Some people are good at learning languages. They may have been born that way or become skilled thanks to strategy training, early exposure to a foreign language and/or the right kind of support. The important thing to realise, particularly when we’re feeling down and defeated by the overwhelming task of learning a language, is that good language learners do exist. There’s also a lot we stand to gain from studying their approach. This includes both the kinds of activities they engage in and how they meet various challenges at different stages of fluency.
Aptitude for language
It’s true that some people are born with a knack for languages. Much of it has to do with aptitude which is related to an individual’s working memory capacity. The phonological loop is a tool we use to repeat a series of numbers or letters. Imagine saying a telephone number over and over again until you can write it down. Some people can naturally hold more numbers in their head than others. The visuospatial sketchpad is when we look at an image, close our eyes and hold it in memory. Good language learners tend to be able to see the image for longer before it dissipates.
These are important mechanisms that learners use to pick up on new language from the input and transfer it into longterm memory. The good news is aptitude isn’t set in stone. Repeatedly memorising longer strings of information can strengthen your working memory in a new language. The same goes for trying to hold images of foreign language words for longer and longer intervals. The brain is like a muscle — anyone can develop their aptitude with a little effort and training.
The Good Language Learner
Applied linguists have long taken an interest in those students who seem to do better than others in the language classroom. They observed their behaviour in lessons, at home and in a target language rich environment, and noted down similarities. Here’s what they found:
They don’t mind sounding silly.
Pronunciation can be hard but good language learners tend not to worry if they sound or look silly trying to produce a new sound. They pay attention to how native-speakers say things and compare their own versions, repeating a word or phrase as many times as it takes until they get it right.
They aren’t worried about making mistakes.
Mistakes are a natural part of learning and these language learning superheroes aren’t afraid to make them. They can be risk takers when trying out new expressions, grammar and vocabulary. They are also more likely to learn from their mistakes than to attribute them to any kind of personal failure. After all, we will never be perfect in a foreign language and no one expects us to be.
They are invested in actual communication.
Good language learners or GLLs are often learning a language so they can use it to communicate. This goes beyond studying words to complete exercises or quizzes. They seek out interactions with native speakers and view language as a useful tool vs. material to be acquired.
They use their language as often as possible.
These learners try things out on anyone who will listen. They talk to themselves, their pets, their friend and even language exchange partners. This helps them reach fluency faster because every time you say a word you activate it in memory.
They take guesses at the unknown.
Some learners shut down when they hear a word they don’t know. Language learning superheroes get stuck-in. They make use of what they know about the person speaking, their knowledge of similar situations, and the other words spoken, and then they take a guess. More often than not they’re right. But as a bonus, just spending all of that extra attention guessing makes them more likely to learn the word when they do look it up.
They take an active role in their learning.
GLLs aren’t content to just sit back and let the teacher or course do all of the work. They create their own activities and seek out opportunities to practice points they feel they need extra help with. They self-monitor their progress and are more likely to stay centered, recognising that there will be good and bad days and maintaining a positive attitude throughout the learning process.
They have the right tools.
Where would a language learning superhero be without his or her trusty dictionary, notebook and audio recorder? Today’s GLLs go the extra mile with apps that store vocabulary, practice grammar and manage smart rotation flashcards. These individuals understand that while following a course is a great start for learning a language, they’ll need to work extra hard and around the clock to ensure they reach fluency.
They take an interest in culture and people.
Good language learners listen to songs, watch films, learn history and explore local traditions. They are what applied linguists like to call “integratively motivated” which means they are learning the language so they can interact with native speakers. This type of motivation correlates more with success than “instrumentive” which is learning a language for the sake of a school credit or a promotion at work. Learn more in our post on motivation.
They make connections.
Stringing together utterances helps you form important connections that strengthen the entire foreign language network you’re building in your brain. You may be connecting a word you learned in a song lyric to a grammar point from a formal lesson and doing it all in the context of a casual letter to an e-pen pal. Whenever they can, GLLs bring it all together to make their language learning powers even stronger.
They look up words.
Vocabulary words are the building blocks of language and these superheroes know nothing counts more than having a lot of them at your disposal. That’s why they regularly expand their vocabulary by thinking of words they’d like to use in communication but don’t yet know, and then looking them up! See our post on building your vocabulary for more tips.
They review regularly.
There’s not much point in spending all of that time expanding your vocabulary if you don’t ever review the words you’re learning. Good language learners make flashcards, rotate their vocabulary review and actively practice newly learned words to be sure they don’t disappear from memory.
How to be like them
So you’d like to become a language learning superhero? Anyone who has a desire to learn (motivation), a plan (see above) and the right tools on hand (the Language Infusion course) can be a success in a foreign language if they take the habits of the good language learner to heart. Language is a puzzle and GLLs understand that they have to make their brain do the heavy lifting in order to piece the picture together. Another way to explain this is they practice self-directed learning which means they don’t just rely on the teacher or a course to tell them what to study.
So, if you find yourself wanting to speak about a topic that relates to your life but you don’t have the words you need to do so, look them up. Speak without hesitation, even if you sound silly. Don’t worry about mistakes and do your best to figure things out when they don’t make sense. Stay in constant contact with your language and create opportunities to use it. Design and review flashcards, listen to songs, watch movies and find some native speakers to chat with. If you go out of your way to make a foreign language a central part of your day-to-day, you’ll be reaping the same benefits as GLLs in no time at all.
Do you know a good language learner? What do they do differently that others can learn from? Join the discussion in the comments!