I’m a quiet guy.
That’s exactly why I threw myself into the most uncomfortable position possible for an introverted language learner: studying abroad.
But even I know that staying in my room for eight months would be もったいない(a waste) to the highest degree. That’s why I’m writing about how I avoided doing that and how others like me can change themselves to get the most out studying abroad without actually doing anything drastic.
Step 1: Go outside.
You can’t practice your L2 with new people if you don’t go outside. I mean, if you really try you can, but if you’re literally surrounded by native speakers and unfamiliar sights, why not just go out and explore? Go outside and just say something to someone. You’ll probably be complimented no matter what things come out of your mouth, as long as they’re words. Especially if you’re in Japan.
Step 2: Join a Club.
You’ll probably be at a school with other students. Talk to them, in your L2. In my experience, language exchange circles are really just groups of natives more interested in meeting foreigners than actually learning English, so you could get plenty of L2 practice. It’s also a great way to make friends in your age group.
Step 3: Become a regular customer at a restaurant/store.
It’s like free lessons in your L2.* By the time you’re a “regular”, you’ll be greeted every time you enter. All the staff will know you. You’ll also find it easier to start conversations with them. I know I’m having a great time with the people my local 鯛焼き stand.
Step 4: Be a little kid.
What’s that over there? What’s that? Why is this here? What does this do? You get the idea. There will be things you don’t understand. Ask about them. If you are living with a host family, just keep asking questions. I didn’t get comfortable speaking until I learned to question everything. Be a curious little kid, amazed with the world around you. Asking questions is hands-down the easiest way to start conversations.
Step 5: Give yourself daily missions
Today, I will only speak in Japanese. Tomorrow, I will get lost on purpose and ask someone for directions. I will talk to X number of strangers today. Next Saturday I’ll ask the store clerk about a product. I’ll ask a native to take a picture of me in front of [famous spot XYZ]. You get the idea. Give yourself a goal (along with a specific date) that will bring you one step closer to being more confident in your L2 ability. That will also bring you one anti-bubble step closer to a worthwhile experience abroad.
Step 6: You are not shy. So stop saying you are.
This was probably the hardest one for me to go through with, but the rewards are so worth the effort.
It’s hard for you to talk to people. I understand. I feel the same way. It’s not shyness though. Everyone’s shy. So basically, no one’s shy. Human communication/interaction is a skill. Like all skills, it will improve with practice. Are you “shy”? No, you’re just rusty. Get out there and practice.
Step 7: What Native Language?
You could probably guess this step from all the previous ones.
Once you set foot on that foreign soil, your native language does not exist anymore. You can get away with blogging in it, but you’ll probably be better off spending as much time in your L2 as possible.
Don’t give in, even if the person talking to you is from your country/program. Your real friends/people who actually want to improve their spoken L2 will support you and hey, you might just convince them to join you!
It all comes down to confidence. The more confident you are in your ability to communicate, the more likely you are to, well, communicate. It’s easy to avoid the bubble when you are nearly as comfortable outside of it as you are inside of it. It will be very uncomfortable at first (I once got so nervous while speaking Japanese that I started stuttering, a habit I thought I kicked 15 years ago). But it will get better and it does take some work. Now I’m talking a lot, making mistakes, cracking jokes, and rolling with it. I have no doubt that each of these seven steps helped me reach this level. The funny thing? I don’t even feel like I’ve changed. I feel like I’m the same old me, except better at spoken Japanese.
Every one of these steps will bring you closer to being a more confident speaker. Of course they are all common sense. But as someone somewhere might have said at some time, common sense is not that common. So here you go! Go abroad and apply each of these from day 1 (where applicable).
After that, there’s nowhere to go but up.
But you gotta move in order to rise, so get movin’!