MORE effective learners – how can we imitate them?

This post is primarily dedicated to and aimed at students who I hope after reading it can reflect on and improve the way they learn languages, in order to become more effective and successful language students. Having said that, it’s important that we as teachers know what it means to be a good language learner, so that we can better advise our students. So I hope that both teachers and learners will find something interesting and practical in this post.

Writing about the characteristics of a good learner has been on my mind for a while, and ever more so since Teaching English – British Council published this poster: “Your languages 5-a-day”. The trigger was Marisa Constantinides’ post, which I’ve read recently. And ever since I started teaching, the question of how to learn a language more quickly and effectively has probably been the one I’ve been asked most often by my students.

Firstly, it is common knowledge that learners are different. And so the learning habits and preferences of our students will differ too. Some are more visual, whereas others prefer to hear things. Some dread making mistakes, while others don’t really care.

Students also come from different backgrounds, have different interests and hobbies. They also learn at a different pace. Some flying through the levels, others struggling to grasp even the most basic concepts.
This is all true, and good teachers always do their best to accommodate for all those differences, leaving nobody behind.

However, the question is: why are some learners better and faster than others?

Many of my students hide behind the evasive: “Teacher, I’m just not good at languages…” Of course, innate talent might be playing a role, but I think this response is all too often just a lame and lazy excuse (please excuse me if I’m being too harsh here), or a by-product of years of unsuccessful learning (perhaps caused by poor teaching, bad habits, or both) – read more about this and other language learning myths here. I always tell my students that if I’ve managed to learn a foreign language, then you can do it too. You might achieve it more quickly or more slowly, but you can, even if you think you don’t have a flare for languages.

So since there are successful language learners, what we can do is to analyse what they do to make learning easier, and then imitate those patterns as closely as possible, “and cultivate [them] in all our students” (Harmer 2004: 41). Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Because it really is.

Before you read on about the characteristics of good language learners, I suggest you do this quiz first (originally designed by Marissa Constantinides, put in an interactive form by David Mainwood), which analyses how good a language learner you really are. Once you’ve done it, you can scroll down to the bottom of the page for the results.

So what are these magical characteristics that we want to imitate?

Different authors have suggested an ever growing number of them, mostly averaging around a dozen. For example, Marissa Constantinides compiled a very comprehensive list of 17, which you can read more about here, and which I think is really informative, as it puts together information found in various reference books.

My approach has been slightly different, though. Since I want my students to benefit from the post too, I’ve tried to simplify the list, and group all the features into 5 broader character traits, which will hopefully be easier to remember and to put into practise. So if you’d like to learn languages MORE effectively, you should be MORE:

Motivated:

  • find a language area or topic you WANT to learn (e.g. food)
  • look for exercises and tasks which YOU find motivating
  • think WHY you’re learning and HOW you can BENEFIT from it in the future (make it specific and personal)

Opportunistic:

  • jump at every OPPORTUNITY you have to practise the language you’re learning outside the class
  • find somebody for a language EXCHANGE (this website is a good start)
  • immediately try to USE the new language (e.g. a word, a phrase, new grammar) in conversation or in writing

Reflective:

  • reflect on WHAT you’ve learned and what problems you’ve had (e.g. you can start a learning log)
  • pay attention to your MISTAKES – don’t dread them; but rather LEARN from them
  • pay attention to your classmates’ and your teachers’ language and try to NOTICE positive language patterns which you can IMITATE
  • KNOW your strengths and weaknesses – you can always ask your teacher to help you identify them

Experimental:

  • take language RISKS and avoid your comfort zone- when you learn a new phrase, try to use it as soon as you get the chance, and ask for feedback
  • experiment with and look for NEW WAYS of saying the same thing (e.g. synonyms) and expand your vocabulary
  • TRY OUT different exercises and learning strategies and identify the one which works best for you

For all those who are more visual, Bren Brennan has prepared a great inforgraphic which nicely summarises the MORE characteristics mentioned here, as well as adds a few others, such as the need to record vocabulary. Thoroughly recommended!

Some very good tips on learning English grammar from English guider.

Quiz results:

If you scored 70% or more of a answers than you are indeed a good language learner. If you have scored 90% or more, then you’re a language learning machine! If you scored less than 70%, don’t worry! You’re like the majority of language students. Read about the MORE Characteristics above to learn what you can do to become a better language learner.
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14 thoughts on “MORE effective learners – how can we imitate them?

  1. Beneficial article, but two exessively different options did not make it easy to choose one of them is some questions of the quiz.

    Thank you.

  2. Hi Marek,
    Nice article. Something that I am very interested in. I said basically the same ideas in my infographic (link below), apart from your point about reflection. But I strongly believe that a student must learn the language and it can not be taught… if that makes sense coming from an English teacher.
    The characteristics of the perfect language learner shown in my image have to be upheld if a student is serious about learning any language. Those that can maintain the characteristics that you and I have outlined will always make the quickest and most effective progress, no matter what type of learner they are, or if they believe that they have/don't have a natural affinity for languages.
    It's kind of stupid for someone to say that they are bad at languages – everyone learnt their own mother-tongue, didn't they? Everyone has already proven that they can learn a language. I'm afraid that it takes a lot of work.
    If my students ever complain about “I can't say that word, it's too difficult”, I remind them about babies first year of life where they are struggling to form/copy sounds. They are exercising their speech muscles. It's the same for adults – you've got to make you tongue actually form words and sentences in English (in my classes anyway – I'm an English teacher).

    The same goes for any area of English learning – a baby really wants to communicate and be understood. It has high motivation. That's what adult learners need to replicate. If they do not have real motivation or are not highly aware of the motivation leading to the end result, then they are basically wasting their money and time being in a language class. Motivation = results! 🙂

    http://www.stgeorges.co.uk/blog/free-english-lessons-in-london-perfect-student-competition/

  3. Hi Bren,
    Thanks for your comment and the infographic! I hope you don't mind, but I've added it to the post with a link to your website so people can access it 🙂
    I do agree that the great part of the work lies on the student's part. However, the teacher's role is crucial, especially for those learners who are studying a foreign language for the first time ever. They need to be guided and taught HOW to study.
    I'm not sure I agree with your analogy between L2 and L1 learning. The crucial difference is that the latter is unconscious and comes to us naturally. Whereas the former, well, it's a different kettle of fish all together. For example, ways to transfer how we learn L1 into foreign language teaching have had little success (e.g. Audiolingual Method) What do you think?
    I do agree, though, that the learners need to be made aware of the effort THEY have to make in order to learn a foreign language. And the motivation is crucial. Our role here I guess is to channel this motivation in an appropriate direction by guiding the students to useful materials and advising on the best ways to learn a language.

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