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Identifying the Characteristics, Strategies & Techniques of Successful Language Learners

 by Karen Bond, Vancouver, Canada

This questionnaire may be used to help you identify the characteristics, strategies and techniques of a successful language learner in your class.  It is best if you do it in an interview format, to enable you to add questions where appropriate, to individualise it and to gain a deeper insight.  Remember, every learner is different, and what works for one student may not work for another.

The questionnaire is in three sections:

Part One:    Background and previous knowledge

Part Two:    Language learning strategies

Part Three:  Feelings and motivation



The Questionnaire

Adapted from Naiman et al (1978), Reiss (1985) & Wingate (2000).  Please see the references at the end of this paper to obtain complete versions of each of these three questionnaires.



Part I – Background & Previous Knowledge

1)          Name:                         

2)                   Age:

3)                   Birthplace:

4)                   Residence in childhood:

5)                   Residence now:

5)         Sex:

6)          Nationality:

7)         Ethnicity:                      

8)         Social Class:

9)          Education:                                 

10)        Have you ever taken an IQ test?  And if so, what result did you get? 

11)        Present and previous occupations:  

12)       What is your native language?  

13)       Which languages were spoken in your home as a child?

14)       Which languages were spoken in your neighborhood when you were a child?

15)        Which was the first foreign language you learned?   

a.      When did you start and how long did you learn ……?   

b.   Where and under what circumstances did you learn …….?    

c.   When you learned ……, what did you study?  Grammar? Speaking?

d.   Do you remember what kind of text-books you used, if any?    

e.   Did the teacher speak in the foreign language most of the time? 

f.        Did you have to speak a lot yourself or did you mainly read and/or translate?   

g.      Do you remember what kind of homework you had to do?  

h.      Did you have any contact outside the classroom/your home with speakers of that language?   

i.        Did you listen to the radio or watch films or TV in the foreign language?   

j.        What motivated you to learn ……?   

k.      After how long do you think you were fluent (if you became fluent)? 

l.        Could you tell me how well you know this language now or when you were at your best?   

(Repeat for all other languages learned) 

16)        If you had to describe your knowledge of ….. now, which of these statements would be most appropriate?   



Working Knowledge



















17)        Do you consider yourself to be :   

a.      a gifted language learner

b.      an above average language learner

c.      an average language learner

d.      a poor language learner 

18)       Do you have a good memory? 

  19)        What do you remember? 

a.                                          a.       I remember what I see.  I memorize by picturing.  

                                I have problems remembering verbal instructions.

                        b.      I remember words or what I hear.        

                                I memorize by repeating words in my head.

                        c.           I remember an overall impression of what I experience.  

                                I memorize by doing. 

a.   20)        Do you consider yourself to be: 

                        a.      an assertive person

                        b.     an assertive person most of the time

                        c.     neither assertive nor timid

                        d.     timid most of the time 

  21)        Please think of at least five adjectives to describe your personality. 






22)        Do you like to take the language apart and analyze it?  Do you like to figure out the language on your own or would you rather have the teacher tell you the rules?

23)       Do you think that your success at learning the foreign language so successfully is due to the teacher?  Or did it have something to do with the environment?  Or would you say that you developed some special study habits?  Or do you have some particular personal characteristics that helped you in learning?

Part II - Language Learning Strategies 

      1)          Some people say that you cannot make a conscious effort to learn a foreign language.  They hate to study grammar and say you must simply allow the language to sink in gradually.  

Others argue that language learning is a conscious and systematic process.   It is necessary to study hard, practise, and constantly ask for explanations and rules. 

            Which idea do you believe in?       

2)          Some people think that to learn a new language you must completely forget your native language.  Others say you cannot and should not.  To what extent do you find that comparing your native language with the foreign language helps you to learn a new language? 

a.       To what extent do you find translations useful?

b.       Would you prefer to use a bilingual or monolingual dictionary? 

3)          Do you feel that you can actually learn to think in the foreign language?   

a.       If yes, how do you think you might achieve that?

b.       How important do you think it is? 

4)          To what extent did you find that your learning was influenced by your previous language learning experience?   Do you think that knowing another foreign language was an advantage or a disadvantage when learning a new language? 

5)                   When learning a new language, do you learn:   

a.      by listening, talking to others and talking to yourself in your head.   You try things out by talking them through before doing them. 

b.      by seeing.  You need an overall view and purpose.  You are cautious until mentally clear.  You like to see something first, then do it.            

c.      by doing, by manipulating things.  You like `hands on` experience.  You do it first, then talk about it or see it being done. 

6)          Are you good at mimicry?  Can you easily copy different accents? 

7)          Have you developed any language study habits (gimmicks, tricks, ways, techniques) that you find useful in learning a new language?  

a.      in learning the sound system,

e.g. reading aloud to yourself (in front of the mirror), repeating words silently to yourself after the teacher, etc. 

b.      in learning the grammar

e.g. memorizing rules through humorous rhymes, etc., forming hunches about regularities and rules and then applying them etc. 

c.      in learning vocabulary

e.g. by repetition, by finding relations between words, writing down words, memorizing by picturing, guessing from the context, rhyming, making vocabulary lists etc. 

d.      in developing listening comprehension

e.g. by listening to records, to the radio, by vowing to think/listen in the foreign language, by focusing your attention on the task and clearing your mind, by assessing your previous knowledge of the topic, by monitoring yourself (Am I getting this?), by expressing interest, etc. 

e.      in learning to talk

e.g. through contact with native speakers, by insisting on constant correction, by imagining dialogues in your mind,  by talking to yourself, using gestures etc. 

f.        in learning to read

e.g. by reading magazines or books, by pointing while reading, reflecting the story with body movements and feelings while reading, by saying words in your head, etc. 

g.      in learning how to express yourself in written form

e.g. by writing to a pen-pal, by writing and talking at the same time, etc. 

h.      in learning how to spell

e.g. by counting out letters with body movements (like moving your finger), by checking spelling with internal feelings, by spelling words as they sound phonetically, etc. 

What about when trying to remember a new aspect of grammar, like a conjugation, or a complicated tense?  How do you remember it, do you think?

8)        How is your spelling in ……?  Do you ever spell phonetically?  Or did you when you were first learning? 

9)        If you are reading a sentence in the foreign language with several words unfamiliar to you, do you:   

a.      first try to guess the word from the context

b.      first look up some words and try to guess the others

c.      look up all the words you do not know            

10)        When you hear the foreign language and you do not understand several words, do you: 

a.    make do with what you understand and guess the rest

b.    occasionally guess a missing word from the context

c.    concentrate on those words you already know   

11)       When you hear two people speaking in a foreign language, do you: 

a.      pay attention first to the meaning, using clues such as gestures, relationship of speakers, tone of voice

b.      feel satisfied if you understand an occasional word or phrase

c.      hear the conversation passively 

12)       When you hear or read something in the foreign language and you only understand part of it and have to guess the rest, are you:  

a.       fairly correct in your guess

b.       occasionally correct in your guess

c.       rarely correct in your guess              

13)        When someone (like a teacher) speaks in the foreign language, and you do not understand a good part of the message, do you: 

a.       make do with what you have and consider it a challenge to guess the rest

b.      feel uncomfortable, but try to figure it out

c.       become frustrated and give up   

14)        When you are trying to say something in ….. and you suddenly lack the necessary vocabulary, do you: 

a.    use circumlocution, i.e. say “where you buy things” if you don’t know the word for “shop”

b.    skip the word(s) or change the message

c.    stop speaking            

15)       When you have learned some new expressions in a foreign language, do you: 

a.      try to use them in "real life"

b.      practice them while mentally speaking to yourself

c.      practice them only when preparing for a test or an interview 

16)       When you need to learn some new items in a foreign language, do you remember them by: 

a.      associating with another word or expression in your own language

b.    forming an aural (sound) image

c.    writing them down and memorizing them            

17)        If you are saying something in a foreign language and you cannot think of the proper tense, e.g.. you are talking about the past but only remember the present tense of the verb, do you: 

a.    try to make yourself understood by using a word such as “yesterday” and using the present tense of the verb

b.    use the infinitive or present verb hoping the listener will understand

c.    use your native language for the missing words 

18)        If you have an opportunity to practice the foreign language you are studying with a native speaker, do you: 

a.       plunge right in, even though you may appear foolish

b.      only speak the foreign language with the person after you have known him/her for some time

c.      speak only your native language with him/her 

19)        While listening to another learner of the foreign language, do you:      

a.     correct any mistakes

b.     mentally correct the mistakes, but let the teacher or someone else actually do it

c.     listen passively 

20)       Do you often correct native speakers of your own language, either to their face or in your head? 

21)       When you come across a structure in the foreign language that you have not yet covered and the teacher says will be explained later on, do you: 

a.       accept this as part of the language learning process

b.       accept it, but feel uncomfortable about it

c.       get frustrated because you want everything explained

22)       When you try to memorize part of a dialogue, do you:

a.    use rhyming or acronyms

b.    practice by writing the vocabulary and repeating it

c.    repeat and memorize the vocabulary 

23)       When you meet someone who speaks the foreign language, do you: 

a.    start a conversation in the foreign language

b.   use the foreign language only if the other person starts the conversation

c.   keep your knowledge of the foreign language to yourself, and answer in your native tongue     

24)        If you see someone struggling to speak in your own language and you recognize by his/her accent that he/she is a native speaker of English, do you:  

a.    come to his/her aid immediately by addressing him/her in English

b.    wait and see if the person can manage, because you generally don’t address strangers

c.    feel shy and walk away from the situation 

25)       When you are speaking in English, do you:  

a.    try to get the meaning across first without worrying about being correct, and by using gestures, synonyms etc                        

b.    worry about being correct rather than the meaning

c.    say as little as possible 

26)        Which of these activities are you most likely to do when studying a foreign language?  

1.      Organizing material; i.e. vocabulary, grammar, etc., and writing it on index cards.

2.      Recording yourself and listening to the cassette.

3.      Listening closely in class and mentally answering questions whether you are called on or not.

4.      Guessing, when listening or reading the foreign language using contextual and structural clues.

5.      Writing the material many times.

6.      Applying new material mentally (silently speaking to yourself).

7.      Singing the new material.

8.      Practicing what you have learned with a friend or native speaker.

9.      Having a friend test you on the material.

10.  Looking for opportunities to use the language.

11.  Remembering by making mental associations in English.

12.  Remembering by making up rhymes.

13.  Remembering by using acronyms.

14.  Listening to other learners of the language and mentally correcting their errors.

15.  Making up your own examples and testing yourself.

16.  Summarizing each chapter in the textbook.

17.  Translating everything into English.

18.  Reading over notes taken in class after each lesson.

19.  Other (please explain).

PART III - Feelings and Motivation 

The following questions concern your feelings about your language learning experience.

1)                   Many language learners feel very negative about their learning experiences.  They say they feel discouraged, frustrated, impatient, or confused by the difficulties of learning a language. 

Have you ever experienced any of these feelings?  Can you explain? 

2)          Others say they feel shy or embarrassed expressing themselves in the foreign language.   

Have you ever felt this way?    Can you explain?

            4)                      If you have experienced some of these feelings, what did you do to overcome them?            

3)         When you are learning a language, are you usually:   

a.      highly motivated, and do everything possible to learn the language.

b.      quite motivated, and try to do what you can to learn the language, but it is not your priority.

c.      not very motivated, because you are too busy or tired to concentrate on it.  You are learning out of necessity.

d.      not very motivated, because you find learning languages boring. 

6)                   Do you give yourself encouragement, by saying things to yourself like: “I’m doing okay” or “I’m right, I know it.”

Do you have any other comments about your language learning experiences that you would like to tell me?


Naiman, N., M. Frohlich, A. Todesco (1978) The Good Language Learner.  Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. 

Reiss, M. (1985), ‘The Good Language Learner: Another Look’. The Canadian Modern Language Review 41/3, pp512-523.

Wingate, J. (2000),  ‘Learning Preferences’.  English Teaching Professional , 17, pp31-32           

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