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Inside the mind of a successful language learner

A few months ago I travelled to Finland with a group of students as part of an exchange programme my school organises every other year. English is usually the language of communication among students in this type of programme. They may practise some Spanish when they visit us, and proficiency levels will vary, but at the end of the day the language most of them feel most comfortable with for communicative purposes is English. This time, however, my students soon drew my attention to one of the Finnish students who spoke mainly in Spanish, impressed both by his language skills and the speed with which he had reached that proficiency level: barely over a year and his Spanish already at a B1+/B2 level.

Admittedly, Joona Andersson is an 18-year-old secondary school student with a special gift for learning in general, and languages in particular, but after speaking to him and some of his teachers I couldn’t but wonder if there was something we could learn from his otherwise exceptional experience — and ability — that could still be applicable to other language learners. While it’s true that the learning process for him has been extraordinarily fast and efficient for a number of reasons, are there any specific motivations, activities or experiences that could be used by other students and which could help them boost their language learning skills?

1. Motivation

Joona not only agreed to be interviewed but was enthusiastic about the idea of being able to reflect on his own learning. And being a conscious learner comes, to a large extent, as a result of one’s motivation to learn:

“If someone asked me for advice on learning languages, I’d tell them to find something that motivates them to learn, something that gives them a reason to study the language. If you are not motivated to learn, it will be a lot more difficult to make yourself study often enough. You’ll also be less likely to really learn and understand anything if you don’t think it’s important in any way. If you are motivated, however, getting yourself to study won’t be a problem and you may even enjoy the process.”

He added:

“My schooling provided me with books I could use to learn more but I studied a lot more than was necessary. I believe that the work I did at home made all the difference since there are people my age who have studied the same amount of courses and passed them with great grades but still aren’t able to speak the language very well.”

This has worked for him with English and Spanish, and although he has studied Swedish as well, it “never really interested me.”

2. Immersion

So how did Joona use that extra motivation?

“I realized that immersion was the key to learning a language quickly […] I noticed that

with the help of the internet it was possible and very easy. So I started watching videos and reading texts about different topics in Spanish. Watching videos was hard at first and I only recognized basic words and expressions, but after a while I got used to it and started to understand more and more. This combined with all the vocabulary from the texts I was reading and the grammar I learned from various books and websites helped me get fluent in Spanish faster than I would’ve believed. Every time I would come across an unfamiliar word or expression I would translate it and then memorize it.”

Hobbies and personal interests also seem to play a major role:

“Music is also a big part of my everyday life. I spend at least two hours a day listening to music, usually at the gym while I work out. I think that has also helped me to learn languages, especially Spanish because I love Latin music and that’s almost everything I listen to nowadays.”

3. Seeking opportunities to interact with speakers of the language

In today’s high-tech world, it shouldn’t be that difficult to build connections and keep up relationships no matter the distance, provided you are offered the right opportunities. But this, again, requires a high degree of personal commitment. Joona says one of the things that has helped him with the foreign languages he speaks has a lot to do with “the foreign exchange students who I became very good friends with. I talk to them daily, and most of them never learned Finnish, which means I get a lot of practice in other languages.” An immediate implication is the need for schools and teachers to foster this type of relationships through exchange or e-pal projects, for instance.

4. Pronunciation

Interestingly, for Joona pronunciation is key in learning a language: “Pronunciation not only makes you sound better when you use the language but also helps with listening comprehension. If you only think about words as they are written and don’t know how to pronounce them, it’s likely that you won’t recognize the words when used by native speakers.”

Even in English, a language he feels very comfortable with, “there are times when I mess up the pronunciation of a word or speak incorrectly. I know that it’s not a big deal and you shouldn’t worry about those things too much but it is something that really bothers me personally. So I need more practice with pronunciation.

5. Thinking out loud and assessing your needs

“There’s one more thing I do that has definitely helped me to get faster at responding in other languages and improved my pronunciation. I like to think out loud and I do this (or at least try to) in the language I’m trying to learn. I can’t recommend this enough. It’s a really useful way to know what you can say in your target language and what you need more practice with. Let’s say you’re going to cook something, for example, and you’re thinking about what you need to buy and what you need to do in order to prepare something to eat. Why not think about those things in the language you’re studying? If you can’t do it, you know what you need to work on.”