Shrinking violet? You are not alone as a shy linguist! Image from freeimages.com

Shy Polyglot : Oxymoron, or the Perfect Blend?

A shy polyglot – that should be an oxymoron, right? All those languages, and too much of a shrinking violet to speak them? Well, the more linguists I meet, the more I realise that it is a hugely common experience.

It’s a topic close to my heart, as a shy lover of languages myself (just in case I haven’t said that enough in the past!). And shyness does give my passion rough edges at times, it’s true. As much as I adore the process of language learning, live, face-to-face speaking can give me the jitters. In such circumstances, it’s easy to fear, and avoid, speaking situations.

But in fact, a love of languages is a gift to a shy person.

Exposure therapy

You see, as a linguist, you can’t hide from speaking forever. The clue is in the name. The word lingua, or tongue, in Latin, inescapably brings you to back to the mouth at some point. Even students of dead tongues (a bit of a mean misnomer, as even languages without speakers have a rich life) will mouth the vocabulary they learn (or even more).

Speaking is the inescapable conclusion of learning a language. It is unavoidable, enticing even. The very shyest amongst us will still wildly imagine themselves conversing dazzlingly and fluently with native speakers.

So, eventually, we have to face our fears. And that, in itself, is therapy. Exposure therapy, to be precise, which has long been a popular treatment for a range of anxieties.

Scared of something? Then throw yourself at it with a vengeance!

Busting your shy side

There are a number of strategies for creating your own exposure therapy in a controlled, safe way. Some cost money, they all cost a little time and effort, but they will leverage your language skills to ease out the socialiser in you.

Microtrips

Of course, the ultimate language exposure is a trip to your target language country. If you can, regular, budget-conscious microtrips can throw you in the deep end and get you practising at being social frequently.

Once there, you can seek out situations where casual conversation is encouraged. Art installations, talks and cultural events are all safe frameworks to chat to strangers and not feel like a mad person. Earlier this year, I ended up putting the whole world of Eurovision to rights sitting next to a couple at Norway’s Melodi Grand Prix in Oslo!

Before a trip, check What’s On listings, and websites of local libraries and universities, to seek out opportunities. For instance, I ended up on a free Norwegian language tour of the parliament building in Oslo a couple of years ago, and ended up having a nice exchange with the tour guide afterwards.

Specialist conferences

You can also attend a number of special events organised by the emerging polyglot community. My recent trip to the Polyglot Conference in Ljubljana was a real tonic for taking me out of my shell. The Polyglot Gathering is one I’ve set my eye on next, and looks like a similar safe, structured space for facing down your shy side.

Volunteering

You needn’t spend lots of money beating your shy nature. Volunteering at national and international events is one way to surround yourself with speaking opportunities in a structured way, for example. Look out for forthcoming events like the Commonwealth Games, where knowledgeable local volunteers are highly sought after.

Education fairs

Free conferences and shows are another way in to look out for. Education shows, for example, are quite frequent in big cities. This week I was at the Language Show Live in London, which was a medium-sized, friendly event for linguists of all levels. It attracted speakers of languages from French to Georgian, all open to chatting about learning and making new contacts.

The stands themselves are worked by an international mix of exhibitors who will be happy to talk about products in their language. In my experience, it is always a little French/Spanish-heavy, although that is perfect if those are your picks!

Whichever path you choose, remember this: your love of languages is no less legitimate for being shy. In fact, your linguistic skills can be an effective route to combatting social anxiety. Being shy and being a polyglot are, in many ways, perfect partners.

Open mic, ready for your voice

Voice in my head: developing polyglot personalities

If you learn more than one language, there is one question you hear more often than any other: how do you avoid getting mixed up? There are many answers to this. But one key strategy, for me, is developing a distinct voice for each language.

When you think about it, differentiating your languages by voice makes complete sense. Languages have patterns of pitch and tone quite distinct from one another. The voice you developed growing up with your native tongue adapted to fit the phonology of that language. It’s not surprising if the fit is a little less snug in French, Spanish, German and so on – at least without a little modification.

But changing your voice can feel intimidating. Our voice is a fundamental element of the self we project into the world; altering it can feel too bold, too cheeky. It’s no wonder that school students in the language classroom can feel reluctant to really get stuck into a foreign accent out. As adult learners, we face exactly the same fear. So how can we best approach a multiple voice approach to language learning?

Have fun with it

It’s important to remember that language learning regularly challenges us to act counter to our everyday inhibitions. Whether it’s speaking with strangers, supplementing our broken speech with frantic hand gestures, or trying to mimic how others sound, linguists are so often thrust out of reasonable, human comfort zones.

The best learners acknowledge this, and embrace the challenge head on. In short, it pays to be a clown!

It’s something we are naturals at as kids, chiefly because kids feel less embarrassment when they are playing around. For instance, this is one area where you needn’t feel guilty about wallowing in linguistic stereotypes. Have a hoot combining your French with dodgy Allo Allo accents. Watch back old episodes of Eldorado and have a go at your cheesiest Spanish. The important thing is to let go of your fear of sounding foolish through having fun.

It’s all very childish… So enjoy it!

Experiment with pitch

You can create instant results by simply experimenting with the pitch of your voice. Spanish and Russian feel more natural to speak when I lower my voice, for example – something my friends still find hilarious (even though I’m not deliberately trying to make them laugh!). (“Is that your Spanish voice again?” Yes. It is. I’m so glad you find it funny!)

On the other hand, I’m aware that the my voice is higher when I speak Norwegian – perhaps because this is easier with a tonal accent.

A lot of this is also to do with the voices you are exposed to as a learner. I listen to a lot of podcasts, for example. And through those, I hear all sorts of voices at all sorts of pitches. It has become a great, accessible way to ‘window shop’ for voices you are comfortable to use as a model. In fact, there are some well-documented techniques like shadowing, which use audio mimicry to drill your foreign language accent.

Exaggerate differences

Once you have a hook on the aural ‘feel’ of a language, you can focus on those differences as a means to differentiate. This is especially helpful if you study pairs, or sets of similar languages. These present a very particular set of advantages and challenges to learners.

I’ve studied both Polish and Russian on my language travels. As Slavic languages (albeit from different branches), they looked and sounded extremely similar to me as a beginner. But gradually, I found a way to mark the line between them through voice.

For instance, I sometimes find it easier to think of the sound of language in terms of shape. Through this lens, Russian is a language with quite sharp edges to my mind. On the other hand, the sound shapes of Polish seem much softer and curvier. When developing my Polish and Russian voices, I place a lot of weight on reflecting these demarcating characteristics.

(Disclaimer: after lots more study of both languages, I realise how different they can both be, now! Sorry for my previous ignorance, Polish and Russian natives! 🙂 )

Own your language

All this, of course, can greatly add to your sense of ownership over the foreign language. It’s vital to claim a language as your own, if you want a life-long relationship with it. And carving out a voice, even a personality, within it, will help you stake that claim.

It’s about feeling at home speaking it; saying “this is my German / Spanish / Uzbek” and being proud of the speaker you have created. Educational psychologists pore over methods to increase ownership in learning; as a language learner, voice work is a handy shortcut to do just that.

Voice in my head – split personality?

Finally, it’s interesting to see how this phenomenon plays out in bilinguals in the real world. Personally, I’ve found myself intrigued by polyglots who report a personality change when speaking another language. Through playing with voice and accent across my active languages, I think I can recognise that, too. Building up a distinct voice and personality in a language will inevitably create ‘another you’.

There is some research evidence to support this, too. However, the effect could be down to situational, rather than psychological factors (ie., bilinguals use different languages in different situations, and they would naturally act differently in those situations anyway – e.g., with colleagues rather than with family). Environmental or otherwise, though, it’s a fascinating thought, and one you can have a lot of fun with as a learner.

Developing a voice in your foreign languages goes hand in hand with perfecting an accent. Have fun playing around with it. And enjoy your polyglot personalities!