Attributes of a Successful Language Learner


Me with some friends doing a translation race. So nerdy.

When people find out that I speak four languages (this is unusual in Australia, although I know it may not be so in some other countries) they usually immediately conclude either that I’m exceptionally intelligent or some sort of language genius. This can be frustrating at times, since because language learning is a huge passion of mine that has positively influenced my life in profound ways, I’m often looking to encourage others who are curious about learning languages or who have just started to learn one. It’s frustrating because the problem with such conclusions is that it is extremely discouraging for potential learners, as they will reason that they just must not be smart or lucky enough to have the gift of learning languages and so won’t even try.

I firmly believe that I have no special language learning ability whatsoever. I don’t pick them up effortlessly, and only am able to learn them because I’ve developed my own method for learning languages that suits my learning style, and because I’ve realised that there are a number of common attributes shared by successful language learners. I learnt Italian in Primary School for 7 years, and never learnt much. I also did French all the way through High School, but only was able to learn it when I started researching the infamous internet polyglots Luca Lampariello and Steve Kaufmann, whose videos and articles gave me the tools needed to go forth and learn French to fluency. Anyone who spent the same amount of time learning languages as I do using a similarly efficient method could learn them just as well as myself.

And so, without further ado, let me begin my personal analysis of what makes a successful language learner!


The Common Qualities of Successful Language Learners

 1.    Motivation.

Learning languages is actually not particularly difficult. The illusion of difficulty is created due to the amount of time it takes to learn one to fluency. Therefore, in order to ensure you keep at it long enough, you need to think about your motivation for learning your chosen language. Note that learning a language for bragging rights or to do well in school etc is generally not motivation enough. I don’t have a perfect formula for what constitutes a sufficient desire to learn, but in my case it is the wish to communicate with people from various cultures without difficulty and learn about their way of life. I love travelling, too, and realise that the only way to forge meaningful relationships and assimilate into a new society is by speaking the language. I also have am convinced that continuing learning languages will tangibly improve my life in the form of increased freedom and extra job opportunities.

As such, having a clear idea of exactly why you want to learn a language from the get-go can influence your success greatly, as you’ll inevitably often have moments where it all seems too much and you feel like giving up. Having compelling reasons to continue toward your goal will allow you to push on when all hope seems lost.

2.    Discipline.

The reason learning a language takes so long is because there is huge amount of information to learn. Luckily, humans are inherently good at communication, and so with enough exposure the words and structures needed to reach fluency will be absorbed into your brain faster than you could learn any other information. Regardless, it’s important to be disciplined with yourself. Language learning is a daily activity, and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying! Sure, it’s not the end of the world if you miss a day or two here and there, but unless you’re willing to put in a (small) amount of time each day then you should stop reading right now because you probably aren’t motivated enough. That said, it’s a small price to pay for the immeasurable benefit you can gain from mastery of a second tongue. I recommend setting yourself goals or targets, or consider doing a one-month challenge.

3.    Self-belief.

Belief that you are capable of successfully learning a language to fluency is a MUST! It’s kind of a catch-22, because you can only succeed if you first have a strong belief that you will. If you are constantly doubting yourself, you won’t have enough confidence to get out there and meet people and get the practice you need, nor will you be able to develop the ‘reflexive’ language skills needed for true fluency like you have in your native language (when you naturally just know that something is right or wrong, without knowing why). You basically just have to fake it until you make it, and when you make it, you can look back and realise that you were right and that you could do it all along!

4.    Patience.

A successful language learner is patient. Learning a language doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time. One great way I’ve found that allows me to indirectly be more patient (I’m naturally not a very patient person) is by ensuring that you develop a love for the process of learning the language in itself, independent of whether you are progressing. I love going to a café and sitting down and reading in Chinese, or using a new word in conversation, or listening to Chinese radio. I used to be so caught up in whether I was progressing fast enough (or at all), but really what’s important is to enjoy the ride. Ironically, the less you concern yourself with the speed of your progress, the speedier you will progress!

5.    A lack of perfectionism.

It seems counter-intuitive, but in my opinion the best language learners are not perfectionists. Rather, they are pragmatists, and stress an incremental approach to learning where they emphasise communication first and let the details fall into place on their own. I personally very rarely sit down to learn grammar (I occasionally read explanations, but you’ll never catch me doing fill in the blanks exercises, etc), but rather try to let it wash over me naturally and be absorbed from hearing it over and over. My logic is that since babies never have to study grammar, and I’m smarter than most babies, then I shouldn’t have to study grammar either! Haha, in all seriousness, though, I find that trying to learn from context where possible allows you to grow an instinctual understanding of the language similar to your mother tongue, rather than having to mentally run every sentence you use say through a set of grammar rules you’ve rote-learned.

That’s it! I could say more about each of the qualities I’ve identified, but I feel as though they’re mostly self-explanatory. If you have any questions, however, don’t be afraid to ask. J

What have I been up to recently? 

I’ve been pretty busy actually! In fact, I under-estimated how busy I’d be over here, hence my relative lack of posting since I’ve been living in Nanjing.

Chinese-wise, it’s all been smooth sailing. I’ve learnt a huge amount in the 3 months I’ve been here so far, and am learning 10-30 words a day. I’ve also made quite a few really good Chinese friends who have helped my Chinese immensely and who have allowed me to gain an insight into Chinese culture I wouldn’t have been able to get otherwise.

Although I’m hesitant to use the label, I’d say it’s probably fair to say that my Chinese has reached a certain level of  conversational fluency. I can join in conversations with the locals without slowing it down, and am generally able to follow and participate without much hesitation. I’m still lacking a lot of vocabulary, but I was pretty satisfied after I had an hour-long conversation about communism and censorship in China (in Chinese!) without any problems.

A more accurate label for my Chinese though would probably be ‘temperamental basic fluency’. I can’t explain why, but some days my Chinese doesn’t come out right! The huge variety of regional accents means that sometimes I struggle to understand some people. It’s like if you’ve only ever heard a London accent, then suddenly meet someone from America’s deep south. What’s certain is that I have a long way to go still. My Chinese is very un-polished, and probably still would not meet most people’s standards of fluency. I hope that within the next few years my Chinese will continue to develop into a solid level that will allow me to be functional in the language, including in a business environment.

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Author: Dan

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