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How Shyness Affects Learning Spoken and Written Language

On February 4th, The Atlantic ran a story (by Eleanor Barkhorn) entitled:

Study: Shy Kids Know the Answer—They Just Won’t Say It Out Loud

The story professes to be ‘good news’ for shy people. Its centerpiece is a  study that looked at how shyness effects language learning in toddlers. According to the study, shyness affects language expression but not the learning of language reception.  Evidently, prior researchers have found that socially inhibited children have weaker language skills. In contrast this study of 816,  14-24 month old children, found that “inhibited behaviors like shyness don’t hamper language acquisition overall but instead relate specifically to how toddlers express themselves through words”. Or, in the words of the story’s author,”kids didn’t actually know less—they were simply less eager to express their knowledge out loud”. But how shyness affects toddlers learning spoken language can not be used to make a case for how shyness affects learning in general. 

I commented on the story:

 “simply less eager to express their knowledge out loud”… shyness is a form of ‘shame-aversion’ – a way of behaving that minimizes the chances of feeling the discomforts of shame. Let’s not over generalize from this piece. “Shyness” may not have a great influence on receptive processing in speech but as reading requires learning to correct receptive processing through expressive processing the (shame) aversion to expressive processing can lead to great impediments to receptive processing. It’s a huge part of why most kids in this country are improficient in reading.

Another commenter (MegGuest) replied to my comment with:

In all my explorations on behalf of myself and others, including children (on issues which include shyness or withdrawn behavior, but not exclusively this issue), I’ve never run across the explanation you capture in these few words: “shyness is a form of ‘shame-aversion’ – a way of behaving that minimizes the chances of feeling the discomforts of shame.”

Yet I could not agree more!

I’ve not thought through whether I’d agree with such a ‘single cause’ explanation for shyness, but have every reason from personal and observational experience to know that “shame-aversion” must surely be among powerful causes.

My brain is buzzing toward questions of “how we understand ‘shame’, how we understand ‘felt humiliation'”, …, and other aspects … our lack of realization of how we, perhaps out of our own unresolved, unrecognized, distresses – in turn shape the child.

MegGuest went on to other related topics which we will share separately.  I responded to the above part of her comment with:

I think we have to differentiate ‘shyness’ from being ‘reserved’ – children may have more than one affective motivation for not freely coming forth with expression. But shyness is defined by the APA as “the tendency to feel awkward [ Not graceful; ungainly – clumsily or unskillfully performed -marked by or causing embarrassment ], worried or tense [anticipatory or actual feelings] during social encounters, especially with unfamiliar people” which I am here translating as an aversion to the feeling of shame. We are all shame averse and avoiding situations that trigger shame warps the flow of learning in each of our daily lives.

[On the] ‘Learning Stewards‘ site you will find under ‘unhealthy learning‘ my thoughts on ‘mind-shame‘. Also there are numerous blog posts that deal with shame and learning (including a number on ‘math-anxiety‘). For more on shame in relation to reading go to ‘Children of the Code’ and its video chapter on ‘shame‘.

In the early stages, learning to read requires corrective feedback. We learn to correctly decode written words by reading them out loud so that our parents or teachers can hear them and let us know when we are mispronouncing (thus misreading) them.  When a child is shame-averse to expressing what they are reading, they are, necessarily, less able to learn to read.




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