I completely and fully reject the assertion that some people are ‘just good language learners’.
Occasionally I also hear it phrased as someone being ‘gifted with languages’ or maybe ‘having the language gene’. It doesn’t matter how you put it, it’s wrong. On top of that and far worse whenever I hear it used it’s either to denigrate the achievement of some hard-working polyglot or as a pathetic cop-out for why they can’t learn a second language.
The fact is anyone can learn a new language or ten, while some people might hit the proper method more easily or naturally it doesn’t confer on them some magical advantage. You don’t need some imaginary ‘gift’ to learn a language.
That being said, there is a particular personality trait that makes you substantially more likely to succeed at learning a new language – but it’s something you can learn.
Social People = Better Language Learners
If you are a serious introvert please don’t leave because you need to hear this the most – people who are extroverted and more willing to take social risks make for much better language learners.
Language is at its core an inherently social thing. Its purpose is to communicate ideas with other people, to share experiences and knowledge. Sure, this can be done through the written medium in a relatively non-social way, but that’s an extension of language not the core of it.
If you’re learning to speak a language, to reach fluency in it and make it a part of yourself, you’re going to have to be social. You’re going to have to take risks.
Ok, if you’re one of the very small number of people who are learning a language solely to read it, maybe to enjoy some classics in their original form or because you’re studying a dead language, then fine. Being social may not be a huge benefit to your progress. You can leave now.
Now that two out of several thousand of you have left, we can move on.
Use of a language is a skill (like swimming) not a knowledge (like history). That means that to get good at it you have to treat it as such. After 10 hours who’s going to be the better swimmer, the person who spent those 10 hours in the pool practicing or the person who spent 10 hours reading books on swimming?
Languages are no different. Study will only take you so far, at some point you have to dive in and practice.
That’s what makes social people such better language learners, they take more risks and create more opportunities to practice their target language. The more willing you are to step outside your comfort zone socially in your use of your target language the more diverse opportunities you create to improve your skills.
Accepting Failure & Taking Risks
I think in general the main reason people miss out on opportunities to practice their target language as much as they could is because of social anxiety.
There can be a lot of causes of social anxiety, but a big one is the fear of looking strange, awkward or foolish in front of someone else and the resulting embarrassment. Fear of embarrassment can be serious business – I’ve known people who would become physically ill if asked to speak on stage in front of a group for fear they’d embarrass themselves.
Learning to let go of that fear and embrace your failures makes it much easier to take these social risks and open up additional opportunities.
I’ve talked a lot about how great failure is. I love failing. It’s really the best way we learn, and it’s definitely not something you should be scared or ashamed of. Particularly in the realm of language learning 99.9% of people who speak the language you’re learning will be ecstatic you’re learning their language and will be infinitely patient and supportive of you even if you make nothing but mistakes.
As for the 0.01% that will find out you’re learning a language and then deride, patronize and embarrass you for not magically being perfect at it from day one, we have a special term for them.
Be confident and practice under the assurance that the vast majority of people will gently correct your failures and you’ll learn a ton from them and that the tiny minority of individuals who will seek to bring you down for your mistakes are wretched things leading such dejected and miserable lives as to only be able to find momentary joy in crushing the spirits of others. You can ignore them.
Maximizing Your Return by Leaving Your Comfort Zone
The best learning occurs just outside of your normal zone of comfort. If you’re comfortable then you aren’t progressing fast enough.
That means you should always be looking for ways to push your social comfort zones in order to practice your target language.
This can mean different things for different people. For some pushing their comfort zone is going to mean getting on iTalki and chatting with someone over Skype half a world away who they may or may not ever talk to again. For others it might be going to the local international market or a restaurant from the same country as your target language and practicing with the staff there.
The point is to find your boundaries and step out of them.
Don’t do it in a non-committal way either. Go all in. Taking the first step of joining a Meetup group based around your target language is a fantastic first step, actually going to one of the Meetups is another, but once there you actually have to approach people and chat with them. If you go just to be there and hang out alone in a corner being shy then you’re not really getting any benefit from the experience.
If you’re already fairly outgoing, push your boundaries in other ways. It’s great to memorize the dialogue necessary to order a coffee in your target language then go to a restaurant where you can actually use it and repeat it there, but that’s very rigid and controlled. Do that, but rather than stop there go on and ask an open ended question like how business is going, what their favorite dish is or something like that.
That way you can push the conversation beyond the rigid dialogue you practiced beforehand and get some free form practice outside of your normal comfort zone.
In the end, forcing yourself to be a little more and more social and take more risks will lead to drastic improvements in your language skill that would take forever to come, if they ever even did, if you focused the majority of your effort on introverted study.
Have you seen more success with language learning by being more social or outgoing? Have any tips for people who have a lot of social anxiety? Help everyone out and share them in the comments!
Photo Credit: Cia de Foto