9 Characteristics of Effective Language Learners

9 characteristicsWhat’s the difference between successful language learners and those who just can’t seem to get very far no matter how hard they try? Is there a list of characteristics that ensures success on the journey to lifelong fluency?

After several years of helping people learn English, and my own language learning, I’ve learned that there is such a list.

While everybody is unique in their learning styles, beliefs, and talents, there are certain characteristics that are universally essential for language learning success.

Contrary to what most people believe, the most important characteristics are usually more related to courage, confidence, and hard work than grammar and intelligence. Sure, some people have a special ability to learn languages, which helps, but such special talent is not as common as most people think.

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Today we’ll explore the first 4 characteristics, and part 2 of this article will talk about 5-9.

1. They Have Their Heart In It

The Most Successful language learners are connected to a powerful innate sense of WHY they are learning. You can call this passion, purpose, inspiration, imagination, and even vision. While “heart” is definitely not the most tangible or objective aspect of language learning, it is absolutely necessary.

This is why grammar books are boring, and traditional schools don’t actually result in fluency for most learners. It’s hard work to learn a language, and even if you discipline yourself study your whole life, it’s long and painful learning when your heart is not in it.

The best language learners have a deep internal reason for learning that nobody else imposed upon them. They may have been born with this sense of purpose, or maybe they discovered it through their own exploration, but a burning desire is an indispensable part of success.

Despite what society conditions them to believe (“learning English is important for getting a good job”), in their hearts they are learning because they feel connected to the process, and a better job, a salary increase, travel, and international friends are an extra reward.  

Being connected to a deep sense of purpose opens up our imagination, and this makes the long and arduous journey more effective, relaxed, and infinitely more enjoyable.

Purpose: The #1 Reason You Aren’t Learning As Much English As You Want

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Check out this amazing TED talk on the importance of purpose.

For transcripts and subtitles in most languages, watch this TED Talk on TED.COM

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2. They Take Responsibility For Their Learning

The most successful English learners take responsibility for their learning and develop the proactivity to take charge of their process. They don’t blame their circumstances (or other people), they aren’t satisfied with mediocrity, and they don’t let themselves get deceived by quick-fix solutions (quick and false solutions).

If you are NOT willing to learn, nobody can help youIf you are willing to learn, nobody can stop you. -anonymous

There are a lot of confusing messages out there. Programs and schools everywhere proclaim that they have the magic bullet (magic solution) that will change everything if you just sign up for their course or buy their product, as if a language were a computer chip in your brain. Such a marketing message sells, but it’s not true and it ignores the real reason why people fail to learn: they trip over themselves!

While most people are happy to pay somebody else to take full responsibility for their results, a proactive language learner understands that success is a combination of important factors (teachers, resources, strategies, styles, etc), but whatever you do, it all comes back to you, what you do, and your ability to take responsibility for your learning.

aristotle3. They Develop Strong Daily Habits

Successful English learners are generally good at implementing strong and diligent daily habits, which in one form or another includes practice in their lives.

They know that to be good at anything, you must do it consistently, with attention, and do it over and over again until it becomes an unconscious part of you. They also know that this routine needs to feel natural, practical, and not forced.

Strong daily habits are a pretty simple formula for success, but surprisingly few people implement these in their lives. There are 2 important reasons for this:

The first and most important reason people have difficulty forming habits is a question of attitude. In other words, 90% of people fail to reach fluency because they haven’t developed the above characteristics. The foundation of any good habit is first, to truly be inspired, and then to take responsibility for the results your create. These are two powerful characteristics that greatly facilitate the formation of new habits, and without them, no amount of good strategies will be of good use.

If you are truly passionate about your learning and are taking responsibility, there may be a secondary reason that requires a deeper understanding of habit formation. While this is a topic that demands a stronger and more detailed explanation (another article), here are 4 key ideas for successful habit formation:

  • Resistance (internal and external): Understanding the internal and external obstacles that prevent habit formation helps you short circuit them and makes your process a lot easier.
  • Will power is a finite resource/ A muscle that gets tired: It’s really tiring to form a new habit, but after 4-6 weeks it’s gets a lot easier. Continuous small changes are sustainable and don’t exhaust us.
  • It takes 4 to 6 weeks for a habit to become permanent: After 4 to 6 weeks, a habit becomes automatic and no longer requires much will power. After this time, we actually feel attracted to the new habit.
  • It’s okay not to be perfect: People have the unrealistic expectation that they need to be perfect in their habits, and when they aren’t, they tend to get discouraged and give up. The recipe for success: shoot for 100%, but be content with 80%. If you fall off the horse with your new habit, don’t panic. Relax, and get back on.

Watch this incredible video on “The Power of Habit.”

4. They Don’t Expect Perfection

Good language learners know that the only way to learn anything worth learning is to risk embarrassment, to make mistakes, and to make lots of them. People won’t always understand you, people may even laugh at you, but successful language learners have the ability to be okay with this.

“Mistakes are the portal of discovery.” –James Joyce

When you learn a new language, you have to make yourself vulnerable, you have to error, and a good way to do this is to develop the courage to laugh at yourself. Don’t take yourself so seriously. Accept that it is going to be embarrassing and awkward at first, but it’s an important part of the process. These are your best learning opportunities.

The beauty of this is that learning to be okay with your imperfections will make you more confident and secure, as you will realize that your fears were illusions. If people laugh at you or criticize you in a negative way, it doesn’t have to be your problem. You have to accept whfailure rateere you are in your process, and this is the only way to get fluent.

Like a child learning to walk, you need to FALL and get back up, to make the effort, and be okay with falling. It’s to be expected. In fact, f you aren’t making mistakes, you are doing something wrong. This will build courage, it will build confidence, it will quickly melt your fear away, and with good strategy, little by little it will build all of the skills you need to speak fluently.

False perfectionism is the alternative, and it is like kryptonite for your learning. The world is full of language learners who don’t risk, who don’t make themselves vulnerable, and who don’t know how to laugh at themselves. The result is that they don’t learn.

They hide behind the idea that they are perfectionists, that they are waiting until they know enough English to speak it. They often get pretty good grades in school, but they don’t understand that they haven’t learned anything if they can’t apply it.

Imagine a child who doesn’t know how to walk saying, “I’m going to wait until I know how to walk perfectly before I walk.” That’s the silly idea of perfectionism and it doesn’t make any sense!

Read More About This: 7 Things Not To Do When Speaking English

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As you can see, the most fundamental characteristics of successful language learners are not the method or the materials they use. Good teachers, methods, resources, tricks, and techniques are all fun and useful, but they don’t help very much if you don’t have the right attitude.

This requires you to care about what you’re doing, to fall in love with the learning process, and to take responsibility. From there, you are much more likely to develop strong, consistent, and intelligent habits that carry you on your journey.

And finally, it’s going to take a lot of courage and resilience to laugh at yourself and make lots of mistakes, but it’s at the heart of learning ANYTHING!

Next week we’ll talk about the next five characteristics of successful language learners.

Read part 2 of this article

  • Finding and building support networks
  • Making boring things interesting
  • Understanding their learning style
  • Falling in love with the culture
  • Making their lives their classroom
  • Ana

    Awesome article, as usual! I loved both videos (really useful in real life!).
    You guys are getting better and better!!! I am amazed!
    Thanks a ton!

  • Gilson Maia

    A shot in the arm!

  • East London boy

    Estoy de acuerdo! soy entre A2 y B1 en espanol pocas veces hablo con gente por que creo que mi espanol es peor que un nino 🙁 pero muchas gracias por tu mensaje tenemos que continuar con nuestro estudiando ser mejor en el futuro

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