Death by SHYNESS – the ESL learners DILEMMA


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When we first start to learn anything, including a language, we do have to overcome some obstacles. Most of them are due to practical things like, can I afford this, will this information get me to where I want to go, and also can I actually do this? Am I actually capable enough to achieve this?

All fair questions, however when a student starts off with an uncontrollable dose of shyness and considers it to be part of their nature, then unfortunately language learning is probably doomed from the start.

Shyness can manifest itself in a variety of ways when it comes to learning a language:

  1. Inability to speak in a group situation
  2. Inability to speak even in a one to one situation
  3. Inability to speak clearly
  4. Inability to assert a point of view
  5. Inability to speak fluently

As you can see most of these come from a confidence point of view. However often these students are far from shy when it comes to actually all other facets of learning. For example, their essays may be exemplary, their attention to the nuances of the grammar exercises may be spot on, their ability to remember what was said or covered in the lesson was perfect. So this tells us that their shyness often falls only into one single category to do with ESL….anything related to making some kind of sound.

However, saying this, some shy people are happy to make a sound, so long as it is not their own personal sound. They can bang a drum, they can play a musical instrument or even recite a whole speech from a Shakespearean play. Anything so long as they themselves are not heard – their real self.

So what is this shyness all about?

I had an interesting experience recently where I was sitting in a group of four people, and all four people were contributing to the conversation, until I realised well into it that in fact though all were speaking, one was not being heard at all, well not by me anyway. She was speaking at regular intervals and she was audible and she was using correct grammar and sentence structure but the sad thing was, she had nothing worth hearing to say, therefore as a result, she really wasn’t existing in the conversation at all. Basically she was not able to be original, or in other words she was not able to be herself.

This fundamental principle of conversation is in fact key to learning a language. If you cannot be yourself or say what you think, whether it be in garbled ESL English or perfect English, if you don’t have the confidence to say anything worth hearing, the terrible ailment of shyness will kill you and your capacity to develop your skill.

So how does a person overcome their shyness?

There are the tried and true methods of

  • practicing speaking to a mirror
  • making friends with like-minded people
  • talking on topics you do know about
  • biting the bullet and saying to yourself ‘being boring is okay for now’, just speak anyway

But it does raise that ultimate question of – is a shy person always a boring person? The answer of course is no. The answer has to lie in getting the person themselves to discover what it is that they love to do, and from there their true inventiveness and creativity will flourish.

The other wonderful thing nowadays too is that we all know that everyone can be interesting, it just depends on who is doing the judging, and it is not for any of us to judge the level of ‘interestingness’ of anyone. Once a shy person knows this, then the cure is ready to be swallowed.


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