11 Unmistakable Characteristics Of A Damn Good Language Learner

Good language learners

Note: I’ve got some big announcements coming soon which I’ll only be sharing initially with mailing subscribers. If you’re interested then select the language you’re learning, enter your email and click ‘Join’ above (most previous sign-ups need to be done again unfortunately).

Thanks! :)


What makes a person a damn good language learner?

Why do they seem to do really well at picking up foreign languages while other people don’t?

Here you’ll find 11 unmistakable characteristics that define a damn good language learner and which determine the success or failure of any language learning endeavor.

Just as there are certain characteristics of people who succeed in business and other areas of life, you can spot a pattern when you look at successful language learners as well.

Nobody is born better at languages.

The following characteristics of damn good language learners are simply patterns of attitude and behavior that anyone can learn to do and put into practice.


1. He knows he doesn’t look like a fool when he tries and even if he does he doesn’t care

A damn good language learner first of all isn’t afraid to take risks and look stupid.

One of the biggest challenges for people wanting to learn another language is the fear of looking or sounding ridiculous when making mistakes or having poor pronunciation.

The damn good language learner doesn’t care what other people think and is determined to give it his best no matter how he may look.

Because of this he improves rapidly, builds more relationships and comes away with plenty of unforgettable cultural experiences.


2. She pays attention to the difference between good resources, bad resources and outright scams

Here’s a general rule of thumb:

If you have to try to make sense of it, it’s probably shit.

Damn good language learners know this and see it as a waste of time having to make sense of something that should be clear and straight to the point.

There are two more general rules of thumb:

1) Old does not equal less quality (some of the best language books I’ve seen were written as far back as the 19th century!).

2) High price does not equal high quality (some of the worst books on the market also happen to be the most expensive).

The damn good language learner also knows better than to hand over her money and trust to people who say things like, “You can be fluent in [insert outrageous nonsense here]” or anything that uses the word “master” in its advertising. :)


3. He’s able to take a boring thing and make it a totally not boring thing

After the honeymoon period of language learning is over (the beginner stage when everything’s new and your motivation’s high) you’ll hit plateaus that can be dreadfully boring.

This is when you feel like you’re not learning much.

The damn good language learner is always finding creative ways to keep it all fun and interesting.

If you feel bored with language learning then you’re doing it wrong!


4. She gives lack of sociability a kick in the arse and practices no matter what

This is closely related to the previous point but it’s important enough to be a point of its own.

There are days and weeks when the last thing you feel like doing is practicing with people.

Resting is important but long periods of doing nothing or avoiding people are detrimental and a complete waste of time.

A simple 5 minute chat is all it takes to be making progress.

A damn good language learner pushes through ‘not feeling like it’ by reminding herself how important it is to keep going – even when she’s not in the mood for it.


5. He knows that language learning takes a long time – and he’s cool with that

Learning a language properly is a long term thing.

The damn good language learner knows this and doesn’t get himself down or become a quitter if he doesn’t see fast results.

He just takes it one day at a time and enjoys the process without rushing himself.


6. She’s awesome – but she’s on a constant mission to be even more awesome

One vital characteristic of the damn good language learner is her ability to assess her own strengths and weaknesses, and to constructively criticize her own approach to always be improving.

If her learning method isn’t working then she does something about it.

I’ve picked up a lot of good personal strategies over the years which work well for me but I’m always open to listening to and learning from other people for different ideas too.

The damn good language learner welcomes feedback and ideas from others, and she knows which of her skills need the most improvement.


7. He takes a stab at it rather than shrugging his shoulders

Listening is the one skill you can’t bullshit in foreign language learning.

It takes time to be able to understand what people are saying. Serious time.

Every language learner has at some point had to be able to predict what people are saying or what a piece of writing is about from the context and with the limited vocab he knows. You probably won’t ever know everything that’s being said and you’d be surprised at just how capable you are at taking a stab at it most times.

A damn good language learner can put two and two together (and is not afraid to ask for clarification when he can’t).


8. She knows what matters most and doesn’t waste valuable seconds on shit she doesn’t need

The problem with a lot of materials and courses is that a lot of what they teach is irrelevant or unnecessary for most people.

The damn good language learner can discern what she needs and what’s a waste of her precious time.

She focuses on stuff that’s totally relevant and important to her.

If all you care about is improving your speaking skills then spending half a course on literacy skills might be a pointless waste of time. The same thing would be true for a person only interested in reading.

A damn good language learner devotes time to the areas of skill development that matter to her – not what the one-size-fits-all course says she should.


9. He invents ways where there are none to put his language skills to use

The damn good language learner seeks out creative ways to test out the stuff he’s learned.

For example, learn all the language you need to get a haircut then go out and get a haircut straight away so you can use it all while it’s fresh in your memory.

If you’re not in a foreign country and can’t do this sort of thing, find a Skype language exchange partner, teach yourself all the vocab and expressions you need to discuss a particular topic and then chat to them straight away and use it.

Practice your reading and writing creatively by writing a story or reading some interesting articles online. I use to practice my Arabic writing skills by writing love letters to an Egyptian girl I almost married. :)


10. She sees mistakes as small victories rather than big failures

The damn good language learner knows that every mistake and every “failure” is just a stepping stone on the path to success.

So you tried to talk to someone, forgot the words, screwed up the grammar, couldn’t understand what was being said to you and felt like crap.

But guess what… you moved forward, not backward.

That failed attempt at conversing in another language moved you closer and closer toward not failing the next time. You learned more about what you need to focus on to improve and you learned more about yourself.

You gave social anxiety an arse-kicking and actually tried which is more than you can say for most people. Good on you. Pat yourself on the back every time.

Damn good language learners know this and even look forward to making mistakes because they know how important they are.


11. She makes sure that other people will call her out if she tries to be a quitter

Don’t underestimate how important accountability is.

The damn good language learner makes sure that if she decides to be a quitter people are going to notice.

Here’s a quote I shared a while back:

“Once you make a public commitment, there’s no turning back.

Essentially, you don’t want to let yourself or other people down. By committing publicly, you’re far more likely to follow through on your promises.”

As I’ve said before, one of the main reasons I started this blog was so that I could publicly announce that I’m learning a language and let my readers hold me accountable to sticking with it and finishing what I started. It’s made such a huge difference to me.

Damn good language learners know that letting people around them know that they’ve just started something important and plan to see it through is a hugely powerful motivator.


Can you think of any other characteristics of a damn good language learner that you’d add to this list?


This was written by .

Did you find this interesting, useful or encouraging? A quick share on Facebook or Twitter will make my day! Thanks. :)

Comments: If you’ve got something you’d like to add to this or some constructive criticism you can do that at the bottom of this page. Just please be respectful. Any abusive or nonsensical comments will be deleted.

How To Improve Your Foreign Language Comprehension

Improving Language Comprehension

Have you ever tried to converse with a native speaker of your target language but found that despite being able to speak pretty well you can barely catch a word of what he/she says?

It’s not that they’re speaking too fast. They’re speaking normally.

The problem is your listening comprehension skills need a lot of work.

One of the most difficult parts about learning a new language is listening comprehension (being able to grasp and make sense of what you hear). You can be an excellent speaker and be able to read really well yet still not understand more than a fraction of what other people are saying.

The reason for this is that speech is a series of sound units that are connected together quickly when spoken by a native speaker and they’re difficult to distinguish with an untrained ear.

There’s no shortcut around this unfortunately.

The only way we train our ears to distinguish sounds in foreign speech is by lots and lots of exposure. Listen, listen and listen some more. And this takes time.

There are a lot of people around who claim to master languages in extremely short amounts of time and I don’t doubt that they can speak well but I’m always skeptical about their level of listening comprehension in that time.

This is why I refer to listening comprehension as the one aspect of language learning that you can’t bullshit (see my post about it here).


My experience with listening comprehension

I’ve been on a journey with the Arabic language for over 12 years. I started studying this language and some its dialects when I was 18 years old and I’m still working away at it.

Despite my determination and enthusiasm in my first year of Arabic, it wasn’t until about 3 years after I had started that I one day had this incredible epiphany moment during a conversation with some Egyptian friends.

“Oh my God! Everything you’re saying right now makes perfect sense to me! I don’t really have to try to understand you anymore – I just get it.”

It really did happen like that for me.

It was just a sudden defining moment of realization – almost like my ability to comprehend another language became apparent overnight. This is how it felt even though I knew it was a gradual process over a long time.

In that photo at the top of the page is a girl I met in Russia at the start of this year during my Russian language immersion trip.

She can’t speak a word of English and when I met her I could barely speak a word of Russian.

When she spoke to me in the beginning it was just a mishmash of sounds that made no sense to me at all.

But after deliberately focusing on improving my comprehension skills (Glossika was very useful for this) I ended up having a similar epiphany moment about a month ago when I was with her and I suddenly realized that I was understanding her with much less effort.


How you can improve your listening comprehension skills

As I said, unfortunately there aren’t really any shortcuts for this.

You need to have a lot of exposure to native speaker conversation in order to get better at it.

It took me 3 years the first time to reach a point where I felt that listening comprehension wasn’t a struggle anymore but that was a lot longer than it needed to be (subsequent languages like Irish, Korean and Russian have been much faster because I’ve discovered more about myself and more efficient learning approaches).

I neglected this area of focus for a long time.

It doesn’t have to take that long provided you’re determined and proactive about training your comprehension skills.

Firstly, it’s important to remember that speaking practice improves listening skills as well as speaking skills.

I’ve never really been one to agree with long silent periods of learning before being ready to speak – eventually you’re going to have to speak to people and make mistakes so it’s better to start early!

This not only makes you a better speaker but will constantly challenge you to understand what’s being said to or asked of you (hence improving your listening).

One reason why speaking to other people is beneficial to your listening comprehension skills is that native speakers will naturally dumb down and slow down their speech for new learners, as well as using gestures, facial expressions and so on that help us put two and two together when we’re trying to understand.

These helpful cues are like training wheels for listening comprehension so don’t underestimate their importance.

As you get better and better you’ll find yourself understanding and responding to fast, natural speech and it’s at this point that the training wheels come off. :)


Listen to what interests you and do it repetitively

Here’s one really useful method that I use when I don’t have anyone else to speak to get the most out of listening material and train my comprehension skills:

Take a good movie in the language you’re learning and find a short scene that you like:

Make sure it’s a short, clear dialogue.

If you can get the subtitles for it and do what I mentioned here with a flashcard app like Anki then it’s even better.

Use a free program like Audacity to record the scene to an audio file (you can set Audacity to not record from the microphone but rather from the speaker output). If you’re not the technical type and have no clue how to do this, you can easily just use a voice memo app on your smart phone by holding it up to the speakers and hitting the record button.

Now you’ve got your favorite foreign movie scene for easy listening while you’re driving, walking or doing the house chores.

Listen to it as repetitively as you would a song – dozens and even hundreds of times.

If you find it hard to make out certain words, try using Audacity to slow down the speed of the sound file so you can hear it better.

You’ll notice that the more you do this, the more the individual sounds become clear instead of just being one long string of mishmashed sound that you can’t understand.

Remember that spoken sentences are made up of lots of individual words but they sound like one big connected sound to an untrained ear.

It’s up to us to be able to spot the gaps and identify those individual words.

If you’re looking to get hold of good, repetitive listening material then the product that I’ve found very useful is Glossika GSR which I reviewed here. It’s an audio product available in loads of different languages, spoken at natural speed and highly repetitive.

The other audio product that I plug quite a bit on this blog (because I think it’s a brilliant and unique concept) is Earworms MBT which is also highly repetitive dialogue material but unique in that it’s placed over the top of catchy music making it harder to forget.

But listening material is something you can usually find and create on your own for free as I mentioned above. The key is in lots of repetition.


This was written by .

Did you find this interesting, useful or encouraging? A quick share on Facebook or Twitter will make my day! Thanks. :)

Comments: If you’ve got something you’d like to add to this or some constructive criticism you can do that at the bottom of this page. Just please be respectful. Any abusive or nonsensical comments will be deleted.

Learning To Speak Arabic But Can’t Find Resources? Here’s Your Answer…

November 20, 2014 – 12:23 am

Talk In Arabic As you probably know from following me on this blog, I started learning a spoken dialect of Arabic about 12…

Why languages with different scripts aren’t as scary as you think

November 12, 2014 – 5:49 am

Lindsay Dow Today you get to hear from Lindsay who has an awesome language learning blog called Lindsay Does Languages. Lindsay’s

8 Ways That My Punishing Fitness Regimen Has Enhanced My Learning

November 4, 2014 – 9:12 pm

Language Learning I find that the gym is one of the best places to meet new people and practice the language when…

Guest Post: How to get started on learning Russian

October 23, 2014 – 7:14 pm

Learning Russian This guest post is from Natalie who runs a blog called Fluent Historian. Natalie’s one of the most passionate

About The Mezzofanti Guild

Learning another language or want to? This site is aimed at offering you unique foreign language learning tips, travel advice, anecdotes, encouragement and providing another handy place for language learners to connect.

Click here to read more about The Mezzofanti Guild.

Like this blog?