11 Unmistakable Characteristics Of A Damn Good Language Learner

  • Donovan Nagel
    Written byDonovan Nagel
    Donovan NagelTeacher, translator, polyglot
    🎓 B.A., Theology, Australian College of Theology, NSW
    🎓 M.A., Applied Linguistics, University of New England, NSW

    Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator. Founder of The Mezzofanti Guild and Talk In Arabic.
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11 Unmistakable Characteristics Of A Damn Good Language Learner

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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?

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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Greek


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I am late to the party here, but I totally agree and I loved your number 1 because I have always considered lack of fear in making a fool of myself my biggest strength when learning a new language. I have noticed that there are people who are very good at learning a new language, but who fear making a mistake so they have this wealth of knowledge that they are afraid to put to use!

Daniel Cotarelo Garcia

Daniel Cotarelo Garcia

Very good article! I agree with all you have written.

May I translate it into Esperanto, Spanish and/or Portuguese? Of course, free of charge, and you would retain all rights (if you prefer, you may publish it here and I would simply give the link to it).

Of course, if you decide to answer “no”, I will respect that. In that case you needn’t do anything. I will only proceed if I receive an explicit permission. (I hate when something is taken for granted unless you say “no”.)



Do you mind if I use your work to get my year 7 and 8’s students on the path to language success?
I have read a lot of research surrounding Qualities of an Excellent Language Learner, and your article supports this.

Donovan Nagel

Donovan Nagel

Not at all.
I hope it helps your students. :)



I suggest you refer readers to your article entitled “8 important things you should do on immersion trip abroad” https://www.mezzoguild.com/8-important-things-to-d...
I have personally lived what you advise in this article. I find it to be the best advice for learning a language. Of course the opportunity may not be available to everyone. It is the fastest and easiest way to learn a language in-depth.



Great post. I have the most trouble with #2 and #3. It’s difficult for me as I’m an Irish learner in an area without any others around except my wife. I have had to learn which materials work through trial and error. I’m a bit weird in that I actually like to use textbooks lol.



Another great post! I agree with each and every word you wrote (I mean the post and the comments too).

I speak several languages at C2 level and learn several others. I don’t want to depreciate other learners but I definitely agree with you that it’s impossible to learn a language in several weeks. Unless you boost that you speak a language when you can only maintain a basic conversation in it.



I’ll be the lone voice of dissent here, but I think that going into language acquisition with the mindset that it has to take a long time is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Over and over again we’ve watched people like Benny Lewis achieve an enviable level of fluency in just 90 days. Scott Young and his friend Vat just spent “a year without English” and learned not one, not two, but FOUR languages in a year (Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese and Korean).

This isn’t magic. It takes work, yes, but it’s not like we don’t know at this point what the most frequently used words and phrases are in any language. Other people have done this work for you. Getting a basic proficiency of 300 words — about 65% of all the words you’ll use on a regular basis — can be done pretty quickly.

(Disclaimer — I am the founder of a language company whose next product is built on this very concept.)

Donovan Nagel

Donovan Nagel

Your company’s built on what concept?

That a language can be learned properly in a very short time? It’s not right to sell a product based on something that’s simply untrue.

I could and should respond to this comment with a long blog post (perhaps I will) but I’ll try to sum up my thoughts to what you’ve said here quickly:

You need to be very specific when you say they ‘learned’ languages to an enviable level in 3 months. They didn’t ‘learn them’ beyond the point of being able to talk about very familiar topics (usually talking about the topic of ‘language learning’ and very little else) that they’d practiced over and over, and even so, what you see on camera is only what they’ve allowed you to see. In any case, they applied themselves, worked hard with very determined goals and achieved a good but very predictable outcome (conversational ‘elementary-level/A-level’ skills).

Scott and Vat had prior knowledge of some of the languages before starting and of the languages they didn’t previously study, they achieved a completely predictable outcome. Benny even less so with most of the languages he’s learned (I had dinner with a teacher from italki the other day here in Egypt who helped him make his final Arabic video where he said he achieved a B2 equivalent level in Arabic and she said he’d barely pass elementary level - A1 or A2 equiv at tops). This is something I already knew by watching his videos anyway but just confirmed it again when she said it.

I’m not dissing these guys at all (I had a guest post from Scott a while back here). They work hard and apply themselves but in contrast to what you’re saying, they don’t learn long enough to be considered to be able to know the language ‘well’. It takes a long time to really know a language properly. I speak Russian, Korean and Irish at good levels considering the amount of time I spent on them (6-8 hours a day on average) but they’re no way near my Arabic level and if I wanted them to be I’d need to invest years into each of them.

It’s not just language skills either. There are social and cultural elements which also take a very long time to learn and adapt to (3 months is definitely not adequate).

Languages take TIME and if you’re selling something that says otherwise then that’s really disappointing (you can know all the common words there are but it doesn’t really mean anything at all).

jp 吉平

jp 吉平

people think they’re not making progress when they’re on a language learning “plateau” because they’re not feeling improvement. The thing is, when you’re on a plateau, you have to keep moving forward. Plateaus must be crossed. Anyway, who told them then hike was going to be an evenly steep grade? You can’t control the terrain.

加油 everybody. I wrote a post about plateaus at my own journal: http://jpv206.wordpress.com/2014/07/07/language-l...

Natalie K.

Natalie K.

This is one of the best posts EVER, Donovan! Not to brag, but I think I’ve pretty much done all of these things, which must be why I’m so awesome at Russian. ;) And many of my classmates who were less successful in learning ignored at least half of the points on your list. I know people who had trouble with listening--I did too at one point. Except I listened to hours of Russian radio each day for over a year, which made me become really, really good at listening comprehension. The only point on this list that doesn’t really apply is #2, specifically the part about old resources. Due to major reforms of the Russian language starting in 1917, books published prior to that period aren’t as helpful for learning (but can be fun to read once you’ve reached a certain level). I agree with you about the price thing, though: Rosetta Stone is super expensive, and it really sucks for Russian (and pretty much every language, I’ve heard). All of the resources I’ve used for Russian learning have been very reasonably priced.

Okay, that was a bit longer than I expected. I also just wanted to say that I signed up for the mailing list. I am so curious about the plans you have coming up. :)



Mistakes as ‘small victories, not big failures’ is a wonderful phrase. I will remember this. There is nothing like beginning a language to make you feel stupid. This can make it a challenge to maintain morale and commitment, and your bon mot is just the thing.



Yeah, you summed it up man. Anyone I know that sees constant progress does most of these things. It seems like someone that embodies most of these things is someone who is going to have a hard time quitting, just from sheer momentum and degree of involvement.

PS. Thank you for the all the work you put into your blog. You have had a major impact on my learning. I’ve been at Mandarin for 2.5 years and I use your blog pretty consistently for motivation, new perspective, and strategies. Although it seems like not that big of a deal, me having sources of motivation has been crucial to breathing new life into the language learning process and keeping my daily investment of time on the higher end of the scale.

Donovan Nagel

Donovan Nagel

Thanks a lot for the kind words, Bobby. I’m glad I’ve been able to help in some way.

All the best with your Mandarin.



Another great post!!

I completely agree with you. I think it’s always important to give something a try and when studying (even when at a relatively low level) a varied approach will always keep you 1) busy, 2) immersed and 3) interested in the language that you are studying.

Like you mentioned in a previous post, when I studied Japanese it took about 3 years for my ears to adjust to the sounds of the language to be able to understand it without thinking and I think it’s important for any/all language learners to ensure they give themselves ample exposure to their target language as early as possible.

I have just undertaken the task of learning (or brushing up, then significantly improving to be more accurate) Italian. I’m using a combination of books and courses, along with writing for my own purposes (e.g. a diary, a day plan, a shopping list) and listening to radio, tv etc.

Immersion doesn’t just have to be in the country itself (although that’s obviously ideal), you just have to be creative!

"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world."
- Ludwig Wittgenstein
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