Ten Characteristics of the Good Language Learner

Updated on January 6, 2019
Paul Kuehn profile image

Paul has spent many years teaching EFL and ESL. He taught EFL in Taiwan during the 70s, ESL in the U.S., and most recently EFL in Thailand.

An English Language Learner


Learning a Foreign Language

Anybody tackling a new foreign language for the first time would like being successful. There is so much at stake because fluency in a second language like English opens so many doors. There are more job opportunities, more potential friends and acquaintances, and the chance to learn about different countries and their cultures.

Unfortunately, not everyone is able to successfully learn a foreign language. Many people start out with good intentions, but then for various reasons give up their study of a second language. Some say the language is too hard, and others complain that they don't have enough time to study learning it. Yes, learning a foreign language can be difficult for a lot of people, and it does take a long time to complete.

On the other hand, many people have mastered foreign languages and become quite fluent in them. How did they do it and what is the secret to their success? Based on my experiences of learning foreign languages and teaching English and Chinese Mandarin, I suggest in this article ten characteristics of the good language learner.

Characteristics of a Good Language Learner

Characteristics of Good Language Learners

Ten Characteristics of the Good Language Learner

1. Motivation to Communicate

My experience of living in Taiwan for one year during the late 1960s motivated me greatly to continue my study of Chinese Mandarin after I left the Navy. At that time my intentions were to return to Taiwan and renew acquaintances with Chinese and Taiwanese friends. I also wanted to learn more about China and Taiwan. Learning Mandarin well was very important to me so that I could communicate better with my Chinese and Taiwanese friends.

While I was teaching EFL in Taiwan in the 1970s, almost all of my students engaged in import and export trade were extremely motivated to learn. Improving their English meant that my students could interact better with their customers and hence improve their businesses.

2. Constant Practice

If you are going to be good at any skill, you need constant practice. Why can many professional basketball and baseball players perform at a high level? It's because the basketball player is continuously practicing his shooting and ball-handling skills. The baseball player is taking extra batting and fielding practice to become better. Practice makes perfect, and it's the same for learning languages. The more you practice, the more fluent you will become in a second language.

3. Uninhibited

The good language learner is uninhibited. He or she is not afraid to speak and initiate a conversation with a teacher or a stranger. Consequently, the learner will have more opportunities to practice, because most people naturally will not start a conversation with a stranger. Even if a person is apprehensive about starting a conversation, it is to their advantage to practice speaking with other people as much as possible.

4. Willing to Make and Learn From Mistakes

If a language learner is uninhibited, he or she will be willing to make mistakes and learn from mistakes. Just as in learning your native language, you learn a second language by trial and error. When I was living in Taiwan and learning Taiwanese in the 1970s, I once went to an outdoor market to look for papaya. I remember clearly asking one of the fruit vendors whether he had any "bakgui." Upon hearing this, he was somewhat startled and surprised that I was asking for a ghost. It turns out that "gui" in Taiwanese means ghost. I should have said "bakgoe" which is the correct word. This was a learning experience and I never made a mistake again when asking for papaya in Taiwanese.

5. Looks for Patterns in Language

The good language learner picks up a second language inductively and not deductively. I know of very few students who can use the present perfect tense correctly in their speech by just memorizing the rule for its construction. The students who can use it fluently are those who observed many examples of its usage in speech and writing. They then attempted through trial and error to make original sentences using the present perfect pattern which they picked up inductively.

6. Is a Good Guesser

If a student can't understand every important word in a spoken or written sentence, he or she will attempt to guess the word from context. When doing this, he will ask his speaking partner to repeat the sentence or rephrase it, so that another educated guess can be made.

7. Will Do Anything to Get the Message Across

When a language learner is attempting to express his ideas, he will spare nothing to get his message across. This can be done by rephrasing the question or answer. Another technique is to use a lot of gestures or body language while speaking.

8. Attend to Meaning, Not Just Grammar

The good language learner realizes that a second language cannot be learned by only memorizing grammar rules from a book. Language is primarily intended to communicate meaning and not only be grammatically correct. For this reason. a good learner pays more attention to the meaning he or she is trying to get across rather than producing a sentence which is completely grammatically correct.

9. Monitors His/Her Own Speech and That Of Others

When speaking, a good language learner will monitor the pronunciation, conversation management strategies, and fluency of both his own speech and partner's speech. Besides ensuring that both speakers can understand each other's pronunciation, the good language learner will pay attention to conversation management strategies which include fillers, hesitation techniques, and rephrasing or repetition techniques. Finally, the good language learner will attempt to match the speech and smoothness of his fluency with that of his speaking partner.

10. Has Self-Confidence

All good language learners are self-confident when using all four language skills. This self-confidence has been obtained from the encouragement of others, taking risks, and from scaffolding or the support given by teachers or target language friends.

With self-confidence, motivation, and constant practice, most people can be successful in learning a second language. Acquisition of a foreign language will then be of extreme benefit because it will open doors to new ideas and acquaintances with new people in new countries and cultures.

Characteristics of a Good Language Learner

Which is the most important characteristic of a good language learner?

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Questions & Answers

    © 2012 Paul Richard Kuehn


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      • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

        Paul Richard Kuehn 

        11 months ago from Udorn City, Thailand

        Zebari, I do agree that systematic research needs to be carried out to find out the characteristics of both language learners and teachers. Thanks for your comments!

      • profile image


        11 months ago

        Paul, thank you so much, don’t you think more systematic research need to be carried out in order to find out the characteristics of the language learners?

        I think for more effective language teaching, it is also important to know the characteristics of the English language teachers too.

      • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

        Paul Richard Kuehn 

        11 months ago from Udorn City, Thailand

        Your classification of learner characteristics into three aspects is an excellent idea. Yes, I think it would lead to more effective language teaching.

      • profile image


        11 months ago

        This is an interesting topic, I am working on learner characteristics. Those are the ten basic characteristics, it is useful to put learner characteristics into three different aspects:

        1-Personality such as (anxiety, self-esteem, risk-taking, WTC, ambiguity tolerance, extroversion)

        2-Social characteristics including ( adapting to the foreign culture, open, work in group, learners’ attitude towards foreign language and their people)

        3- Educational characteristics such as language aptitude, attentive, looking for good language model role, etc.

        It is much more effective to classify learner characteristics into three aspects so it will be more easier for effective language teaching..

      • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

        Paul Richard Kuehn 

        14 months ago from Udorn City, Thailand

        Janisa, thank you very much for your comments. Expressing your thoughts in a foreign language without falling back on your native language is challenging for most students. My advice is for students to attempt conveying their idea using simpler synonyms that they already know instead of coming up with a word they don't know or can't remember. For example, in expressing the idea of huge, a student could say "very big."

      • JanisaChatte profile image


        14 months ago from Earth

        I agree with you that these are characteristics that all language learners need to have if they wish to become successful. I recently began offering private English lessons and I think that I'm going to try to teach my students to adopt these habits and skills in order to learn more efficiently. A number of my students have problems with number 7. They will often say the word in their native language and wait to get the translation from me. Some pause for several minutes while trying to remember a certain word and while this is alright for lessons, it won't work as well in real life. Do you have any suggestions on how to implement tip 7 with my students?

      • profile image

        mwakabanga b 

        15 months ago

        Blessed I enjoy

      • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

        Paul Richard Kuehn 

        16 months ago from Udorn City, Thailand

        The copyright date should be listed at the end of my article. If you want to use this source as a citation for your assignment, you are free to do so as long as you mention it is my article.

      • profile image


        16 months ago

        I am so interested about this topic. please do not mine me if i want to know about publication and copy right date because i am fining a source to citation for my assignment.

      • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

        Paul Richard Kuehn 

        6 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

        Mary, I appreciate you reading and commenting on this hub. You're absolutely correct in pointing out that it's a lot easier for kids to learn than adults. You really honor me when you say my characteristics should be at the beginning of language books for students. Thanks for finding this article useful, awesome, and interesting!

      • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

        Paul Richard Kuehn 

        6 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand


        Thank you very much for commenting on this hub. I'm happy my ten characteristics helped you in learning German.

      • tillsontitan profile image

        Mary Craig 

        6 years ago from New York

        I think it is easier for children to learn another language because they don't have the fear and inhibitions that adults have. Your ten characteristics hit all the fears that hold adult learners back....probably many teenagers as well.

        This hub would be great printed in the beginning of language books for students...they could read your characteristics before they start using the book!

        Voted up, useful, awesome, and interesting.

      • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

        Paul Richard Kuehn 

        6 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

        Rajan, Thank you very much for your great comments. Just like in sports or anything you want to do in life, practice is so very important to achieve proficiency. I'm happy you liked this hub, and I appreciate you sharing it here and on Facebook.

      • Spongy0llama profile image

        Jake Brannen 

        6 years ago from Canada

        Thank you for this. I saw a lot of myself and my own process learning German in this article.

      • rajan jolly profile image

        Rajan Singh Jolly 

        6 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar, INDIA.

        Paul, these tips are useful and valuable to all learners of a new language. Practice and being unafraid to keep speaking inspite of making mistakes is very important factors that aid one in learning a language.

        Thanks for sharing. Voted up, useful and interesting. Shared here and on fb.

      • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

        Paul Richard Kuehn 

        6 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand


        Thanks for your great comments on this hub. It makes me feel good that I have inspired you with your language learning from a different angle. If you are motivated to learn and find the right approach, I'm confident that you will be a successful language learner.

      • NickyHunt profile image

        Nicky Hunt 

        6 years ago from Kansas City, MO

        Thank you for posting this article! You make so many great points. I think half the reason I have been struggling with becoming fluent is the fact that I try to attack it too logically/deductively and I don't just follow my instincts! Thank you so much for inspiring me to approach my language learning from a different angle! I appreciate it so much!!

      • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

        Paul Richard Kuehn 

        6 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

        samet sag,

        Thanks for commenting on this hub.

      • profile image

        samet sag 

        6 years ago

        thank you were much! teperim geri kaç hhaaaa :D

      • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

        Paul Richard Kuehn 

        7 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand


        Thanks for reading and your favorable comments. You have to live the language if you ever want to be good.

      • jainismus profile image

        Mahaveer Sanglikar 

        7 years ago from Pune, India

        Paul, you have rightly described the characteristics of the good language learner.

      • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

        Paul Richard Kuehn 

        7 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

        ESL Teachers Tales,

        Thank you very much for reading and your very insightful comments. I really appreciate them.

      • profile image


        7 years ago

        Great hub. I am tempted to put them on the wall of my classroom. Many of my students have limited learning experiences and so this list would be especially helpful to them.

        Reading through the list brought back varies teaching memories. In particular a student employing 7 & 8 to my 6 as she tried to get across to me that her mother suffered a prolapsed uterus. I don't remember the details but I do remember that she was not going to stop until I understood the EVERYTHING came out.

        I confess I have a bit of a beef with 9, but more with the way it's phrased, I think, than what you intend. I occasionally have students who get stuck in translation mode--that is, they're perpetually translating in their heads. It creates a absurd delays in conversation. I'd say they're paying too much attention to language instead of simply speaking what they do know (practicing 3, 6, & 8). It could be that 9 is more useful at a higher level, to catch nuances in the second language, than at the beginner level (which is what I teach).

      • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

        Paul Richard Kuehn 

        7 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand


        Thank you very much for reading and the compliments.

      • yoginijoy profile image


        7 years ago from Mid-Atlantic, USA

        Excellent list of traits for the successful language learner. Motivation is the most important one of course! Keep up the great work! and thanks for sharing so many good hubs lately.

      • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

        Paul Richard Kuehn 

        7 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

        Thank you very much for reading and the nice comment.

      • ltlearning profile image


        7 years ago from Argentina

        Good points, I agree, if you stick to your goals, you don't give up, you practice every day if possible , you will be speaking a new language in a short time

      • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

        Paul Richard Kuehn 

        7 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand


        Thank you very much for the very thoughtful comment.

      • Vellur profile image

        Nithya Venkat 

        7 years ago from Dubai

        You have highlighted very important points to learning a new language. Shedding all inhibitions and speaking is the best way to learn to communicate in a language.It is a bit difficult but not impossible to learn a new language. For me learning to speak in a new language is an actual proof of having learned that language in and out.Voted up.Great hub.

      • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

        Paul Richard Kuehn 

        7 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand


        Thank you very much for the favorable comments. Your story about using Mandarin in China is also very interesting. I agree that attributes which you don't have such as not being outgoing can be developed later in life.

      • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

        Paul Richard Kuehn 

        7 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand


        Thank you very much for the favorable comments, and yes, you are completely correct about Jackie Chan's improvement in English.

      • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

        Paul Richard Kuehn 

        7 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand


        Thank you very much for the nice comments. Yes, a knowledge of Latin is helpful when learning other Indo-European languages. I never regretted taking two years of it when I was in high school.

      • VirginiaLynne profile image

        Virginia Kearney 

        7 years ago from United States

        Great information. I'm going to keep all this in mind as I keep on with my own language studies. I think what you say is really very true and I've observed this myself in dealing with many students who are English language learners.

        One thing I think I'd add is that you can develop some of these attributes even if they don't come naturally, and that you can capitalize on the ones which do. When we were traveling in Beijing a couple of years ago, I was much less well versed in Mandarin than my husband and he is the one who is much better at just going out there and saying stuff. Yet, I am very good at #6,7, and 8, partly from lots of experience in working with other people who don't speak English well. So sometimes, even with less language knowledge, I was able to functionally survive and get us where we needed to go! I'm going to show these to my two high schoolers, who are actually taking their Mandarin finals as I write this. They will need these attributes when we go to China next year! Voted up and useful!

      • justmesuzanne profile image


        7 years ago from Texas

        The first thing that popped into my mind as I read your HUB is that you have just described Jackie Chan! LOL! I have been watching his improvements in English (along with his action movies) for over a decade, and I am always impressed whenever I see him speak English in public because he just gets better and better all the time. Compare his commentary on the 2000 movie, Shanghai Noon (in which he mostly said, "That was very dangerous!") with his Q & A sessions at the " "Bridges : Dialogues Towards A Culture of Peace" by International Peace Foundation" in 2009. The improvement is astounding!

        It is his fearlessness, determination and strong desire to learn and to excel that make him able to continue to grow and learn in a new language; even though, he is fast approaching the age of 60! Many language students become discouraged, but following the list of characteristics you present here and the example of good role models like Jackie Chan will really help them to stay focused and continue to grow and learn in a new language.

        Voted up and useful! :)

      • fpherj48 profile image


        7 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

        Paul...This hub is a fabulous teaching tool for any foreign language student to reference. I am one who believes in the importance and benefit of knowing a 2nd or even 3rd. language. Growing up, I had the privilege of being exposed to 2 foreign tongues via my grandparents and also studied a 3rd & 4th. in school.

        Although I have a grasp of them all, I am far from fluent in any but my own English language. Having said this, it has been apparent to me that in some form or another, many languages can be related to one another.

        Of those that I am familiar with, a strong handle on latin is vitally helpful in several others (especially English).

        Thank you for this well-organized and presented article.


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