Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Learning Chinese as an introverted student

Many guides to how to best learn languages advise you to speak as much as possible, as early as possible. You sometimes hear stories about people who pick up the language ridiculously fast by living in the country and speaking with everyone they meet, making friends and creating an active social life in the target language. I have met a few such people who learn Mandarin, and they all reached conversational fluency fairly quickly.

I’m not one of them, however. I don’t feel comfortable talking to strangers unless I have something to say, and conversing with someone I just met desn’t make me feel energised. As a beginner student of Chinese, I had to make a serious effort to speak enough and meet people with whom I could practise. This doesn’t mean that I’m particularly shy, though, as I quite enjoy talking in front of people and find it okay to talk with strangers under the right circumstances.

If you’re the type of student described in the first paragraph, you don’t need this article. Just go out there and do whatever comes naturally, but don’t forget to read and listen as much as possible as well.

If you’re more like me though, or if you’re shy, and want to know about some of the ways I’ve used to compensate for my introversion, then read on!

Are introverts bad language learners?

I just used the word “compensate” about introverts in the context of language learning, so does that mean that introverts are bad language learners? No, of course not. Language learning is, after all, a complex activity, and there are some aspects that introverts are likely to be better at and some where they are not.

Since becoming good at speaking a language does require, among other things, a lot of speaking, this is the area I refer to when I say “compensate”. Clearly, introverts are at no disadvantage when it comes to reading ability or learning to write Chinese characters.

However, being willing to experiment and move outside your linguistic comfort zone has certain advantages when it comes to learning to speak, so if you don’t do this spontaneously, here are some suggestions:

  • Use writing as a stepping stone – Wring can function as an intermediate step in several ways. First, you can talk with people online (chat) in writing before you meet them. You can also try out new words and phrases in writing before you say them. My typical learning process for a new word was often reading/listening -> writing -> speaking. I’ve always felt that learning to say things I don’t have a passive understanding of is both uncomfortable and inefficient (I forget it immediately).
  • Be okay with listening and reading a lot – There’s nothing wrong with delaying speaking and focusing on passive skills for a period. Indeed, some people think this is preferable to speaking immediately. For example, doing so means that when you do speak, you have a much better chance of getting it right, thus avoiding forming bad habits. Speaking is still a skill, though, so to get good at it, you need to practise at some point. But it doesn’t have to be immediately.
  • Listen as much as you can – To prepare yourself to speak with confidence, spending as much time as possible on listening does help. The more you hear something, the easier it will be to say later. Being fairly sure that what you’re going to say is correct and will be understood can be important, especially if you’re not just introverted, but also shy.
  • Speak in a controlled environment – When you practise speaking, try to create an environment you feel comfortable with. The most obvious part is finding a conversation partner you’re okay with. I’ve done a lot of language exchanges and have found that to be helpful, but if you want to pay for a tutor instead, that works as well.
  • Use voice messages – In-between meetings with friends, exchange partners or tutors, use voice messages on your phone or computer. It’s an excellent way of putting some distance between you and the other person. You can think about what to say, listen to what the other person said several times, and s on. Read more in this article: Using voice messaging to practise Chinese speaking and listening.
  • Speak on your own – This might sound a bit weird, but speaking to yourself actually works. Part of the difficult in speaking a foreign language is to be able to retrieve vocabulary, use grammar to piece it to together and then use proper pronunciation to deliver it. You can practise those things on your own! Say your internal dialogue aloud, describe actions you’re performing or talk your way through a conversation.
  • Narrow the focus – If leaving your linguistic comfort zone feels very uncomfortable, make sure you do it in small steps. One way of doing this is using narrow learning (listening, speaking, reading or writing). Focus on one thing, then gradually expand from there. For example, when I lived in Taipei, I needed to buy a new computer. I didn’t go to the first shop and had an hour long conversation about what to buy. No, I started with just a monitor and perhaps one question. I then gradually expanded the scope of the conversation in subsequent visits to other shops. I’ve written more about his here: How going shopping can help you learn Chinese.
  • Use apps – This is a convenient way of getting slightly more active on your own. There are many apps out there for learning Chinese that allow you to engage with content beyond mere listening and reading. For example, I have helped creating interactive exercises where you learn to ask and give directions in Chinese over at WordSwing. You can find plenty of more apps on Hacking Chinese Resources.

Conclusion

These are some methods that I have used, but I’m sure there are more. Indeed, one of the most important things when learning is to keep exploring to find new ways that suit the way you learn; ways that capitalise on your strengths and compensates for your weaknesses. If you have other methods not mentioned above, please share in a comment!

By way of concluding this article, I’d like to return to the word “compensate” that I used in the introduction. I do believe that not taking, even less creating, opportunities to speak has a negative effect on learning to converse in the language. I strongly believe that leaving one’s comfort zone is extremely important and not doing so will slow you down. That might be okay; learning Chinese is not a race. But it is something you should be aware of and try to compensate for as an introverted learner.

Further reading

Zafar, S., & Meenakshi, K. (2012). A study on the relationship between extroversion-introversion and risk-taking in the context of second language acquisition. International Journal of Research Studies in Language Learning, 1(1), 33-40.
Cain, S. Are You Shy, Introverted, Both, or Neither (and Why Does It Matter)? Quiet Revolution.
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3 comments

  1. Gary L Hepner says:

    Great suggestions. Even in my native language (English) I don’t go out of my way to talk to strangers unless there is some specific reason to do so. I live in Taiwan so I’m surrounded by Mandarin 24/7. One thing I found successful in spurring on a conversation is practicing my writing at my favorite breakfast shop in the morning. I do this every morning and without fail passers-by and workers in the shop comment on my writing, start talking to me etc. Of course Taiwanese are VERY supportive to anyone learning their language, so it’s a learning-rich environment, even for someone who is a little hesitant on starting up conversations.

  2. Danielle says:

    In my 7 years of learning Chinese, I finally feel like someone else understands the anxiety and difficulty I have had. These are all excellent tips and one additional tip which has worked wonders for me is to watch movies with subtitles and repeat what is said. I’ve learned so many new words and phrases which I use by using this method.

  3. Carol says:

    Wow, I enjoy reading your blog, I am a new Chinese teacher, I will share this post to my Chinese students and friends! Thank you for providing such a great article!

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