One piece of advice introverted people studying a language hate to hear is "Just speak more!" Not only does this state the remarkably obvious, it also fails to address the real issue at hand. Introverted people's thought processes are driven inward, not outward. These are people who like to think carefully before speaking and who generally avoid small talk. So, sure, they should "just speak more" to improve their oral Chinese—but they often don't want to do this in their first language, much less a second language. So what's an introverted sinophile to do?
1. Dig in.
The first and most important thing to do is to be mentally prepared to not reach your original goal for a long time. It's the expectation of rapid improvement that sets you up for some of the most disheartening moments when learning a language. Allowing yourself years rather than months to meet your long-term goals and being patient with your progress are perhaps the most important things you can do to ensure that you keep going.
2. Play to your strengths.
Yes, your speaking may lag behind that of your more extroverted friends, but remember that oral skills are only the most obvious of abilities in a language. Though reading and writing skills generally won't impress people at a party, they are still extremely important. Also, focusing on these more "bookish" aspects of the language will yield dividends for your spoken Chinese, although they probably will not become apparant until much later in study.
The Internet has plentiful listening resources; the television broadcasts soap operas on a daily basis, which usually have simple plots and simplistic Chinese, all of which are complemented by helpful subtitles. Use these free tools, and use them often—if you're shy, it's a way to practice listening until you're confident enough to carry out conversations with real people. Write down new words from TV or movies and ask your Chinese friends what they mean.
4. Force yourself to say idiotic things on a daily basis.
No matter how much you may hate it, force yourself to make small talk with someone at least once a day. Say "hi" to your security guards and force out a few minutes' worth of Chinese. Talk about the weather, tell them about your weekend, compliment their choice of clothing. Whatever. Even if it's torturous, force it out.
5. Learn vocabulary for things you are interested in.
Make your own vocabulary lists about hobbies you have: sports, art, photography, movies, music—whatever. Teach yourself vocabulary as specialized as possible, read about the things, and then try to use the words in speech. At least you're trying to talk about interesting things and eventually, way down the line, this will really pay off.
6. If you're romantically involved with a Chinese person, speak Chinese.
Many people who partner with English-speaking Chinese folks still end up speaking little Chinese. Why? For one thing, speaking Chinese is hard—most people want to relax when they get home from work, not focus on practicing their speaking. Also, a lot of bilingual relationships tend to develop their own kind of pidgin language, with which only the two people in the relationship understand what the other is talking about. This is fine within the relationship, but useless outside of it. So, though having a Chinese significant other can be helpful in terms of language, it's not a given.
7. Pay for a tutor.
This is, sadly, the best option for introverted learners of Chinese. When it comes to Chinese, sometimes the only way to make it to that next level is to force yourself to spend some real, hard cash. Do not use a language-exchange partner, as these arrangements generally devolve into shoddy mixtures of Chinese and English, with little focus on each separate language. Spending actual money will mean that you will be much less willing to waste time.
In the end, the important thing is to move your spoken Chinese to a point where you are comfortable with pleasantries but also capable of talking about more interesting topics.
This article by Kevin Morris was originally published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 7 ("Culture Hopping").