You are a language learner. And if your parents didn’t speak to you two different languages since the day you were born, you have to struggle your way up. And the way you climb this language learning mountain says about you a lot (and defines your success as well, to be honest).
So what type of language learner you are?
Conversationalist: language learner interested in people
It’s easy to spot a conversationalist. They are found in the epicenter of a human crowd vividly articulating and expressing complex ideas with just 20 foreign words.
You need to have a certain personality type to pass as a conversationalist. The blend of extraversion and natural talkativeness, as well as a certain level of empathy to the human kind, usually do the job. And while people like me crouch in the corner mentally rehearsing “Perdona, ¿dónde está el baño?” to find a washroom in a coffee shop in Madrid, these individuals go out there, speak up and end up going on a barbeque party with a barista. Well, not everybody is an extravert.
There’s no such thing for a conversationalist as “I have nothing to say“, the nightmare of an introvert. Neither there is an “I don’t know how to say“, even if their vocabulary doesn’t exceed a hundred words. Exceptional conversational skills help these language learners to overcome linguistic limitations and actually make themselves understood. Somehow. And, yeah, they don’t keep track of grammar as long as they can keep the conversation going.
A foreign language for a conversationalist is a way to connect to more people. So what they are actually interested in is this connection.
The best way to learn a language: talk to native speakers – from the day one.
Romantic: language learner in love with a culture
Awww, la France!
Romantics are avid fans of another country. They are in love with its traditions, its culture, its people and, of course, its language. This often happens with Italian, French, and Spanish, thanks to their rich history and prominent cultures. However, the more appropriate example would be Japanese. At least one-third of the world is dreaming about learning this language, thanks to Blue Exorcist and Haruki Murakami (or any other combination of Japanese anime, manga, and literature you can think of).
Despite this all-embracing love, however, the majority of romantics learn their second language while staying at home. They tend to enroll in language classes, dreaming that one day they will move to the country of their dreams. And, fair enough, some of them actually do so, but many do not.
Because the love lasts three years, and like any other passion this language interest tends to fade with time and the lack of attention. Nevertheless, if a romantic language learner succeeds in keeping their interest, they achieve a very high level of language proficiency, as the experience of Alice Kaplan clearly demonstrates in her must-read book French Lessons: A memoir.
The best way to learn a language: use it to explore the culture
Pragmatic: language learner in pursuit of opportunities
And then there are these misunderstood victims: those who had to learn a language.
It’s quite a common story for English learners: not so much excited about the language, even less excited about speaking it with anyone but far more interested in the goodies the knowledge of English can bring in. Like a better job. Or immigration to a better (from the socio-economic side of view) place. Or even premium access to literature and cinema as it usually takes another half a year to translate those in languages around the world.
For pragmatic learners, a language is a tool for solving their problems. Consequently, depending on the complexity of the latter, their proficiency level varies quite a bit. Some would be satisfied with the minimal knowledge as long as they can survive on the foreign lands (even if it is “You Go Airport. Me Pay“). Others would reach the highest levels for their professional or academic goals and would still remain quite indifferent to the language.
The best way to learn a language: clearly understand objectives and find a matching language program.
Intellectual: language learner interested in – guess it – learning
In good old times, language learning was considered an excellent exercise for the brain. You didn’t learn Latin to speak Latin: Latin was dead. You learned it because it was a language of the intelligentsia and a sign of a learned person.
Now, we have a fewer number of people who learn Latin, and even fewer who do it to exercise their hemispheres. Although, there are still individuals who would engage in language learning simply for the sake of learning.
Being a stimulating brain activity, learning a second language helps to postpone Alzheimer’s and dementia and generally correlated with better executive control, attention and cognitive function – to name just a few advantages.
Intellectuals, who do everything to improve their cognitive performance, bite the bait and press hard on exploring grammar, memorizing vocabulary and reading literature. The harder the task the better.
The best way to learn a language: read
Linguist: language learner fascinated by the language… or languages
And then there is another type of language learner characterized by an eager gleam in their eyes at the sight of a grammar book: a linguist.
Well, these ones are scary and generally dangerous, because they don’t see a language as a tool, they see it as a lab rat. And they wish to practice vivisection parcing this language into the systems of phonemes, morphemes, lexemes and other –emes until there are none. They also enjoy drawing syntactic trees, doing morphological analysis and looking at spectrograms. And exploring grammatical structures for them is the most fulfilling activity.
What!? You don’t like grammar?
Linguists learn languages to see how they work. And it doesn’t necessarily result in any fluency so don’t ask this language learner how many language does he speak. They become agressive.
Using these languages in real life is a nice bonus, but not the ultimate goal. And if you think that it’s weird, don’t say it to them.
The best way to learn a language: analyse it to the bones.
Linguo-maniac: language learner obsessed with superpowers
Linguo-maniacs are people you will always be jealous of. Because they speak like 20 languages and learn five more while mere mortals like you are struggling with their second tongue.
For these learners learning languages is like collecting butterflies: an exciting hobby. They are usually aware of all benefits of language learning and are honest about their actual proficiency level. So if they can only read in Spanish they won’t claim “speaking the language”.
Linguo-maniacs are a bit of an obsessive type but language learning is an addictive activity on its own so you can’t blame them.
One of the brightest examples is Kato Lomb, the world-known polyglot with an impressive baggage of 24 languages and the first ever simultaneous interpreter. So if you’re any curious about what actually drives these people to devote all their life to language learning, her book “Polyglot: how I learn languages” is the right place to start.
How your language learner type affects your progress?
Now, if you had a chance to learn more than one language you may discover that, for the second time, your motivation was different. You might have learned English as an international language to have more opportunities for study abroad, travel and career. Then, after your IELTS certificate was proudly hang on the wall of your bedroom, you decided to learn Spanish – just for yourself, because you always wanted. And at the blink of an eye, you shifted from pragmatic to romantic.
Your learning strategy better shifts too.
And if you wonder why would that, think of it as a sport, say basketball. You can consider it as a simple hobby, something you like to do with friends once a week in a local gym. You don’t even have to play well, as long as you are having fun. In another case, you may think of basketball as a way to get into college: here your approach would be much more serious. You will even invest in good shoes. In the third case, playing basketball is your career and the only way to make your living. You bet you’ll be killing your ass off in training for eight hours a day.
It would be ridiculous to invest in the equipment and training if the only thing you want to do is to play with friends once in a while. Same with language learning.
You can easily satisfy your learning goals with three levels of Spanish in Memrise if you all you want is to find your way around in Barcelona. But if you expect this language to help you make your living you have to invest in your learning experience. You can choose language courses, Pimsleur program or a one-month immersion in Spain. Anything, as long as it fits your needs.
The rule of thumb here is that a good language learner understands his motivation very well.
And what motivates YOU to learn a language? Write it down in the comments and I’ll tell you what strategy will suit you the best.