Introverts in ELT

Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know. (Lao Zi, The Way of Lao Zi)

Inner worlds

Most of my favorite writers are introverts.

Kafka couldn’t stand company. When working on a story, he couldn’t even tolerate his fiancée: “There can never be enough silence around when one writes … why even night is not night enough.”

Harper Lee was another. On becoming famous for To Kill a Mockingbird, she disappeared from the public eye for half a century and never wrote another book. She did show up once in public, when inducted into the Alabama Academy Of Honor. She told the audience, “Well, it’s better to be silent than to be a fool.”

Don DeLillo is another. He’s been known to say “Can I go now?” twenty minutes into a one-hour interview.

The most reclusive of all was J.D. Salinger, author of The Catcher in the Rye. He hid away in a house in the sticks, asked his publisher to remove his photo from book jackets, and allegedly pulled out a shotgun every time a journalist came onto his property. Even in death, he took the quiet path: his literary agent announced that “there will be no service.”

The worlds of science and technological invention aren’t much different. For every socially-adept, bongo-drum-playing Richard Feynman, there are probably ten über-nerds re-imagining the world in their labs or garages. Here’s Einstein: “I am a horse for a single harness, not cut out for tandem or teamwork … in order to attain any goal, it is imperative that one person do the thinking and the commanding.”

And here’s Steve Wozniak, the genius behind Apple’s technology: “Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me – they’re shy and live in their heads.” His advice to young creative types? “Work alone.”

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Richard Feynman, legendary theoretical physicist and bongo player

Introverts and Extroverts in Education

In the field of education, we value extroverts. Language education positively reveres them. They are the risk-takers, the energizers, the class jokers. And they are the ones who attain fluency first.

Introverts, in contrast, are sometimes viewed as problematic. They don’t work well in groups, and their silence is often taken for lack of ability. (Numerous studies reveal that fast, fluent talkers are erroneously rated by the public as more intelligent than quieter people.)

Introversion and the Communicative Approach: A Match Made in Hell?

As a lifelong introvert who manages to impersonate an extrovert in front of an audience, I’ve grown to recognize certain traits in introverted students. Introverts work better alone, at a slower, more deliberate pace; they prefer to do one task at a time, and they often have great powers of concentration. They score highly in homework and tests while making themselves invisible in class.

This presents something of a dilemma for language teachers schooled in the communicative approach. We are taught to treasure the chatter. The buzz of student-talk is comforting to us (they’re communicating!) while the great void of silence isn’t (there’s nothing happening!). And this is reflected in tasks and collaborative learning and pair-work and the organization of the tables and chairs into communicative pods. Meanwhile, the introverts are squirming inside as we put them into groups to discuss something they don’t want to discuss.

Three Things to Remember

While no one is advocating a return to the days of silent students, endless teacher-talk, and chairs in rows facing the teacher, I think it’s essential to remember that not all students enjoy debates, drama, role play, humor, simulations. Silent time, for many, is learning time.

The second thing to remember is that student propensities are often cultural. When I taught in International House, London, I would often have a mixture of Italians, Brazilians and Japanese in my classes. The Italians and Brazilians tended to dominate conversations. The Japanese, on the other hand, were often excellent at grammar and superb memorizers of arcane vocabulary. But Japanese quietness wasn’t introversion. It was culture. Quietness was simply a facet of Japanese politeness and respect. The same occurred on the rare occasions I taught students from Finland. Finns are famously introverted. A Finnish joke: How can you tell if a Finn likes you? He’s staring at your shoes instead of his own.

Finally, I’d like to consider whether it’s really an advantage for language learners to be extroverts. Intuition tells us extroverts are more likely to be better speakers, while introverts may have better declarative knowledge of the language – knowing grammar rules and the names of verb tenses, for example. However, the research is inconclusive. Wakamoto (2000) found that extroverts were more likely to use learning strategies than introverts, but Naiman (1996) and Busch (1982) found negligible correlation between personality types and second language proficiency.

Conclusions

The fact is, most people are not quite as fixed as the terms “extrovert” or “introvert” imply. It was Carl Jung who described the two traits in his 1921 book Psychological Types, and also Jung who said, “There is no such thing as a pure extrovert or a pure introvert. Such a man would be in the lunatic asylum.”

Students take classes to speak English. We ask, “do you speak English?” It’s unquestionably the top dog of the four skills, and some qualities present in extroverts are undeniably useful for language learners: taking opportunities to practise, trying to extend spoken utterances, and taking risks with new language. But if we can find roles for our introverts in class – explaining grammar or taking notes during group work – everyone wins.