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Profile of a Successful Language Learner

by Karen Bond, Vancouver, Canada
http://www3.telus.net/linguisticsissues/successful.html


This article is not about me. I wish it were, but my experiences of learning foreign languages have been pretty dismal.  I scraped through ‘O’ level French and German at school, and only managed to acquire an intermediate level of Portuguese, after spending three years working in Brazil.  In sharp contrast, my American friend, Sarah, has accumulated languages throughout her life, and began learning Portuguese in her late twenties, quickly becoming fluent.  This made me ask the question “What made her experiences so successful, and why do I find learning languages so difficult?”.   I decided to try to find out, and then see if what I learnt could be applied to the classroom.

I wrote an extensive questionnaire for Sarah to discover her background, her previous learning experiences, and the strategies that she uses when learning a foreign language. Once she returned it to me, I asked numerous follow-up questions to gain a deeper insight into her experiences. 

These are the factors which I believe have aided in her learning experiences:

i)         Age

Sarah did not know any Portuguese until her late twenties, when she went to live in Brazil. Her experience then could challenge the critical hypothesis theory which suggests that there is a particular time around puberty when a learner is most likely to have success in language learning. Clearly, other factors must be considered when attempting to understand how an adult learner has managed to acquire such a high level of English, and it should not be assumed therefore that a learner cannot begin to learn a language in adulthood, and attain proficiency.

ii)        Exposure to foreign languages in infancy

When Sarah was a baby, her parents took her to Ethiopia for a year, and this is where she was first exposed to a foreign language – Amharic. Despite being so young, she learnt to baby-talk in both English and Amharic simultaneously, which happened, according to Werker (1995), because infants are born as “universal receivers” of all language sounds.  Werker argues that this ability slowly disappears in that first year, but Ratey (2001) claims that it remains for three years. After returning to the States, Sarah was enrolled in an alternative kindergarten, where she was taught some words and phrases in French, German and Spanish.  These early childhood experiences may have aided Sarah in acquiring another foreign language so successfully in later life. 

It could also be suggested that the acquisition of several foreign languages at a young age may have improved her intellectual development, by, for example, promoting a solid mastery of her first language, and also by making her aware of the learning process (Holman, 1998).  

iii)       Immersion

In addition to learning French at school, twice a year Sarah would spend extended periods in Montreal, and in Grade 8 spent a full year there. She studied at a school where most of her lessons were in English, but she would also have History and Geography lessons entirely in French, in addition to her regular French class.

Two important goals of this kind of partial immersion programme are:

       to develop proficiency in the foreign language

       to develop empathy for the second language culture

This second goal is important to note, as it is one of the strategies of successful language learners put forward by Stern (1975).

Immersion is something Sarah clearly sought out as a tool for acquiring a foreign language.   She spent a month in France when she was a teenager, and participated in an intensive Spanish programme in Guatemala in her early twenties. She also conducted anthropological field-work there, and eventually became fluent in Spanish, so much so that many native-speakers of Spanish believed that she had a Latin American background. As for Portuguese, she did not know a word before she went to Brazil, although her Spanish background may have aided her in picking up the language so quickly.  She fully immersed herself in the language once she arrived, rarely communicating with anyone in English, other than her husband, and the occasional native-speaker of English.

However, she did not neglect her mother-tongue, and used it as a tool for understanding Portuguese at a deeper level, by drawing grammatical parallels, and for saving time, until she was able to use monolingual dictionaries and, eventually, begin to think in the L2.

iv)        Intelligence

Sarah is, without a doubt, a highly intelligent person. She recalls taking an intelligence quotient test when she was ten, and being told that with that result she would be able to accomplish anything that she desired.   She holds both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree, and is due to complete her PhD in Anthropology shortly.  As suggested earlier, her high intellectual ability may be partly due to her early foreign language learning experiences.  This ability is likely to help her in continually developing her language skills. 

v)         Personality

Sarah displays many of the characteristics of a successful language learner described by researchers.  She is self-confident, and says that she learns languages with ease.  She is assertive most of the time, and can be either spontaneous or cautious, depending on the situation. She describes herself as strong-willed, interested, opinionated, passionate, intellectual, creative, stubborn and energized. She is out-going and talkative, and interested in foreign cultures. One important factor, which Sarah mentions repeatedly, is her ego permeability (Guiora, 1972) which she calls her “flexible ego”. This refers to her lack of fear of using a second language incorrectly: 

“I think what I mean by that is the ability to lose yourself in another language, or throw yourself fully into it.  And you cannot be afraid of making mistakes or even being foolish. 

vi)        Attitude and motivation

Sarah admits to feelings of frustration when she reaches a plateau in language learning.  She also becomes demotivated when she realizes that her Portuguese will never reach the level of her English.  She says:

“I will never have the command of the language that I do in English, to be able to shift levels, choose exactly the right word with the subtle differences intended, write in my own voice with all of the nuances.”

She dislikes people correcting her on things that she already knows, but appreciates it when it is something that she does not know. She is hard on herself, especially when she repeats a mistake, which is in contrast to popular research which suggests that the good language learner uses positive self-talk to combat anxiety (Gardner & Smythe, 1981).

It is natural to feel frustrated or anxious at times, but it is how one deals with such feelings that can affect motivation.  Sarah understands that it is impossible to be perfect all the time, and errors are inevitable.  She explains that, with her increased ego permeability, low-inhibition and curiosity, she is able to overcome these feelings.  In fact, this frustration may also be an advantage to her, as it seems to spur her on to continue learning.  She says:

“I am never satisfied, never rest on my laurels, and continue to learn until today…..you can never be satisfied with what you've learned.”

Sarah is, overall, a well-motivated and self-initiating learner, taking responsibility for her learning, and creating her own learning opportunities. 

When she was learning Portuguese, she lived in Brazil, so was surrounded by the language at all times. She needed to learn it for her work, and to relate to the people around her, so sought out every possibility to practise.  When she felt the need to improve her writing, she found a private tutor.   She watched films and Brazilian soap operas, listened to the radio, and read. She would have liked to undertake more formal study, but did not have the time, finances or determination.     

She is clearly a learner with a strong need for achievement, and with high aspirations, and she displays most of the motivational characteristics that Gardner & Smythe (1981) consider to be important to learn a language well: willing to communicate, whatever the circumstances; empathic with the target culture and people; and having a tolerant and outgoing attitude towards the L2. She does not, however, use positive self-talk to combat anxiety.

vii)        Relationship between Languages

If the L1 and the L2 have similar roots, then the L2 will be easier to learn.  This may be one reason why Sarah has found learning languages easy, as there is a linguistic link between English, Spanish, Portuguese and French.  We do not know, however, how she would perform if she were to learn a language distant from English, like Mandarin. 

viii)       Sensory Style

Sarah has taken a neuro-linguistic programming course, and is therefore aware of her dominant sensory style, which is visual when learning in general, but both visual and aural when learning a language. She sometimes needs to see words written down before she can remember them.  She often memorises by picturing, and has problems remembering verbal instructions. Other times she will hear a word, and remember it by giving it a phonetic spelling. 

ix)        Strategies

Sarah likes to emphasise that she does not have a systematic way of learning a language.  She describes it as an “organic” experience, and does not use particular strategies regularly.  This does not mean, however, that she does not use any learning strategies, and a whole host of them were mentioned:

       Looks for patterns in a language 

Sarah believes some aspects of the language need to be systematically learnt, and others can just be absorbed naturally, with the goal of eventually thinking in the language.  What is important to her is to not worry about the grammar too much, and to concentrate on communicating.  Sarah never formally learnt the grammar of Portuguese, but instead drew upon her linguistic knowledge of previously learnt languages, and also from a course in linguistics.   She admits to detesting grammar, and is not interested in learning the rules.  She does, however, look for patterns in the language (Rubin, 1975).  This is not a formal strategy that she employs, but is something that may occur when she is actually using the language. She may stop in mid-sentence, for instance, and ask herself whether or not she is using the correct word or tense.  

       Uses mnemonic techniques 

Sarah says that she has a poor memory, but also admits that she easily absorbs new vocabulary. If she cannot remember a word, she uses mnemonic techniques, for example, thinking of cognates or false-cognates, making associations that only make sense to her, thinking of words that sound alike or words that remind her of something, and connecting words with pictures in her head. She may also form aural images, or write the words down and memorise that way.  She does not use any mnemonic devices for grammar.  She will use whatever she intuits to be correct, even if it is not so, not worrying about making errors.  She will stop mid-sentence, and ask the native speaker what the correct form is. 

       Guesses 

The successful language learner is a good guesser (Rubin, 1975), and this is clearly an important part of the learning process for Sarah. If she reads or listens to something in Portuguese, and comes across a word that she is not familiar with, she will hazard a guess, using contextual or structural clues, or by looking for cognates. Only if the word is used repeatedly, and she still has no idea, will she resort to using a dictionary.  If someone is speaking to her in the L2, and she is having difficulty in understanding a good part of it, she will often try to guess, by paying attention to the meaning, using clues such as gestures, the relationship of the speaker, and listening to the tone of voice. If the language is a Romance one, then she is usually right.      

       Practises 

Sarah seeks out opportunities to use the language. She has Portuguese-speaking friends and colleagues with whom she only ever speaks in that language.  She reads in Portuguese, translates papers, and watched Brazilian television when she was in the country. 

       Talks to herself 

Sarah practises the language, preparing herself for future communication, by talking to herself and carrying on imaginary dialogues. 

       Communicates in whichever way possible 

Sarah concentrates more on fluency than accuracy, and will use a variety of techniques to get her meaning across, like circumlocution, asking for help, gestures and synonyms. 

       Has a low inhibition 

When using a foreign language, Sarah’s first priority is to get the meaning across, not worrying about making mistakes or appearing foolish. Throughout the study, she emphasized the importance of talking as much as possible.  

       Accepts ambiguity in the foreign language 

Sarah understands that she will often come across structures that do not make sense to her, and accepts that as part of the learning process. However, that does not stop her from questioning, and searching for meaning. 

       Constantly searches for meaning 

Sarah is constantly analysing the language, and thus constantly learning.  This is not done in a systematic way, but is what Sarah refers to as a more “organic” experience. 

       Analyses speech 

She will sometimes analyse what she and others have said in the L2, and also what English speakers say in their native language. She notices mistakes, but does not let them affect the conversation, and rarely corrects other people.   

       Repeats 

Sarah repeats words to herself after a native speaker has said them, and also sometimes repeats them out loud. 

       Monitors herself 

Sarah will take pauses to reflect on whether she has understood and learnt the item well. 

       Labels objects 

When Sarah first began learning Portuguese, she used a technique which she had seen in “The Color Purple” – labeling everything in the house. She explains: 

“I still remember the word for “hanger” (cabide) because I can see the little strip of green paper with my niece’s handwriting taped to a hanger”. 

x)       Other Factors 

       Mimicry 

Sarah can easily copy different accents, both in English and in Portuguese.  She is often mistaken for a native speaker of Portuguese. Moulton (1966) suggests that most people have the ability to mimic foreign sounds, but only those with a low inhibition, like Sarah, will actually get results.   

       Musical Ability 

Sarah has an ear for music, and can sing well, and she suggests that this may account for her minimal foreign accent in all of the languages she has learnt. Intuition tells us that a person who has a good musical ability may have an advantage in language learning, but it is not a factor mentioned in the popular literature on this subject.  In fact, there is no evidence to suggest a correlation between musical ability and foreign language ability (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2002).


Conclusion

It is not only impossible to discover every reason why Sarah is such a successful language learner, but also to be sure of which traits or strategies have actually helped her.  Below are some of the factors which are likely to contribute to her success as a language learner, but any one of them on their own may be negligible:

           General 

       She had language-learning experiences at a very young age.

       She has experienced periods of immersion.

       She is female.

       She is from a middle-class background.

       She is intelligent.

       She has a proven high aptitude for languages that share common roots with English.

       Her own culture is not too distant from the target-language culture.

       She is good at mimicry. 

            Personality 

       She has low inhibition.

       She is self-confident, assertive, alternately spontaneous and cautious, strong-willed, interested, opinionated, passionate, intellectual, creative, stubborn, energized, out-going and talkative. 

            Motivation 

       She is a motivated learner.

       She does not generally get anxious when learning a language.

       She seeks out opportunities to practise. 

            Strategies 

       She is empathic with the target language culture.

       She uses her mother-tongue as a tool for learning a foreign language.

       She has a mostly visual style of learning.

       She looks for patterns in the language.

       She draws grammatical parallels between the L1 and L2.

       She uses mnemonic techniques.

       She is a good and willing guesser.

       She monitors her learning.

       She thinks in the L2.

       She talks to herself in the L2.

       She repeats words in her head and out loud. 

       She uses a variety of techniques to get her message across, like circumlocution, etc.

       She tolerates ambiguity in the language.

       She analyses the language.

       She analyses what she and other speakers say.

       She labels objects to help her remember them.

       She is constantly searching for meaning. 

It is not possible to say to what extent these potential reasons have contributed to her success, or which ones are more important that the others.  These results do, however, generally confirm the characteristics of a successful language learner that have been described in literature.  However, Sarah is not a systematic organizer or learner, and likes to describe her learning experiences as “organic”.  In addition, she learnt Portuguese in adulthood, contradicting the now well-criticized critical hypothesis theory, demonstrating that all language learners are different, and that age is only one possible factor of many.  It follows then that it cannot be assumed that these conclusions, or those of other researchers, are valid across all learners.


Implications & Recommendations

One must be cautious in one’s claims of effective learning characteristics and techniques.  Learning a language well depends on so many different factors, and there is considerable variation among learners.  Some learners may be more successful due to factors out of their control, like gender, intelligence, age, etc.  But, to some degree, they do have control over what strategies they employ, although we still do not really know to what extent this has a positive impact. Also we do not really know yet if successful learners use certain strategies because they are successful learners (i.e. because they can), or as a result of using the strategies. 

Successful language learners appear to use a wider range of strategies in a larger number of situations than weaker learners (Oxford & Crookall, 1989). Some learners may not be aware of which strategies they use or which strategies are available to them.  The teacher can therefore help these learners to recognize the power of using strategies by integrating learner-strategy training into the regular lesson, teaching them how to evaluate each strategy, and how and why to use them. It is important though that the individual language tasks, and the characteristics of each learner, are taken into account when doing such training.  Some learners may be resistant to change, and the teacher will need to be creative to find ways to disguise the new strategies as old ones. 

The teacher will also need to conduct surveys in the classroom to discover which strategies are already being used. 

Drawing together the strategies used by Sarah, and those identified in the literature, here are some suggestions for the teacher in improving her/his students’ chances of success in language learning:

       Design exercises to get students to work out the rules, and to look for patterns.

       Teach skimming techniques to encourage contextual guessing.

       Give the students a reason to use the language now, for example, by finding them pen-pals, or setting up “phone buddies”. This is a program in which students are put in contact with volunteer native speakers, who they chat with on the phone for twenty minutes each week (Denesyk, 2001).

       Label every object in the classroom, and ask the students to do it at home too, to help with memorization.

       Consider drawing comparisons between the learner’s L1 and English, to stimulate analysis.

       Play `Charades`, to encourage gesturing and facial expressions.

       Explain mnemonic techniques, and then play memory games to practise, such as asking them to study a number of objects, and then taking them away.

       To promote self and peer analysis, in groups of three, ask two students to take part in an activity, like a role-play, and the third student should play “the teacher”.  “The teacher” must make a note of any errors that she or he hears, and then give feedback at the end of the activity.  This may not work so well with shy students.

       Put shy students together, to help them feel less intimidated and lower inhibition.

       Before starting an activity, do a brainstorm, to discover what the students already know about the topic.  This encourages them to draw from other resources.

       Try doing a drill when teaching new vocabulary, to encourage students to repeat the words, which is good for memorising.  A silent drill could be undertaken, where the teacher says the item, and the student repeats it in his/her head.

       Ask beginner students to make vocabulary lists – another well-known memorization technique.

       Ask learners to write language-learning diaries, to help them monitor their own progress, and to take responsibility for their learning. 

These are just a sample of ideas, and more activities have been suggested by, for instance, Oxford (1990).  What is important is that the students find the approaches best suited to them. 

Whether these suggestions will garner success is unknown, and there is little evidence to support it (Ellis, 1994).  It is therefore recommended that action research be carried out in the first instance, to evaluate these suggestions. 


References

Denesyk, B. (2001), Initiating Referential Speech – Sociograms and Group Dynamics. Workshop at BC TEAL Mini-Conference, November 2001

Ellis, R. (1994), The Study of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp529-560.

Gardner, R.C. & P.C. Smythe (1981), ‘On the development of the Attitude/Motivation Test Battery’.  Canadian Modern Language Review, 37, pp510-25.  In Gardner & MacIntyre (1993:2)

Guiora, A. (1972), ‘Construct Validity and Transpositional Research: Toward an Empirical Study of Psychoanalytic Concept’. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 13, p139-150. In Hudson (2000). 

Holman, J. (1998), Learning a Language: Language Learning Among Children. Better Homes and Gardens, January 1998

Moulton, W. (1966), A Linguistic Guide to Language Learning.   New York: Modern Language Association

Oxford, R. (1990), Language Learning Strategies: What Every Teacher Should Know. New York: Newbury House.

Oxford, R. & D. Crookall (1989), ‘Research on Language Learning Strategies: Methods, Findings and Instructional Issues’. The Modern Language Journal, 73/4.

Ratey, J. (2001), A User’s Guide to the Brain: Perception, Attention and the Four Theaters of the Brain (Age of Unreason). New York: Pantheon Books 

Rubin, J. (1975), ‘What the "Good Language Learner" Can Teach Us’. TESOL Quarterly 9/1.

Stern, H.H. (1975), ‘What can we learn from the good language learner?’.  Canadian Modern Language Review, 31 pp304-318.

Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2002), The Multilingual Mind.  Bergin & Harvey: Connecticut.  In publication.

Werker, J. (1995),Exploring Developmental Changes in Cross-language Speech Perception’. In Gleitman & Liberman (eds) (1995).


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