Language Learning and Anti-Social Excuses: I'm an Introvert!

  • Donovan Nagel
    Written byDonovan Nagel
    Donovan NagelTeacher, translator, polyglot
    🎓 B.A., Theology, Australian College of Theology, NSW
    🎓 M.A., Applied Linguistics, University of New England, NSW

    Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator. Founder of The Mezzofanti Guild and Talk In Arabic.
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Language Learning and Anti-Social Excuses: I'm an Introvert!

UPDATE: As is always expected, this kind of post draws defensive reactions from some people – especially those who are learning languages for the sole purpose of reading literature or for academic reasons.

While I do believe that reading skills are greatly enhanced by speaking practise, this post is mainly directed at people who are aiming to speak a foreign language.

You will never, ever learn to speak a foreign language properly without being a sociable person.

Period. Full stop. End of story.

Language serves as a bridge between two or more people, whether it’s written or spoken and it’s nurtured through our interaction with other human beings. So many people never become fluent speakers of another language because they don’t grasp (and put into practise) this simple truth.

Stop creating a false dichotomy between ‘social language learners’ and whatever the opposite of that is (anti-social maybe?).

Language is a social thing.

The ego-busting fact of the matter is that no one cares how much theory you know. What matters is if and how well you interact with others.

Extroversion/introversion and sociability are not the same thing!

If there is such a thing as an introversion/extroversion scale then I’m about as introverted as you can get.

I’m a deep thinking, very analytical and reflective person, and if I don’t get frequent ‘me time’ to retreat and recharge then I feel drained and stressed out.

If I go long periods without having my alone time then I get cranky as hell! 🙂

And yet when people meet me they remark about how much of a people person I am. I’m a very self-confident guy and I get a kick out of sparking up conversations with complete strangers wherever I am.

I crave interaction.

This wasn’t always the case though! It’s something I’ve improved over the years – as I would with any skill – to the point where sociability for me has become a vital part of my daily routine.

The reason why an extremely introverted person like me can be a great people person is because introversion has nothing to do with sociability.

You need to stop using introversion as an excuse for your anti-social behaviour!

Sociability is your motivation or desire to talk with and be around other people. It’s your willingness to put yourself out there. It’s a decision we must make.

You choose to be anti-social and that’s why you’re not getting the results you want.

While introversion and extroversion may effect your personality and learning style, it has absolutely nothing to do with your willingness to meet other people.

Treat shyness like any other fear

Shyness is something else entirely.

Some of us do have crippling social anxieties which hold us back – even for the sociably-inclined.

For me personally this manifests in the workplace if I’m teaching while being observed by my boss or co-workers. I’m a great teacher normally but I struggle to perform well under that kind of pressure.

Many people dread public speaking. Others I’ve spoken to have a similar kind of fear from simply talking to strangers in public.

Whatever the severity of your shyness or social anxiety is, the truth of the matter is that the only way you’re going to beat it is to face it.

I don’t like heights at all and planes used to scare the hell out of me but the more I travel the easier it gets.

Keep confronting those fears and fix your mind on how quickly you’ll improve as a speaker by meeting people.

Cast aside any silly thoughts about people judging you for making mistakes (they aren’t!) and be on a daily mission to interact with new people in your target language.

Put willingness to action and reap the benefits

Sociability is not confined to bars and night clubs.

Opportunities abound. 🙂

If you don’t like small talk (neither do I) then you don’t have to. Talk about meaningful things. Be interested in the people you talk to – actually give a shit about other human beings!

Stop calling yourself an introvert and using that as an excuse to sit in front of your computer clicking through flashcards or memorizing more grammar for that “some day” when you’ll use it.

Those things are important but they’re frankly a waste of time without other people in your life.

You need constant interaction to improve.

Language proficiency is ultimately measured not by all the vocab and grammar you’ve memorized but by how you put it to use, and this is only going to be improved by stepping outside your comfort zone and being sociable.

This was written by Donovan Nagel.

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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Greek


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Hareem Shaikh

Hareem Shaikh

This is one of the best articles I have read in a long time. I loved how you drew a distinction between introversion and sociability.

Paula Guard

Paula Guard

This is so true - I’ve always been a bit socially awkward but I walked into a Spanish conversation group in a bar in my home town made up of mostly natives. I didnt know any of them but it was the best thing I ever did for my Spanish. With Italian Im really struggling to find that network, to surround myself with people I can laugh with, who are on the same wavelength. I just haven’t ‘clicked’ with a group in Italian like I did Spanish and it has convinced me more than ever that learning a language is based heavily on making real human connectiona with other learners/speakers



I agree that in order to learn a language you have to use it and practice it. I’m discovering that as an introvert but I very strongly believe in the introversion/extroversion scale because pushing myself out of my comfort zone is a real effort and something that goes against my nature. I’d much rather learn by listening, reading, etc. so putting myself out there can be a challenge-but a worthwhile one. I understand what you’re saying but I think the term ‘anti social’ should be used very carefully. Since by definition it’s a personality disorder, it carries very negative connotations. Introverts are just very cautious, reserved or shy/quiet--not necessarily anti social.

K. Singh

K. Singh

Such problems with this piece. Foremostly is you speaking with authority about your experience as though everyone else’s matches yours. Your article is discouraging right off the bat!

”You will never, ever learn to speak a foreign language properly without being a sociable person. Period. Full stop. End of story.” <-- FALSE. 100% FALSE. I’ve done it 3 times now!

I’d been following this page for some time actually waiting for you to tackle the social-anxiety issue as a legitimate hindrance or hurdle to language learning, in hopes that i might get some further insight on how to overcome those. I see now, this is not the place where that insight will come from.

Some advice: “Face it.” After spending half the article discouraging folks. Thanks. Real helpful..

Shannon McKenna

Shannon McKenna

hmmm, Maybe I can help you see the other side of this.

I have been trying to learn Spanish for a couple years now. I definitely don’t spend as much time as I should on it, but i believe that if I did, I could gain enough confidence to be able to speak the language in public. This is the difference, for me, between extroverts and introverts. Introverts need practice, so much so that there is no doubt in their mind that they will succeed at the task. They are overstimulated by new situations, whereas extroverts are often sort of empowered by them. Furthermore, extroverts don’t need as much practice beforehand in most situations; they’re good at doing things without so much contemplation. This automatically makes it easier for them to extend themselves into any conversation, in their language or another.

My problem right now is that when I want to speak the language, nothing comes out. I have found that I think deeply about everything I’m going to say beforehand in my native language, which is what makes it that much harder to speak in a non-native language. By the time I’ve understood the question/conversation, thought out a response, and translated how to say it, the conversation has moved on to an entirely new topic.

It’s not that I don’t want to speak it or that I make any conscious decision to stop myself from socializing. I am trying all of the time. It’s that I have so much anxiety from being unsure and not wanting to say anything wrong that the words literally won’t come out of my mouth.

Additionaly, if I’m put on the spot in front of people or even with one stranger, I can barely hear what they’re saying, let alone in another language. Right now, I don’t feel like I have the tools to control my anxiety about speaking spanish to native speakers. Those “tools,” for me, are learning and getting to know the language like the back of my hand so that it is no longer considered new or overstimulating to me. I need know what I’’m doing before I throw myself in in order to be successful, whereas you seem to do the opposite. I hope this makes sense! It definitely helped me to write it out. I am actually in Mexico right now and dealing with this very issue.

Anyway, best of luck to all of us. :)



Hey Scott,
This is really a powerful perspective. I couldn’t have differentiated between the two myself. All the while I had been telling myself its just the I am supposed to be. Time to face my fears. Also, I noticed you mentioned about your passion in raising awareness of endangered minority languages. Linking the former, what do you think about the Tamil language?



Hey Donovan, thanks for the great article. I really like the distinction you make between introversion and sociability. The two tend to be used interchangeably, and inappropriately so.

The only thing I have to say is I don’t think you can actually skip small talk entirely. Especially with people you just met. You make it sound way too easy!
It would be kind of weird to just go straight down to the deep shit with a complete stranger ahahah.

But I would love to read a post about your favourite question/s to ask, or favourite profound subjects to talk about. Something along those lines! (and see what people share in the comments!)

Thanks a lot for what you do. Have a rad day!

Abu Sakraan

Abu Sakraan

I appreciate the post, I feel I’m somewhere in between being willing to talk and not wanting to talk to people who I have so little in common with. Can you relate to this?

On the one hand, I have been using my L2 for quite a while to “a certain extent”, so I have used it and do use it on a basic level every week. On the other hand I don’t really go deep into conversation with most people, or don’t even try because I feel I have so little in common with those native speakers that I know. It’s a problem because I want to build up my speaking skills, but I can’t do that through ordering a sandwhich anymore. I need topics that interest me, and these of course have to interest my conversation partner.

I might be too peckish when it comes to choosing friends and generally people who I want to communicate with, but I hate having “senseless” conversations where I explain what time I got out of bed and when I got home from Uni. You just get to the point where you need meaningful interaction. I do think living in a foreign country where I am forced to communicate would help me at this point. Not because the language is “around me” but because I would do daily life stuff in my L2. I know immersion is not something that just happens around you like magic. But right now I don’t see the point in watching more television series and making up topics to talk about. Maybe I’m wrong, or just don’t have the creativity, but how do you find meaningful topics and conversation partners who you share common interests?



Hi Donovan,

Just for the sake of arguing: how about social extroverts who are afraid of making mistakes in other languages, but they would become friends with the first person why come across?



A social extrovert may be shy at first, since learning something new and exposing yourself is a vulnerability, but if they are truly extroverted I would imagine they would get over any type of shyness quickly (and make friends in the process).



When it comes to language learning, I always seem to benefit more from a role of an observer than the one of a participant. I hated interactive learning as a kid, I spoke only when I had to, and I hated it. And yet, I was top of my class when it came to languages. My phonetic mimicry was perfect- I was able to speak with flawless British accent after watching a Harry Potter movie-and I talked to myself xD (I’m not a native English speaker). Same with French and Spanish, my L3 and L4. I mimic very well after listening, and after certain amount of (passive) exposure, my creative function kicks in and I can form grammatically correct sentences myself, without having heard them in that language before.

Maybe I just have an exceptional aptitude for language, but nobody came close to me in that English classroom when I was a kid. And I was the least talkative of the bunch. They talked and talked in broken English that was painful to listen to, and I was quiet. And then when I was FORCED to speak, once every few weeks, my speech was flawless.

That’s how I came to think that we can all benefit more from listening than from mindless mouth yapping that seems to be in the very nature of our self-absorbed species.

K. Singh

K. Singh

I never even thought about it like this. This perspective is helpful for me especially as I learn best from observing as well.

Thanks for this! :0)



I’m not sure everyone cares about becoming amazingly proficient. Sometimes simple understanding and the ability to communicate on a basic level is enough. For example, I’m interested in understanding a certain language for travel. I want to be able to speak fluently enough to get by, but I’m not particularly interested in becoming an orator in said language. It’s not always about shyness, some of us just simply don’t value social interaction to the same degree. Some of us have a voracious appetite for pizza, some don’t care for it much at all. Sometimes it’s simply personal preference and doesn’t require so much value judgement. You say that I will never become the best that I can be without being sociable. I’m okay with that. I think that you become misguided when you decide that everyone should value sociability as much as you do. It’s not always shyness or fear holding people back, it’s sometimes simply lack of appetite :) You’re coming off as abrasively self-righteous, no offense intended. :)



”I crave interaction.”

It’d hardly seem you’d be in anyway considered as being on the introverted side, considering Introversion is basically the opposite of that in most cases. It’s not about being “analytical and reflective”, it’s about simply how socially you prefer to spend your time.

I consider myself introverted. Unless I know a person well enough, I can be shy. Once I get to knowing someone, I’ll be able to talk more without the shyness-reaction there. (though there still is a LOT of time before I’m completely comfortable).

I appreciate you didn’t say something like “Shyness and Introversion is a Forer Effect Myth” like “Benny The Irish Polyglot” form Fluent in 3 Months, but I think it should be acknowledged that it doesn’t need to be something that hindering for most introverted people. :)

K. Singh

K. Singh

Glad I read through the comments.

I thought the same multiple times throughout the article, Hyperlingual. I, in no way, profess to know everyone’s experience.

There were just a number of very conflicting statements that shook the credibility of this piece, including: “And yet when people meet me they remark about how much of a people person I am.”

Whhhat?! I’ve studied introversion for a couple of years now and I must say that is quite the opposite of what I hear people describe. Most introverts have the opposite problem--folks thinking they don’t like people, definitely not a “people person.”



Yes, I think Yowann is right there. Anti-social is actively against other people, and so I think contrary to intent you’ll upset a few introverts by equating their shyness with unpleasantness.



I believe by antisocial you mean asocial. Antisocial Personality Disorder is the psychiatric term for a sociopath or psychopath. You know, someone who shows no remorse, tortures innocent animals, manipulates others for their gain, usually at their detriment. Asocial means someone who avoids social interaction. So I think you mean asocial. :)



I completely agree, if you want to speak you just have to get out there and speak, unfortunately I’m not always good at doing this! I enjoy it once I’m doing it but it’s something that I always have to push myself to do, so after reading your post I finally went to sign up for dance classes where I know that the teacher Syrian so we had a bit of a chat and it was great!

Yes, in the Middle East it’s easy to strike up conversation, although I think that as a woman it can be a bit more tricky as you can easily get yourself into awkward situations!



I have mixed feelings about this post.

On the one hand, it is true that learners shouldn’t hide behind the “not ready” excuse. There are a myriad of ways you can use and enjoy your foreign language even at the early stages.

On the other hand, I have to disagree with the notion that introvert language learners need to train themselves to become people persons. Introverts, by definition, find most social interaction draining rather than energizing. Because of this, there are several great polyglots (Prof. Arguelles, Iversen, Siomotteikiru to name a few) who derive the greatest pleasure from languages when reading foreign books, research and literature in the original. That is as valid a goal as any other and I find it an offensive claim that they should change their nature rather than use languages for the things they enjoy.

Donovan Nagel

Donovan Nagel

Hi Judith.

I just replied to this message on Reddit but I’ll post it here as well:

Judith, if people are only learning a language to read literature then this post is not really relevant to them.

The whole point of me writing this is to talk to people who want to SPEAK a foreign language and yet they avoid speaking in favour of other anti-social activities. It’s like wanting to become an expert tennis player by studying the rules and analysing the players on TV - you’ll never be able to play unless you pick up the racket and practise.

K. Singh

K. Singh

Thank you SO much for this validation, Judith. I couldn’t agree with you more. Telling someone they must change their inherent nature to be successful at something is a problem and discouraging at best.

It may take work, as it certainly has in my case, but it’s completely possible to learn other languages without ever changing your nature or becoming social. The problem begins with the fallacy that language is social in nature--it’s not, not inherently, though it certainly CAN be.

A fine example is the fact that more than 90% of my language learning has not happened through speaking but texting, reading, writing, etc. and yet my recent travel to India proved that was not a problem. Again, it is better to use I statements and speak to one’s own experiences instead of taking such a strong position that discourages others or tells them they must change who they are to learn a language.



I actually don’t mind small talk at all - I suppose depending on the situation, it can lead to deeper conversations.

As an example, I am lucky enough (or crazy enough) to have been able to travel to a lot of places with my dog, mostly alone. I just got a new dog a couple months ago, so I haven’t traveled abroad with her yet, but my last dog was invariably a conversation starter with complete strangers every time I took him out for a walk. Even if I didn’t feel like talking to anyone, that dog would usually drag me over to some stranger (he was a real people dog!) and we’d chat for a minute or so just because the dog was friendly to anyone. The stranger would hear me say “Sit”, which would turn into a conversation on how it’s said in the local language. Instant lesson on the imperative. And if we both happened to be dog owners, the conversation would sometimes turn into something deeper.

I guess my point is that even if you’re feeling timid and not great at starting a conversation, your travel partner may be. You don’t always have to be the initiator.



Being around people is not a must for becoming proficient in a language - there are now many avenues open for those who prefer to interact in nontraditional ways. Skype, Facebook, email, IM, forums and twitter all come to mind.

Motivation, on the other hand, is absolutely needed.



I agree wholeheartedly about what your saying. I try to make the most of my daily interactions whether with the people I already know or with strangers. However sometimes I feel that I’m limited by my ability so strike up a conversation with strangers. I’m just not sure what to talk about with people I don’t already know. One thing I have used before I asking questions that I already know the answer to. Asking for directions even when I already know where I’m going. However I usually run out of ideas here. Any tips on conversation starters with strangers?

Donovan Nagel

Donovan Nagel

Hi Scott.

When I first came to Korea I was doing the same thing - asking for a directions even if I already knew the answer and giving basic introductions. At a low level that’s all you can really do - ask basic questions and talk about yourself using simple language. It’s the best way to improve rapidly but it gets really tedious because you run out of things to say quickly.

Because of this, my first 4 months were slow and tough - especially being an East Asian country where people are more shy and you need to make a bigger effort to meet people (in the Middle East it’s so much easier to make friends even at a beginner level as ‘everyone’ wants to talk to you). In Egypt, every single day I’d be invited to someone’s home even if we couldn’t communicate with each other and spend the entire night trying to speak Arabic but that kind of thing rarely if ever happens in Korea.

I’ve found East Asia to be without doubt the most challenging place to meet strangers.

Now that I’m able to talk about most topics in Korean, opportunities to talk to strangers are limitless though.

To give a few examples, usually when I’m at the gym or in the elevator I’ll just do what I do in Australia which is say hi and ask how long they’ve been coming here, or make a remark about the weather. Sometimes I’ll just joke and say things like, “Man, that guy’s noisy” or “This place is packed out today!” - 9 times out of 10 conversations roll on from there and people want to know where I’m from, why I speak Korean, etc. It usually ends in us planning to meet up to eat chicken or get a beer somewhere and exchanging numbers.

There’s also taxi drivers. A topic of conversation that always works for cab drivers is fishing because they’re middle-aged guys and we have a big river in this city where they all go to fish (plus I love fishing myself). So any question about fishing in this region usually gets them talking a lot.

Then there’s restaurant and cafe workers who are usually bored and find foreigners interesting - “so do you get many foreign visitors here?” is a good conversation starter. I was in a cafe in Gyeongju the other day and made a remark to the owner about how many foreigners live in the city. 6 hours later we were still talking about it over a few drinks and we’ve kept in contact since.

Food stalls and kimbab houses are great. I just ask the ladies who work there questions about the dramas they’re watching on TV and that gets them very talkative! :) Knowing a few names of actors and singers helps too in having things to talk about.

That’s a few examples of what I do. It’s one of those things that is relative to each person’s location and language ability however.

You’re in China, right? I haven’t spent enough time in China but if it’s anything like Korea then it would be much the same I’m sure.



Scott....When I was living in Belgium, I found a few people my age that wanted to practice their English. We’d go to movies (alternating French and English) or plays or a concert and then hit the bistro and talk about the event or whatever was going on. Me in French, them in English. It must have been weird for the folks sitting around us, but it was great practice for all of us!

Jay Andrew Allen

Jay Andrew Allen

I’ve found it really valuable to use the teachers available on italki (thank you, Donovan!). I’ve found two Japanese teachers whom I love, and I try and meet with each for an hour a week. Then I also write Facebook status updates, create journal entries, and occasionally do language exchange with Japanese friends.

I love using the italki teachers because they’re skilled at creating or extending conversation. If you run out of things to talk about, they’ll find topics! They’ve helped me extend my Japanese conversation in new and unanticipated ways - e.g., when one of my teachers taught me about the Japanese game スイカ割り (, and I found myself on the spot explaining to her what pinata was.

Even after I began meeting with teachers regularly, I had a complex about how “terrible” my spoken Japanese is. My teachers have helped me get out of this negative mindset by pointing out the areas where I’m already strong (e.g., my pronunciation is apparently really good, and even when I’m obviously stumbling, I can make myself understood). That wall really broke down when one of my teachers told me that her American husband is a translator in Japan. “But he’s below your level,” she said in Japanese, “and he use Rikai-chan to help him translate.”

That was a big boost to my ego. It was also a kick in the pants, as it meant I had zero excuse to avoid speaking on a regular basis! :-o

At any rate, I do believe my Japanese has progressed considerably since adding regular speaking as part of my studies. Thinking and speaking in a language, on the spot, seems to make the patterns of the language more ingrained and intuitive over time.

Donovan Nagel

Donovan Nagel

Hi Jay,

Great to hear about your experience with the Japanese teachers on italki. Thanks!

I’m glad it’s been helping you so much and wish more people would try it :)

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