What makes a successful language learner?

Me and my daughter during my Master’s graduation ceremony in 2016

What makes an exceptional language learner and how can we achieve native like fluency? Late 2022 a book was published on the topic of motivation, cognition and identity with a title “Lessons from Exceptional Language Learners Who Have Achieved Nativelike Proficiency” by Zoltán Dörnyei and Katarina Mentzelopoulos. They interviewed 30 participants that had achieved nativelike fluency in a foreign language as adults. Through analyzing the interview data, they categorized different variables explaining why these learners had achieved something that only few language learners are able to achieve.

When looking at the data, we of course first need to define what nativelikeness means. At this study, the research participants had to satisfy the following conditions:

1. Be recommended by someone who recognized them as someone often taken for a native speaker

2. Confirm themselves that they are indeed nativelike

3. Provide evidence of passing for a native speaker

As native speakers themselves speak their first language (L1) at varying levels, there isn’t necessarily one specific level that could be tested by standardized tests of what constitutes as a native. For example in the case of Mandarin Chinese, think of a someone who has only gone through compulsory schooling and then someone who has a PhD degree from literature, they can be both be native Chinese speakers, but speak Chinese in a completely different way and on a different level.

I personally think that any learner of Chinese as a second language (L2 Chinese) than can pass as a native speaker has achieved great success with the language, no matter if they can pass as nativelike for 20 minutes or several hours. Passing as a native speaker in Chinese is obviously harder for those who don’t look Chinese, but it can be possible in a phone call or online communication. Or at night when it’s dark, like happened to me once when I was walking the dogs and started chatting with another dog-walker, who later looked up from the dogs and saw that I actually wasn’t Chinese.

What paths can then lead to such exceptional success in second language learning? The research found out several factors that can contribute to achieving nativelike proficiency in a foreign language. For example:

  • Unique bond with the language
  • Cognitive endowment
  • Attention to developing native accent
  • Strategic learning and intensive effort
  • Having people around them that spoke the language as a L1, for example friends, spouses or colleagues
  • Persistence and passion
  • Confidence
  • Indentifying with the target language community

What I regard as excellent news for all language learners, is that there is no one recipe for success. Instead the participants presented a variety of combinations of the variables listed above and each of them had a few of these characteristics, but they weren’t identical with other participants.

We could then say, that from these different ingredients, a student can create their own recipe and make their own fluency soup. Perhaps you don’t have a Chinese spouse, but that will not hinder your studies, you can use your strengths in intensive studying and paying attention to pronunciation, achieving your goals your own way.

Achieving nativelike fluency in Chinese

In a more detailed look into the participants of this research, we can see that most of them achieved fluency in European languages like English, German, French and Italian to name few. Only one participants, a native English speaker, had achieved nativelike level in Mandarin and Japanese. Now this can be due to convenience sampling, that these participants were the ones that could conveniently be asked to join the research, or that there are simply more learners that achieve fluency in European languages (among those that speak another European language as L1 like most of the participants).

This participant who achieved native like fluency in Chinese, mentioned some reasons behind his success:

  • Deep interest towards Chinese characters
  • Great memory when it comes to the characters (at the same time, he had found learning French very difficult in school)
  • Fondness for silent observation, just listening to native speakers speak Chinese
  • Attention to pronunciation and actively working on learning a standard pronunciation and the want to get each tone correct
  • Focusing on his mistakes in order to learn from there and improve
  • Using creative learning strategies

A word of caution for L2 Chinese learners, this is one participant’s path to fluency in Chinese, not all learners follow the same path. As mentioned above, there are many routes to nativelike fluency or as we could say, many combination of ingredients can all make a delicious soup.

My own experience learning Chinese

I wouldn’t necessarily describe my self as having nativelike fluency in Mandarin Chinese, even if I can sometimes pass as a native speaker on the phone or during online communication – or at a dark park like mentioned above – but I am rather certain that I can still call my self an advanced learned of Mandarin Chinese. I have written my master’s thesis in Chinese and have achieve HSK Level 8 certificate, to give an idea of my language level.

Some of the reasons that I believe have helped me with achieving a high-level of Chinese.

  • Unique bond with Chinese. As my parents lived in Beijing in the 80s, I’ve always had a connection with China and Chinese culture. I was born in Finland and didn’t go to China until I was 21, but since primary school I do remember being interested in the language and culture of China. Now I have been living in China since 2010.
  • Strategic learning and intensive effort. I studied some Chinese in Finland, but after I moved to China I focused on learning Chinese full-time from 2010 until end of 2013 and then 2014-2016 completed my master’s degree in Chinese.
  • Being in the target language environment and having a Chinese family. Since 2013 I have used Mandarin daily to communicate with my husband and his family. Family has never been the reason why I learn Chinese, but having someone to talk to in your target language is certainly always helpful, even if they don’t specifically help you learn or teach you. If I wasn’t married to a Chinese speaker, I would have had to form other strong relationships and friendships with native speakers to achieve the same. Another option could have been to work in a Chinese workplace.
  • Passion. I can’t put it quite into words, but similar to having a unique bond, I also feel that I have great passion for learning Chinese and also for teaching the language as well. I believe this passion has also kept me motivated throughout the years, even my motivation hasn’t always been at the same level.
  • Teaching Chinese. Becoming a teacher for Mandarin Chinese has also been an important way for me to improve my own Chinese.

In order to achieve what I consider as a nativelike fluency (when it comes to me), I still have certain aspects of the language that I wish to improve further:

  • Improving my pronunciation in certain aspects, for example I still find it difficult sometimes to remember if a word is spelled with j or q if I have never seen the word written out and have only heard it in speech. I can recognize it on the spot, but later it’s hard to recollect which one it was. I also sometimes make tone mistakes as well when speaking, which my daughter (L1 Mandarin speaker) is happy to point out. These mistakes don’t affect my communication, but would be an added level of nativelike fluency.
  • Larger active vocabulary. I consider my vocabulary being rather large, but there are many specific terms and words that I’m not as familiar with. I want to be able to read books on a variety of topics in Chinese, which will require a lot more varied reading than I am doing at the moment.
  • Formal writing and speaking skills. In Chinese, the different is casual speech or writing (口语) compared to formal speech and writing (书面语) is big. This goes hand in hand with learning more vocabulary and in terms of writing skills, also formal grammar patterns.

My native language is Finnish and my first foreign language is English, but I have never had such pronounced goals for learning English. I’m not planning to achieve native pronunciation in English or feel ashamed that I use software like Grammarly while writing research plans or articles in English. Therefore clearly my relationship with Chinese is very different, something that I can only describe by using the word mentioned above, a unique bond with the language.

Comparing my own skills in these two L2, English and Chinese, I still feel more comfortable reading in English as I have a larger vocabulary in English and it’s easier to read a language with an alphabet when you encounter words you aren’t familiar with but can still read them out loud. My goal is to be as comfortable reading and writing Chinese as I’m with English and to be able to talk about variety of topics, including my research, in Chinese.

Ideas for related research

The research reported in this book that inspired me to write this blog article, is such an important part of understanding what makes successful language learners and how we can use this knowledge to designing and conducting language lessons. What I would hope to see in the future, or participate my self if possible, is a dedicated study on students achieving nativelike or high-level fluency in Mandarin Chinese.

On another level, I also find it fascinating to meet learners who have maintained their foreign language learning motivation for years and years. They aren’t always necessarily those with the highest level, but maintaining a high motivation is such a special achievement that I would love to conduct research in that topic as well.

A message to everyone conducting research on similar topics: My email inbox is always welcoming messages of interesting research or possible collaborations.

Takeaways for language learners

As a teacher I often hear my students saying similar things during the first class. How they aren’t good with languages, they have bad memory or they are too old to learn. Some mention how they don’t have the language gene or any natural talent for language learning. For these students I would like to offer words of comfort based on this research, as there are many different ways to achieve your goals in Chinese.

I personally always got very average grades in English and Swedish in high school, but still managed to learn Chinese to a high level. I don’t have any musical ability, so like for most of us, tones were an extremely difficult part of the language, but with time and effort, I was able to learn them to a decent level. I often tell my students, that I don’t have any natural talent for learning languages, I was just motivated enough to put in the hours of hard work to achieve my goals. Therefore I believe that if you put in the effort, anyone can achieve great results as well.

Not all of us aim to reach nativelike fluency in Chinese, most of my students want to use Chinese in daily life situations or in simple work matters. For them my advice would be:

  • Pay attention to pronunciation (including tones) from the beginning even when it feels like a lot of work. It is a lot harder to go back to the basics if you later notice that locals have a difficult time understanding you.
  • To foster motivation, set small goals that excite you, but that are within your reach. Enjoy the feeling of accomplishment when check marking your goals.
  • Find things in Chinese that interest you and can help you to bond with the language, that can be music, movies, history or any other aspect of the culture that you find fascinating.
  • Find your people to practice Chinese with. You don’t have to marry a local to improve your Chinese, instead you can make local friends and get to know them well. Start chatting with people around you, guards in your neighborhood, the local hairdresser or waiters at your favorite restaurant. Don’t worry about making mistakes, have fun with the language and immersing yourself in the local culture.

Looking forward to reading about your experiences in learning a second language or researching fluency.