A Guide to Learning Languages When You’re Shy

I study Spanish at university, and have also learnt some Italian and Catalan. However, due to the struggles I’ve had with social anxiety, this hasn’t been – and still isn’t – easy. I enjoy reading books and news articles in foreign languages, alongside watching films and listening to music or the radio. Also, I can easily improve my grammar without too much trouble. It’s the speaking that I struggle with.

I find it incredibly hard even to speak in English, and so speaking in foreign languages really is problematic. At university I have to do debates in Spanish, and also give a lot of presentations. For these types of things I usually take a beta-blocker to minimise my physical symptoms, although that isn’t ideal for me by any means. I’ve had a lot of horrible moments where my anxiety has got the better of me, but I’ve also found that speaking in front of others is getting easier with practice.

This summer I’m going to try and develop my confidence in speaking foreign languages a bit. Below is a list of a few things that I’ve either found beneficial or am planning to try:

  1. Live Mocha – I first came across this website last year, I think. It allows you to do the usual types of exercises, but the handy thing is that you can have native speakers mark your work and leave feedback. For instance, you can do a pronunciation exercise – you record yourself reading a text – submit it, then understand where you need to improve through the comments that you receive.. 
  2. Find a speaking partner that you can speak to easily. On the website I’ve just mentioned, you can also send messages to native speakers of the language you’re learning. You can make use of this to ask if they’re interested in speaking on Skype for language learning purposes (they can speak in English for ten minutes, then you in Spanish for ten minutes, etc.) I’m a bit nervous about this idea, as 99% of messages that you receive about speaking on Skype are from guys who have other intentions. If I’m brave enough to give this a go I’ll write how it goes. 
  3. Think in your chosen language. This is quite difficult, but it helps you to see the flaws in your grammar and vocabulary. It’s hard to go straight into foreign language stream of consciousness, so here are some ideas of things to do mentally or aloud: describe your surroundings, describe how you’re feeling, describe your plans, describe what you’ve done today. 
  4. Write a journal in your chosen language. This is another way to find words and phrases you often use in English but don’t know how to translate. It also probably means that the people you live with can’t be nosy and read it. 
  5. If you’re abroad surrounded by people that you don’t know, try to pretend you’re confident. Easier said than done, I know. But if you think that you can give it a go, definitely try it. No one knows your past or how you are normally, and so you can be whoever you want. 
  6. If you’re really shy, work on the things that don’t make you nervous for now. Like I mentioned earlier in the post, get your grammar and vocabulary to a high standard. You may not be ready for full-on conversations with locals just yet, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy other things about the language. Don’t be put off by your shyness, and instead concentrate on literature,  film, art, and other aspects of the culture that interest you. Too much emphasis is placed on the speaking part of language learning. 
I’m quite nervous about returning to university in October for my second year, as I realise that a lot of the people on my course have spent the summer abroad working or on holiday. I don’t like being left behind, and I worry far too much about being judged (I need to work on that). However, I think that if I do the things I’ve listed above, I’ll do fine.

It's good to meet you! I started Tolstoy Therapy back in 2012 to share my healing journey through anxiety and PTSD with books. I also climb mountains, go on solo adventures, and write over at livewildly.co.

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