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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.