Lindie Botes

Lindie Botes

I'm a South African designer and language YouTuber with a passion for foreign languages. I aim to inspire, motivate and guide you in your journey to learn new languages!
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Do you consider yourself a good language learner?

Have you ever asked yourself this?

After speaking at Languages in Science last November, someone in the audience asked me if I consider myself a “good language learner”. I had to pause and think, because it’s not so straightforward to answer. 

Have you ever asked yourself, “am I actually a good language learner?”. Or have you ever said to someone else, “you seem like you’re a good learner”. What does this really mean?

What do we define by “a good language learner”?. Does a good learner equal someone who becomes fluent in their languages in a shorter time than it takes others? Is a good learner someone who shows off a lot so you can see their progress? Someone who spends their time well and is able to study smart and not hard? Is a good language learner simply someone who enjoys the process and doesn’t worry what others think? It really is a subjective concept.

 Let’s start by looking at other examples of “good learners” in two specific contexts:

What makes a good learner in Korea?

From a Korean educational perspective, a good learner is someone who scores well in exams and knows how to answer questions in the right format. When I visited Korea for a few months as a high school student, my friends invited me to go to school and hagwon (cram school) with them. I was surprised to see the way English was being taught. There was little to no English being spoken by the teacher, and all the students did (at least during my two months there) was answer comprehension questions, memorize vocabulary and take exams. They could barely speak, because speaking was not part of the curriculum.

 

Some of my notes from studying for the TOPIK

Similarly, the TOPIK Korean exam has never had a speaking section – simply very structured writing activities, listening, and comprehension questions. Only now have they decided to bring in a speaking section from 2023 onwards. (Yay!)

The foreign language education system in Korea often focuses on tests and scoring high in test results, not in one’s ability to speak. When I took italki lessons from a Korean tutor trained in preparing students for the TOPIK exam, she emphasized exactly how I should structure my answers and what format I should follow as to get a high score on the exam. It was very strategic, with little room for free expression. I understand this is because it’s a governmental exam for people all over the world, but I was really taught to think in a specific manner and not deviate from it at all. So, from this educational perspective, a good Korean learner is someone who follows a strategy and scores well on their exams. 

What makes a good language learner online?

From a YouTube viewer perspective, a good YouTube polyglot is someone who can “prove” their fluency on video – even if they might be faking it. Clickbait titles and bring in thousands of views to people speaking languages and “shocking” natives on camera. Some people consider these people good language learners – they can, to some extent, “prove” that they speak a language.

 I’ve been on the other receiving end of this. If I make a video in a language I’m learning, some people will pick apart the smallest mistake. If I make a video in English, I’m a fake who can’t really speak my languages. This doesn’t bother me really, it’s just some random person on the internet’s opinion, but the point that I’m trying to make is that “a good language learner” is so subjective online.

Does it even matter?

I don’t think either of the above is important. To me, your ability to produce the language well, combined with your ability to truly enjoy and continue learning languages despite changes in priorities and life stages, makes one a good language learner. If you enjoy the process, you’ll become better at the language since you’re more likely to dedicate time to it.

With that, how I allocate time to my languages depends on my interest in them and the stage at which I am in my life. A few years ago, Japanese was significant to me because I lived and worked in Japan. Now, considering my interests and plans, Hungarian and Spanish are my main foci. 

I am happy with my language learning progress and methods because I adjust them according to my interests and goals. Most of my time allocated to studying languages is currently dedicated to Spanish, and I am indeed improving rapidly because of this dedication and my enjoyment of the process.

Related video: some good habits for language learners

Qualities I admire in language learners

The types of language learners I love seeing and think are the most successful are: The dedicated learner, and the one who enjoys it. Both of these can overlap – you can have someone who is extremely dedicated, plans their time to the minute, has high goals, and still enjoys it. And you can also have someone who doesn’t set any goals and just enjoys the process.

None of what I am referring to is someone’s ability to produce the language. That comes with time. For now, the qualities I think set good learners apart are actually enjoying the process and being dedicated and consistent.

In fact, research has been done that shows that even just the act of learning a language, regardless of how good you are at it, can already bring happiness and other benefits to your life. In summary, create your own definition of a good learner and don’t worry what standards everyone else has.

Looking for more inspiration?

Get motivated and learn new techniques with my regularly uploaded language learning videos!

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4 Responses

  1. I totally agree – I am always much more impressed and inspired by language learners who are dedicated to learning and enjoy the process regardless of their skill level, than by those who show off their “fluency” for internet props. I sometimes feel self-conscious that I don’t have proof online of my skill levels in the languages I study, but I try to remember that my own enjoyment in studying is what counts the most. Great post~!

  2. It seems like such a simple question, but there are so many facets that could be considered.

    I feel like I’m a good language learner in that I have honed my language learning routines over the years to know what activities work best for me, but I’m still a horrible language learner if you consider consistency haha. One week I’ll be super motivated and study hours per day, and then I’ll feel lazy and not do much at all for three weeks back to back. And while I personally believe that it’s fine to follow the ebbs and flows of my motivation, it doesn’t stop me from feeling a bit like I’m failing during those slow periods.

    I also liked your breakdown of cultural differences. While in both the US and Korea the “ideal student” will obviously work hard and complete assignments, the Korean perception of a good student is a quiet student while the US perception of a good student is a student who participates in active class discussion (a broad generalization, obviously, but still an interesting generalization to consider). Not that “student” is a perfect equivalent to “language learner”, but that’s what you made me think of with that section. Interesting how culture can define what someone thinks of a good __ as.

  3. Learning anything is about building structures in your brain that give you new skills. Good learners (of anything) use methods of learning that build structures in their brain that give them the skills they want. Of course, some things (e.g. playing piano or pronouncing a new language) will also include physical and muscle changes or development as well. I do not believe so much in talent as choosing proper methods and materials that work for you. This world is full of people who believe they lack talent (be it musical, artistic, math, language learning, too clumsy, etc.) because they were set up for failure because the methods and materials they used (and perhaps teachers and often schools) failed them.

    Successful language learners choose methods and materials that build structures in their brain that respond directly to a new language. Most hard-working language learners who fail to develop skills are probably building the wrong structures in their brains. Usually this is because they spend most of their time thinking in their native language about how to analyze and describe grammar and definitions of words in the new language. In other words, they are spending most of their time thinking in their native language about the new language rather than exposing their brain to lots of input (listening and reading) of the new language itself.

    Successful language learning is all about choosing methods and materials (and adapting to your level of progress and interests) which *enjoyably* and *effectively* build brain structures that empower actual language skills. When things are enjoyable, you keep coming back day after day and putting time in. When things are effective, you make progress. Good language learners have figured out what is enjoyable and effective for the level of progress they are at and have learned to adapt to what is needed at different levels of skills. Good language learners have learned how to learn a new language that works for them. Each succeeding language they learn tends to become easier and easier. This is also true of anything else (playing a musical instrument, various types of art, using computers, playing golf).

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