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.

Free E-book: 101 Words You Will Never Learn in School

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

13 Tips For Lifelong English Fluency

Check out this video I made about this exact topic:

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 where 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

5. They Build Support Networks

Good language learners find people and communities who nurture their process. They know that we need people to share our journey with, so they reach out to other learners for friends, mentors, teachers, inspiration, and a place to practice. Being alone will feel lonely and uninspiring, and if you’ve never been around people who like learning languages, you probably don’t know how fun it can be.

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” -African Proverb

This is true for any walk of life, and it is definitely true for language learning.  If you don’t have effective people around you to support you in your process, it will be exponentially more difficult to succeed.

We could easily put this as the #1 characteristic for successful language learning because it actually helps build and fortify everything else on this list. Whatever it is you are doing, if you have other learners to share the process with, and examples to follow, you will, without a doubt, feel A LOT more connected to your innate purpose for learning. The journey will also be much more rewarding.

More and more research is showing that support networks actually catalyze the entire process.  This makes so much sense!  While this demands a lot of proactivity, a lot of passion, and all of the above habits, this is well worth the initial sacrifice because once you engage, it will breath life into your process.

You can find this with local meetup groups, like couchsurfing, with online communities like Real Life English, or other ones online (see article below). A school (a good one at least) can and should provide this too, but is usually not enough. You can also find people in your city who speak and/or are learning English and do English meetups.

Speaking English Online: 5 Ways to Improve Your Fluency

6. They Make “Boring” Things Interesting 

Good language learners know full and well (very well) that this is hard work, that there will be challenging parts of the journey, and that it’s NOT always fun and games. But, because they have a clear and compelling (inspiring) reason why they are learning (#1), and they take responsibility (#2), they don’t let themselves fall off the wagon (get distracted).

You’re never going to be interested 100% of the time, but you can at least try your best to experiment with the boring parts. Effective learners take responsibility for their learning, so that when things get boring, they try out different perspectives and learning strategies in order to get engaged and have fun.

If they still can’t make it interesting, they know that maybe it’s time to make a change. In this way, they start to understand their personal learning style, and that certain things are more interesting and effective for them than other people. The main idea is that effective learners try stuff out, they are always changing, experimenting, growing their perspective.

Making things boring often demands more than just experimentation. It often involves guidance (advice) from a teacher, mentor, or community. All of this leads to getting to know your personal learning style and designing your learning to accomodate your learning.

7. They Understand Their Learning Style

If you’re an effective language learner, taking responsibility for your learning requires you to have a certain awareness of your learning process. Because you can’t pass off total responsibility to another person, school, or program, you are going to have to observe your process and understand exactly how you learn best. There are very few schools that even pay attention to this, and those that do are never going to know you as well as you can know yourself.

This is a big reason why each language you learn gets easier. Let’s imagine that you successfully learn English as a second language when you’re in your late teens or early twenties, and now you would like to learn German. Because you have already consciously passed through the process of learning English, and you’ve tried out lots of strategies, you no longer need to waste your time on stuff that doesn’t work.

Maybe you realize that studying grammar an hour every night doesn’t work well for you because it’s not interesting in your life, but you’ve also discovered that you prefer podcasts, music, and other auditory learning experiences. Some people learn better with grammar as their foundation, but you understand yourself well enough to know that it won’t work best for you.

With English, maybe it took you a few years to discover this, but now with German, you know this from the beginning, so you decide to dedicate 80% of your time to stuff that you’ve been successful with, and 20% of your time to grammar. It’s a constant process of adapting to your learning style and new learning experiences.

Probably the must underestimated learning experience is the cultural one.

 8. They Fall in Love With the Culture

Effective language learners come to a point in their process where their passion is ignited by the culture through which the language speaks.

“A language is not just a body of vocabulary or a set of grammatical rules. A language is a flash of the human spirit. It’s a vehicle through which the soul of each particular culture comes into the material world. Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind, a watershed, a thought, an ecosystem of spiritual possibilities.”

-Anthropologist, Wade Davis in this Ted Talk

They understand that the language is just a doorway into a new culture, a new identification with the world, and a new body of perspectives that enrich the learners understanding of the world. To start to see the language as a cultural experience will make the process infinitely more interesting and your love for the culture will totally overpower the difficulties and motivate you to learn as fast as you can.

If you were not born with passion for learning the language (characteristic #1), this is the best place to start. Nothing is more eye-opening than learning about a new culture.

“To have another language is to possess a second soul.” -Charlemagne

You can even say that the love for learning about other cultures is the main reason why some people travel. When you travel, you cultivate an entirely new way of being and looking at the world.

You give yourself new experiences, you have the chance to leave behind the limiting aspects of your native culture and embrace a new lens for the world. You Aren’t Fluent Until You Understand The Culture

9. They Make Their Life Their Classroom

informal learningThe result of this entire process is that you become an active, engaged learner, who knows how to use their life experiences to learn. This is the essence of the Real Life English vision, and it’s the magnet that pulls the entire process forward.

The process of learning gradually becomes more and more participatory, and the difficulty of the forced artificial learning experience gets replaced by the direct relationship you develop with the source of the language: the experience of people, of culture, or meaning, and of real communication.

When you open up your eyes to this aspect of learning, your learning will get a lot quicker and easier, it’ll get lighter and more interesting, and you will want to devote yourself because you like it. This is what it means to develop lifelong fluency in a language. You don’t forget because it becomes part of who you are.

The earlier in your process that you can discover this about yourself and the world, the easier it’s going to be for your learning process. You can even say that making your life your classroom is the essence of being passionate and enthusiastic about learning the language.


English For Life: 5 Ways to Make English a Part of Your Daily Life

Call to Action

As you can see, these are not things you generally learn in school; you learn them in life. The point is not to be perfect in all of these, because few people are. Your mission is to evaluate your English learning process, your life, and see what you can do to improve your process. You can work on any and all of these, but the point is to take action, and to point your life in the direction of successful learning.

You have to have passion for whatever you are learning, you must take responsibility, develop strong habits, and learn to laugh at your mistakes. It’s also necessary to find and build learning communities, to find a way to have fun and make boring things interesting, to fall in love with the culture, and make your life a classroom.

This is not just effective language learning; it is the effective learning of anything.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this article. If you want to know more about our Real Life English dynamic and effective fluency methodology, check out the free and simple mini-course we offer for FREE to our newsletter subscribers.

  • Ana says:

    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 says:

    A shot in the arm!

  • East London boy says:

    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

  • Do agree But I think role of the learner's intelligence factor is more.

  • I know this is an article long time ago. But still want to leave a message.
    I agree that intelligent learner are quite complicate with different factors ;however , this article let me know why I cant be one. Finally ,I just want to say: Thank you very much with this interesting article.

  • Great post, as usual. Keep up with the great work!

  • Thanks a lot… it's mean a lot…

  • Diana Valencia says:

    hello guys! I loved this article, I am going to use with my students who are teenagers that are learning English as a second lenguage. I think they will be inspire after all. thanks

  • Roberto says:

    Incredible explanation! Thank you so much!