IG.

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