What makes a language learner an effective acquirer of a foreign language? What methods and approaches do they use that enables them to become fluent more quickly than the average language learner? What can we learn from their techniques that we can pass on to other language learners?
They take and create opportunities to use the language
Many language learners avoid using the language in the early stages for fear of a breakdown in communication. The good language learner, on the other hand, uses the language at every available opportunity. They are forever seeking out opportunities both to use and to hear the language, e.g. chatting with storekeepers (rather than just purchasing the goods they have gone there to buy); asking people at the bus stop how to get to where they want to go (even though they know this already!) instead of just getting on the bus; asking someone in the street to explain some unusual object or event (rather than just passing it by); asking someone on the bus or train to explain something in their Chinese textbook, etc. All the while, therefore, they are taking and creating opportunities to use the language.
They practice what they have just acquired
Many language learners practice in class, but few practice enough outside the classroom. The good language learner practices what they have just learnt as soon as possible. For example, while on bus or bicycle, they are going through in their mind what they have recently learnt in class by holding an imaginary conversation with someone. Then straight after class, or in the evening, they visit their sympathetic listeners (whether they be neighbors, street vendors, store assistants, etc.) telling them what they have just learnt that day.
They are willing to try anything in order to get their message across
Many language students, if they don’t know the correct word or phrase for what they wish to communicate, simply avoid the subject completely or use English. The good language learner, possessing such a strong desire to communicate, is willing to try out different ways in order to get their message across. For instance, if they don’t know the word for ‘language school’, they might say (in Chinese), “the place where I learn Chinese”. They even resort to acting if necessary! They are willing to try almost anything, even to appear foolish if necessary, in order to communicate.
They are willing to live with uncertainty
The average language learner, when hearing something which they don’t understand, often feels embarrassed and may try to change to another topic of conversation. The good language learner doesn’t give up so easily. They are able to overcome their initial feelings of uneasiness, and in fact, may even enjoy it – seeing it as a game to be played! They hazard a guess as to what the meaning might be, trying out their hunches by asking suitable questions which they hope will shed light on the matter. The good language learner uses all the clues which the context of the conversation offers them. And they are content to rest with a general conclusion as to what the meaning might be, knowing that everything will usually clarify itself later.
They monitor their own speech as well as the speech of others
Many language students are so bound up with getting their message across or trying to understand what the other person is trying to say that they learn little from the communication process. The good language learner, however, is firstly monitoring their own speech – listening to themselves speak and noting how their speech is being received by their listeners (e.g. facial expressions, etc.). To them, such feedback is very important. Then, secondly, they are monitoring the other person’s speech – noting how they use words and phrases, as well as grammar structures.
They are constantly looking for patterns in the language
Many language learners absorb only what they are taught in class about the language; if the teacher or their textbook hasn’t yet covered that point, they shut their minds to it. The good language learner is constantly analyzing, categorizing and synthesizing their new language. They know that learning a new language is a very complex matter – like putting together the pieces of a huge jigsaw puzzle. They absorb what they are taught in class, but they are also actively involved in discovering where new pieces fit in to the overall picture. And so they are constantly trying to find schemes for classifying the information they have gathered.
They are a systematic organizer
The poor language learner often lacks a planned and systematic approach to acquiring the language, and hence fails to reach a reasonable standard of performance. The good language learner, however, recognizing the magnitude of the task, sets down a plan of campaign, dividing their study program into attainable goals, and organizing regular times for study. Then they systematically record what they learn about the language – whether pronunciation, grammar or vocabulary – so that it is readily available for reference.
They are willing to experiment with different learning methods
The poor language learner, upon discovering that the way they were taught to learn the language has proven ineffective, complains and gives up. The good language learner tries out different approaches to acquiring the language, chooses those that work for them and discards the rest. They also note how other people learnt the language, trying out their methods to see if they are suitable for them.
They use everything around them to help them learn the language
Whether it is teachers at language school, children on the street, stall holders at times in the day when customers are few, they realize that local people are normally very willing to help the enthusiastic and humble foreigner learn their language!
They know themselves (personality + preferred learning style)
Their strengths: using them to their advantage, e.g. if strongly visual, they read a lot.
Their weaknesses: working on strengthening them, e.g. if they have poor memory, they try using the Vocabulary Box (see the article Memorizing Vocabulary), or finding an alternative solution, e.g. if they are too nervous about going outside to practice the language, they invite friendly local people to come to their home for a chat.
They maintain a high level of motivation
– by spending much time with those who charge their ‘motivational batteries’, whether it’s good language teachers, accepting local people, or other motivated language learners.
They make errors work
The poor language learner is so afraid of making mistakes that they say nothing until they are sure that they can say it absolutely correctly – and that day never arrives! The good language learner knows differently. They recognize that errors are a part of the learning process itself and looks upon them as a potential source of information, as well as a way of improving their language skills. They not only note their errors, but also try to understand why they made them and how to avoid making them again in the future.
They are a friendly initiator of conversation
For many language students, it must be the other person who initiates a conversation before communication takes place. The good language learner knows that it is best if they start the ball rolling by initiating the conversation with a question or comment. And by doing it in a warm and friendly tone of voice, they find that the other person is usually very happy to chat with them.
People often say, “Extroverts get the language much more easily than introverts.” This is only partly true. Extroverts do have the advantage of being less shy than introverts, but they often lack the discipline and determination that learning a language requires. The person who succeeds is the restless searcher after clues – one whose agile mind is constantly looking for the thousands of pieces in the jigsaw that will eventually fit together to complete the puzzle. They understand how to use the people all around them to help reach their goal of fluency in Chinese and hence successfully integrate into the local community.
(This article is adapted from What the Good Language Learner Can Teach Us by Rubin & Thompson)
What the Good Language Learner Can Teach Us: pdf file