At school, I preferred my languages to be dead.
Latin I enjoyed. History too.
On the other hand, « Ecoutez et répétez » in the language laboratory? Pure torture. Repeat something that I didn’t even understand? It felt like a violation of my nascent identity.
I was an introvert.
Fast forward 15 years and as chance would have it, I settled in France. The lifestyle was a thumbs up. The weather. The culture, the gastronomy, the marriage. Everything really. Except the language.
It felt like being sent back into language laboratory hell. Being spoken to and not understanding what was said. Vice versa. It didn’t feel like a simple technical problem in need of resolution. It felt traumatic.
Most of us aren’t entirely introverted or extroverted. We tend to be comfortable in situations where we feel safe and ill at ease when we sense that we’re vulnerable. But if you have borderline social anxiety disorder, being thrust into a foreign-speaking environment sure is an anxious place to find yourself.
And when it comes to language learning, it seems to me that those closer to the extrovert end of the scale have the advantage. Much of language learning is about getting the most miles on the clock. And being happy to spout any old nonsense without worrying too much is not a bad place to be (so long as you’re willing also to learn from your mistakes).
So what’s the solution if one finds oneself on the other end of the scale, hamstrung by a fear of getting things wrong? Focusing on what you do enjoy is one answer. There’s great pleasure to be had, for example, from reading French literature.
But if you do want to exchange with real live people? Learning “not to worry” is not as easy as it sounds: our personalities are much more deeply ingrained than that. You may get more mileage out of accepting that you have high levels of self-criticism and working with them.
That means building up your range very slowly: sound by sound to begin with, word by word, expression by expression, making sure that you feel confident about every single utterance that you make. Some of the rules of grammar you’ll simply acquire through practice, others will require active study.
It’s a long journey: mastering a foreign language takes many hundreds of hours of work. But as La Fontaine observed in this famous fable, the hares don’t always beat the tortoises.