5 Habits of Seriously Successful Language Learners

Learning is for everyone, and everyone can learn a language. Check out our famous polyglots as you read the blog! (A polyglot is a person who speaks multiple languages fluently.) While a multitude of factors might hinder you from learning a sport or a musical instrument, language learning is a path where obstacles are seldom present.

First remember this — it’s all in your brain.

We are not talking about extraordinary people with out-of-this-world intelligence or brains the size of watermelons. Like you and me, a polyglot would have been a monolingual at some stage of his/her life until they decided to explore the universe of language learning. And from there, there was no turning back.

After extensive research and digging into the brains of well renowned polyglots, we have developed our own list of 5 habits of a successful language learner.

We are born with a language instinct. Our brains are naturally wired for language. They have the innate ability to process complex information in the form of sounds, gestures and context.

This capacity for language extends throughout life. Which means you can learn any language, at any age. This is possible because the brain is plastic. Plasticity is the brain’s ability to make new neural connections. Continued research has found that this happens all throughout a person’s lifetime. Your brain today is not the same one as it was last month. Neural connections are created regardless of age.

So much so that Researchers claim languages should be a requirement for any kind of degree as bilingualism could protect the brain in later life. Studies have shown that certain types of dementia appear up to five years later for people who speak a second language compared with monolinguists. It’s thought that bilingual people have a cognitive reserve that delays the onset.

So now that we’ve covered the science part, let’s get on to those seriously successful tips.

#1 Less means more

The Pareto principle states that only 20% effort is needed to acquire 80% comprehension while learning a language. What this means is, studying particular words of a certain language will allow you to comprehend and converse in that particular language with a fluency of 80%. This is possible because almost every language has a core bundle of words that makes up your daily conversations. For instance, in English just 300 words make up 65% of all written material. We use those words a lot, and that’s the case in every other language as well.

Prioritize your learning content using the Pareto principle. You may well be capable of understanding 95% of a language within a short span of three months. This is applicable for conversational fluency as well as comprehension and writing. Although you might plateau at the point, the view down the mountain will be great! To improve from there and make it to the top, it might take you years as you dwell deeper into the language and aim to reach the level of native speakers.

Queen Cleopatra V11 (Reputed to have spoken 9 languages, including her native Greek, as well as Egyptian, Syrian, Persian, and Arabic)

#2 Make your Goals Specific and Attainable

It simply means you should know why you are learning a particular language and the content you want to excel in. Never set your targets too low or too high. Always be self-aware of your strengths and limitations. This prevents complacency and loss of interest in learning. Make your learning a great experience by taking incremental steps rather than a steep climb.

Queen Elizabeth 1 (10 languages: English, French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Latin, Welsh, Cornish, Scottish, Irish)

#3 Measurable

This is the ability to check your progress. It could be a self-reflection after completing a lesson or testing yourself with quizzes and conversational exercises. For information to be retained in the brain, it must be recalled at least 14 times. This phenomenon of testing yourself on an idea or concept to help you remember it is called the “testing effect” or “retrieval practice.” People have known about the idea for centuries. Sir Francis Bacon mentioned it, as did the psychologist William James. In 350 BCE, Aristotle wrote that “exercise in repeatedly recalling a thing strengthens the memory.”

Natalie Portman (6 languages: English, Hebrew, French, Japanese, German, Arabic)

#4 Relevant

Most languages evolve over the years. Make sure you are up to date with the most relevant language content. Learning an extinct or endangered language can be exciting but also tough if you find the content difficult to source. Be aware of your constraints, and check you can access enough stuff and resources to keep you motivated and learning.

JRR Tolkien (Author of Lord of the Rings — 13 languages, including Latin, French, German, Greek, Italian and Spanish, Middle English, Old English, Old Norse and even Medieval Welsh.

#5 Time-bound

This is the most important aspect of successful learners. Every successful learner sets a timeframe to achieve his or her goals. Maintain a schedule while learning and stick to it. Colin Powell, the first African American appointed as the U.S. Secretary of State, once gave a powerful TED Talk on the importance of instilling structure in children. It is the same with adults. Routine provides a sense of structure and familiarity. Structure is a way of organizing your life so that it makes sense to you. You wake up with a sense of ownership, order, and organization of your life.

Christopher Lee (French, Italian, German, Spanish, and English, plus knowledge of Swedish, Russian, and Greek.)

So the shortcut to success:

Choose wisely, focus, set timescales and stick to it! I hope these famous polyglots have inspired you to get learning!