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.
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.
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.