Languages

3 Qualities of Exceptional Language Learners

Although there is no single language learning method that works for everyone, what is universal is the mindset that you approach the process with and the qualities that you seek to cultivate in yourself. In this post I explore the fundamental principles needed to build the methods that work best for you.
Nasos Papadopoulos

Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a single best way to learn a language?

If we could just follow the steps of this universal method, knowing we were on our way to achieving our goals the process would seem so much easier.

Unfortunately, as with most things in life, there are no magic bullets in language learning. The right method for you will depend on a number of factors including the language you’re learning, your specific goals, the time you have available and your own learning preferences.

However what is universal is the mindset that you approach the language learning process with and the qualities that you look to cultivate in yourself. If you have a grasp of these fundamental principles, everything else will follow.

What I’ve found as I’ve learned more languages myself is that with practice you can actually start to develop the ability to construct your own methods as you go along, rather than relying on others to suggest methods.

While I am interested in what other experts in the field are doing, I spend less time exploring their methods because I’ve developed a greater awareness of what works for me.

I’ve also interviewed several language learning experts for the MetaLearn podcast, including Anthony MetivierOlly Richards and Alex Rawlings and while all of them are motivated by other successful polyglots, they've also developed a deep understanding of the methods that work for them as individuals.

However, all of them share certain fundamental qualities that allow them to make the type of progress that most would consider superhuman.


1) Patience

Patience is a fundamental quality of all successful language learners but it’s not one that comes easily to many of us.

As children we acquire language in the best circumstances but we still need five years to reach the level required by primary school.

But as adults, even though we’re able to reach a high level of proficiency in a fraction of that time we become so impatient when we don’t make fast progress that we start to lose interest and give up.

Where would we be if a 3 year old lost her patience for not being able to roll her r’s and dropped out of her native language course?

Patience is essential to successful language learning just as it is to successful fishing. As language learners, when we first plunge our net into the sea of words and pull it out, we may not retain all that much. The wheels of our mind may turn slowly, unfamiliar with new sounds and patterns we’re being exposed to.

But the more we cast the net, the more the net of memory starts to emerge from the deep water. We start to notice the rules that link the words into sentences and they begin to lift each other into our minds, just as the strands of a net do with the catch.

Without patience, we won’t be able to apply the diligence and self discipline needed to navigate the ups and downs of the language learning process and I’m yet to meet a successful learner that hasn’t noted its fundamental importance in their own progress.


2) Playfulness

Having fun with is one of the greatest learning hacks I’ve come across. It’s a mindset, an approach and a way of being that can transform our learning experience from an inconvenient chore into a game that we play.

Kató Lomb, a Hungarian interpreter, translator and one of the greatest polyglots in recent history was known for her playful approach to language learning and consistently attributed her success to the fact she never saw learning as work.

Gamifying language learning is one way of doing this that has become increasingly popular. Research in cognitive science has shown that errors are a crucial part of learning and that strategies that are likely to result in errors, like generation - the process of trying to find a solution to a problem before you know the answer - produce stronger learning and retention than more passive methods.


There are ways that you build these concepts into your own learning through the use of gamified learning apps like DuoLingo and Memrise, as well as countless habit tracking apps that allow you to measure your progress on learning goals.

While these are useful tools, what’s more important is to bring a playful mindset to the language learning process.

A great way of doing this is drawing distinctions, which has been a fundamental part of making language learning fun for me. This simply involves noticing things that are interesting to us and sorting through various possible solutions to the problems we face, trying different ones and observing the results.

The possibilities for applying this mindset to language learning are limitless. You can notice the differences in the way stress is placed on words, the pace with at the language is spoken and the gestures that natives use when communicating, let alone the different sounds and sentence structures that form its backbone.


3) Awareness

If there is no universal methods that works for everyone in every context, then your aim must be to find out what works for you through trial and error, rather than exclusively doing what other people tell you will work.

This doesn’t mean ignoring feedback from people who have experience in learning the language that you want to master but it does mean cultivating your awareness and becoming mindful about your own learning.

This idea is discussed at length by Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer, whose concept of mindful learning is characterised by a fluid approach based on awareness of the learning experience at a personal level.

By going above our learning at a meta cognitive level and analysing it from a bird’s eye view, we can assess which strategies are working and which are not and make any necessary changes.

We can adapt to new information and accept new perspectives, integrating them into our own mental models without having to radically change our approach if we don’t want to.

When it comes to language learning, this means reflecting regularly on what we’ve learned and the progress we’re making in order to make sense of what’s working well and what needs more work.

It can also definitely help to join communities of other language learners in and assess your competence through interactions with your peers – at a Spanish language exchange you could see how well you’re able to hold a conversation with the same native speaker as the weeks progress.

Each week, rate your fluency with a score from 1 to 10 or even ask the other person to rate you. While excessive self-comparison can be harmful, using it sparingly is extremely useful in the right context.

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