How Do You Become Successful at Language Learning?

We recently published Lessons from Exceptional Language Learners Who Have Achieved Nativelike Proficiency and its companion volume Stories from Exceptional Language Learners Who Have Achieved Nativelike Proficiency by Zoltán Dörnyei and Katarina Mentzelopoulos. In this post Katarina introduces the books.

How do you become successful at language learning?

I will start with a disclaimer: the answer to this question highly depends on how you define success and what your own individual language learning goals are. But using one definition of success – nativelikeness – we asked 30 exceptionally successful language learners this same question. Without any heritage background or early immersion experiences, these individuals all learned an additional language to the extent that they could be mistaken for native speakers in that language.

So how does one become exceptionally successful at learning a language? It wouldn’t be an age-old question if it came with an easy answer. For decades, researchers have investigated the factors they think might affect ultimate attainment in language learning. They asked questions like: How far can language learning go? Does the amount of time you spend immersed in the language matter? What about your age when you start learning? Does the quality of language you are exposed to make a difference?

For us, rather than the environmental factors, what we wanted to know was the process behind the success. Why did these learners decide to learn the language? What was their experience like? What motivated them, and what sustained them when that motivation waned? Even more, what was it like when they reached the final stage of that journey? What is it like to be nativelike?

In 2020, we sat down with 30 gifted language learners and asked them to share with us their language learning (hi)stories from start to present. They proceeded to bring us on a journey through all manner of individual differences and learning factors:

  • Their individual personalities and talents, from their openness and international posture to their musical ability and deep emotional connection with their languages
  • The relationships they forged, the communities they took part in, and the role models that inspired them
  • Their trials and tribulations related to multilingual identities, legitimacy and ownership, as well as their successes with carving their own paths through these circles and developing their own linguistic voice
  • Their aspirations and goals, the strategies that saw them through, and how they managed to persist through any number of obstacles

These are just a few, and for every rule, there was always an exception.

So what’s the answer to our question? How do you become successful at language learning? We initially set out to write a single monograph to answer this, planning on analysing our learners’ narratives and drawing out specific lessons that could be learned. Yet it turned out that each of the stories was so distinctive with their own complexities that we felt their full narratives were just as important as the lessons we could distil.

Thus, readers can dive into each of our learners’ stories in the forthcoming volume, Stories from Exceptional Language Learners Who Have Achieved Nativelike Proficiency. Complementing this, the compiled lessons and research-related insights can be found in Lessons from Exceptional Language Learners Who Have Achieved Nativelike Proficiency: Motivation, Cognition and Identity. Both volumes can be read as standalones, but we highly recommend reading them together, as the overarching themes and the individual details complement each other in a way the lone books do not.

Ultimately, I regret to inform you that neither volume provides a single answer to our question, and there is a lot more to expand on in this burgeoning topic. Nevertheless, we hope that this duology contains a number of threads that provide learners, teachers and researchers alike a few drops of inspiration in your own respective journeys.

If you would like to get in touch to have a chat about the books or anything related, feel free to find me on Twitter (@KatarinaMentz).

For more information about Lessons from Exceptional Language Learners Who Have Achieved Nativelike Proficiency and Stories from Exceptional Language Learners Who Have Achieved Nativelike Proficiency please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Autonomy Support Beyond the Language Learning Classroom edited by Jo Mynard and Scott J. Shelton-Strong.

Phraseology and the Foreign Language Learner

This month we published Perspectives on the L2 Phrasicon edited by Sylviane Granger. In this post Sylviane explains how interest in the study of phraseology has grown.

We do not speak in single, independent words. As soon as we select one word, the number of words by which it can be followed or preceded becomes severely restricted. For example, the gap in I’m staying at home today because I have a ___ cold will typically be filled by adjectives such as bad, nasty or terrible, not by large, big or considerable. Such word partnerships come naturally to native speakers of English, but represent a major difficulty for foreign language learners. However, for a long time the study of lexis was largely confined to the study of single words. Multiword units were considered peripheral features of language, and the only units that were given prominence in foreign language teaching were semantically non-compositional units, i.e. units whose meaning could not be deduced from the meaning of their parts, in particular figurative idioms (to spill the beans), proverbs (the early bird catches the worm) and phrasal verbs (to give in).

Interest in phraseology, which can be roughly defined as the study of multiword units of various kinds, took a sharp upward turn with the advent of corpus linguistics, i.e. the study of language on the basis of large electronic collections of authentic language and automated methods and tools to investigate them. This major development opened up a brand-new world, in which phraseology took centre stage. Corpus studies have shown that opaque, figurative units are fairly infrequent compared with other units, in particular collocations, i.e. strongly associated pairs of words such as bad cold, and lexical bundles, i.e. longer recurrent word sequences, such as you know what I mean in speech and as a result of in writing. Unlike idioms, these two types of unit pose no particular problem of comprehension. However, they are very frequent and constitute a major hurdle for productive purposes. The reason is that these units, being semantically compositional, tend to go unnoticed: learners are often not aware of their formulaic nature and tend to transfer the literal equivalent from their mother tongue to the target language.

This widening of the scope of phraseology led to a greater focus on non-idiomatic multiword units in reference and teaching materials. For a number of years now, large corpora of native English have been used to show the company that words prefer to keep, in particular collocations, and, on that basis, to ‘phrase up’ dictionary entries, word lists and vocabulary exercises. The problem is that this exclusive focus on native use tells us nothing about the difficulty that learners experience with these units. Does learner use differ from native speaker use and if so, in what way? Do some types of unit cause learners more difficulty than others? Is use of these units greatly influenced by the learner’s mother tongue? Does phraseological use vary with proficiency and if so, how? Does phraseology function differently in speech and writing? These types of question can only be answered by analysing authentic learner data.

The main objective of this book is to make the voice of language learners heard. It does so by relying on learner corpora, i.e. electronic collections of writing and/or speech produced by foreign/second language learners. Scholars started compiling learner corpora in the early 1990s with the twofold objective of, first, contributing to Second Language Acquisition theory by providing a better description of learner language and a better understanding of the factors that influence it and, second, of producing pedagogical tools and methods that more accurately target the needs of language learners. In this book, learner corpora are used to investigate the impact of a range of variables (target language, language background, proficiency level, spoken vs written mode, degree of exposure to the foreign language, topic, time span) on learners’ use of multiword units, mainly collocations but also lexical bundles and lexico-grammatical patterns. The multiword units are extracted automatically from learner corpora on the basis of their frequency and strength of association. The studies in the volume highlight the power of new phraseological indices to assess the quality of learner texts, thus offering great potential for language assessment and automated scoring. Altogether, the book provides a unique window on the learner phrasicon and prompts further studies in this exciting and important research field.

Prof. Dr Sylviane Granger

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Idiomatic Mastery in a First and Second Language by Monica Karlsson.

A Multilingual Environment on Study Abroad – Barrier or Benefit?

This month we published Language Learning in Study Abroad edited by Wenhao Diao and Emma Trentman. In this post the editors explain how the multilingual environment of study abroad can be beneficial.

Study abroad has been a central part of our lives for the last two decades, starting with our own experiences studying abroad and working with study abroad students, and culminating with researching and leading study abroad programs ourselves, some of which are described in our chapters in this book.

As language learners, we were sold on the promise of the magical linguistic gains we’d make during study abroad through the immersion experience, and saw these same dreams reflected in the expectations of our research participants. Yet, as we discovered ourselves, and as the chapters in this book demonstrate across a variety of locations and programs, study abroad is usually not an experience of monolingual immersion. Both language learners and the contexts in which they study are inherently multilingual. All too often, this multilingualism, and especially the presence of Global English, is framed as an obstacle to language learning, as learners struggle to make friends in the local language, negotiate racialized and gendered experiences, and generally wonder how to learn a language in a multilingual environment.

Yet, what if the multilingual environment is not a challenge to overcome with language pledges and other program interventions, but one in which language learners can use their full linguistic repertoires to expand them? And what if the multilingual realities are what historicize and contextualize the study abroad experience in post-colonial societies, neoliberal economies, and cultural discourses that position certain language learners as non-legitimate speakers of their target language(s)? The chapters in this book detail how language learners in study abroad locations throughout the world use a variety of strategies to gain an awareness of the cultural nuances of being and becoming multilingual. Some chapters also demonstrate the consequences for learners who hold on to their monolingual language ideologies. The implications of this mindset shift are many, particularly for the context of teaching languages to English speakers from wealthy Anglophone countries that are often viewed as centers of economic globalization.  Rather than focusing on how to make a multilingual environment more monolingual, or advising learners to avoid compatriots and English speakers, we can encourage learners to engage in translanguaging practices and negotiate their multilingual identities in ways that expand their linguistic repertoires and develop a critical multilingual awareness. This focus has the additional benefit of recognizing the translanguaging and identity negotiation skills of minoritized students, both of which are often overlooked in the language classroom.

We would like to thank the authors of the chapters in this volume, Uju Anya, Lucien Brown, Janice McGregor, Lourdes Ortega, Tracy Quan, Jamie A. Thomas, and Brandon Tullock, for their insightful contributions. It is our hope that this volume will inspire study abroad researchers and practitioners to help students develop skills to negotiate language learning in multilingual environments.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Study Abroad, Second Language Acquisition and Interculturality edited by Martin Howard.

Early Language Learning in School Contexts Series – Looking Back, Looking Forward

It’s two years since the first book in our Early Language Learning in School Contexts series was published. In this post the series editor, Janet Enever, reflects on how the series began and what the future holds.

The inspiration for this book series began a long time ago – working as a language teacher educator in eastern Europe in the mid-1990s I found it very difficult to identify any research collections which focused on the 3-12 years age group, despite the needs of my students. Bringing the series to fruition however, has spread over a long period of gestation – teaching MA students in London, leading the ELLiE research project in Europe, then taking up a professorial position in Sweden where it became possible to work with colleagues to launch a conference event focusing on Early Language Learning: Theory and Practice in 2014. The event proved seminal, precipitating my proposal to AILA for the launch of a global research network in early language learning (ELL-ReN) and my proposal to Multilingual Matters for the launch of the Early Language Learning in School Contexts series (launched in 2015).

I’m thrilled now to be able to say that the Multilingual Matters book series Early Language Learning in School Contexts has really taken off, with three titles already published, at least one more expected in 2019 and a further four being written as we speak!

The aim of the series from the start has been to take a very global look at how early foreign, second and additional language learning is developing in many parts of the world. We have really fulfilled this promise with publications on:

Mixed methods research: Early Language Learning: Complexity and Mixed Methods (Eds. Janet Enever & Eva Lindgren, 2017);

Pre-school language learning: Early Instructed Second Language Acquisition: Pathways to Competence (Eds. Joanna Rokita-Jaśkow & Melanie Ellis, 2019);

Teacher education: Early Language Learning and Teacher Education (Eds. Subhan Zein & Sue Garton, 2019);

Coming in August 2019: Integrating Assessment into Early Language Learning and Teaching (Eds. Danijela Prošić-Santovac & Shelagh Rixon, 2019).

Other themes in the pipeline include: assessment for learning, issues in researching young language learners in school contexts, and policy – no promises as to when these will be published yet though!

Looking back and looking forward:

Reflecting on the three years since the series was launched, I can remember initial questions about whether such a series was needed. Some suggested that a separate strand of publications focusing only on language learners from 3-12 years was unnecessary. However, for teachers, teacher educators and researchers working in this field it has been difficult to know where to look for research which really focuses entirely on young children’s foreign/ second and additional language learning experiences. With the ELLSC series we have at last established a ‘home’ for this specialist area.

The series has proved timely, as more and more young children begin their journey of learning additional languages in schools and kindergartens around the world, so teachers and teacher educators are seeking research-based evidence to guide them in implementing age- and context-appropriate approaches to teaching and learning. With every new volume published in the series we are aiming to provide this support.

However, we still need much more! There are still many gaps in the collection! So, if you have an idea that you would like to discuss – either formally or informally, do get in touch with the Multilingual Matters editor, Laura Longworth at: Alternatively, contact me directly at:

For more information about this series please see our website.

Using a Narrative Approach to Explore Teaching Practice

This month we are publishing Narratives of Adult English Learners and Teachers by Clarena Larrotta. In this post the author discusses her choice to use narratives to present a picture of adult language learning.

Working as a university professor of adult education and TESOL (teaching English to speakers of other languages), I came to realize there was not a book that could help the graduate students in my classes to grasp the reality of teaching English and literacy related subjects to adult learners. Similarly, interacting with volunteer adult educators who did not have language/pedagogy training and who volunteer as ESL instructors because they know the language and have time to do so, I realized there was not a book I could recommend for them to read and that captured the voices of both adult language learners and teachers. Therefore, this book was born as a response to these two groups of people when they asked, ‘what can I read to get a good picture of what is going on with regards to teaching adult language learners and non-traditional adult learners?’

Considering this audience, narratives and storytelling seemed to be the perfect medium to transmit a powerful and memorable message to them. I wanted them to understand that we need to go beyond theory and outside the classroom walls to include community and envision adult learners as whole human beings. Older learners are among the least studied groups in the literature and many of them take on new challenges as they migrate to a new country, and as they face the need to learn a new language-culture.

Providing an account of both narratives (adult learners’ and teachers’) aimed to inspire trainee teachers and practitioners in the field of adult education to become better and more reflective teachers. The book supports the idea of preparing trainee teachers for actual scenarios they are likely to encounter with adult language learners and colleagues in adult education programs. Likewise, the volume invites actual adult educators to reflect on their practices and contemplate the realities of the learners they serve. In summary, the book aims to honor the work of language learners and TESOL practitioners and to share highlights from their learning/teaching journeys.

The narratives in this book make accessible the stories shared by learners and teachers as they lived them in real-life settings. The book chapters and their respective stories contain a beginning, middle and end. The beginning provides the context and supporting theory, the middle presents the main issues to be considered and the end gives clo­sure to the reader. As a result, each chapter introduces (1) the participants in the story – teachers’ and learners’ experiences and their interactions; (2) the context, socio-political, and socio-cultural dimensions; and (3) the physical settings where the story is located -the program, the course, the language-culture and country of origin. The learners’ stories allow teachers to gain empathy and cultural knowledge. A narrative approach to exploring one’s teaching practice leads to a better understanding of that context and hopefully sharing this learning will promote change and encourage other teachers to make sense of and reflect on their personal teaching stories as well.

Clarena Larrotta, PhD
Texas State University


For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Educating Refugee-background Students edited by Shawna Shapiro, Raichle Farrelly and Mary Jane Curry.

Self and Identity in Adolescent Foreign Language Learning

Florentina Taylor, author of the recently published Self and Identity in Adolescent Foreign Language Learningwrites here about the inspiration for her book.

Imagine for a moment a group of medics debating the best cure for a condition that a patient appears to be suffering from. They have ordered several tests and, based on the results, they are quite confident they can cure the condition with the medicines that, to the best of their knowledge, are considered to be the most effective at the time. How likely is it that they can recommend a successful treatment without including the patient in the discussion? Could there be something in the patient’s medical history they’re not aware of? Could the patient be allergic to some of the substances in the recommended pills? Is the patient taking other medicines that may affect the effectiveness of the intended treatment? Ultimately, does the patient understand the benefits of the proposed cure, and is he or she committed to swallowing three pills a day with plenty of water, before each main meal, in order for the treatment to be successful?

Self and Identity in Adolescent Foreign Language LearningAs language educators dedicated to bringing out the best in our students, we spend huge amounts of time thinking, reading and writing about the best teaching methods, the best materials, the best tests, the best motivational techniques. We debate, we argue, we question and we persist in the obstinate belief that one day we will succeed in engaging the disengaged, enabling the not-yet-able and retaining the so-far-engaged-and-able. Yet, we sometimes resemble a group of medics trying to cure real or imaginary conditions without actually consulting the patient.

In language education, such a condition can take many forms. In English-speaking countries, there is a generalised perception that nobody wants to learn foreign languages because ‘everybody speaks English nowadays’, although there is evidence that English is losing ground as the language of international communication and, clearly, not everybody speaks English. While more and more worrying statistics show how low interest in languages leads to university departments closing down and how businesses are losing out on the global market due to poor language skills, we language educators know that instrumental, means-to-an-end reasons to study languages are less important than intrinsic, personally fulfilling drives. After all, how many of us become interested in languages and are prepared to spend a significant amount of time and effort working on our skills for fear a language department or an international business might close down otherwise?

In non-English speaking countries, where foreign language study is often compulsory at school, or in English-speaking contexts that make foreign language study compulsory, we may find different symptoms of – I would argue – a very similar ‘condition’. Whether or not to study a language may not be an option for many such students, but there is always the option whether or not to engage with the language classes one has to attend. There’s also the option whether to really engage, to sort-of engage or to just put in as little effort as necessary to give the impression that you are engaged so you are left alone to see to your own personally relevant agenda. In such an environment, the teacher is often fighting a losing battle, as few signs may be giving away the fact that many students are not actually as interested in the language lesson as they appear to be and they are not working as hard as they would have us believe.

Does it matter? Well, research shows that it does. The recently published Self and Identity in Adolescent Foreign Language Learning depicts language learners as caught between contradictory expectations (e.g., teacher versus peers) resulting in complex identity negotiations that enable them to please both the teacher, ’who gives the marks’, and the peers, who would otherwise punish nonconformity with ostracism. The learners’ own expectations and wishes are often muted in an effort to please (or, for that matter, irritate) other people. And, if formal achievement measures are anything to go by, there is evidence that students who feel they need to undertake such strategic negotiation and display of identity have lower foreign language scores than those who do not. Students who feel appreciated as real persons by the language teacher, who do not feel the need to pretend they are what they are not, appear to obtain the highest language scores. Moreover, they feel respected and, in turn, respect their teacher, they are prepared to work hard in and out of class, they feel they are real stakeholders in their own education.

Based on the data discussed in this book, several ways in which teachers can show they value their students as ‘real persons’ are:

  • helping them understand how what is happening today in the classroom will one day be of use to them in real life;
  • being understanding and caring when students struggle with a particularly difficult concept;
  • providing supporting and informative feedback that allows students to learn and make progress;
  • not punishing or ridiculing mistakes (e.g., pronunciation, grammar);
  • allowing for a degree of student initiative and autonomy in organising group activities and projects;
  • expecting that their students achieve their best and helping them to do so;
  • accepting that students may sometimes disagree with the teacher, which is perfectly normal in any social group;
  • believing in students’ potential and intrinsic value as human beings;
  • ultimately, respecting them as we would (should?) any other person.

Self and Identity in Adolescent Foreign Language Learning presents numerous direct quotations from student interviews, as well as statistical analyses to support these suggestions, arguing that caring for students as individuals does have a number of benefits, from better classroom dynamics to better achievement. The book proposes a new model of identity based on educational psychology concepts and theories applied to foreign language learning. The project reported in this book tested the model with 1,045 adolescents learning English as a foreign language in Romania. The model has also been tested, with very similar results, with learners of English as a foreign language and Mathematics in four other European countries. Although in a different context and using a different theoretical framework, similar insights were also obtained when researching the perceived relevance of Modern Foreign Languages in England.

The consistent, albeit circular, message that many studies conducted in Europe and elsewhere seem to give is that low foreign language uptake and lack of interest in language classes are mainly due to acute student demotivation. My own work with adolescents learning languages in Bulgaria, Germany, the Netherlands, Romania, Spain and the UK has shown that young learners are actually very motivated and interested in languages, that they understand the value of knowing other languages and are willing to invest time and effort in becoming (more) able to do so. But, in all these different contexts, many students appear to feel left out of their own education and, if they are indeed suffering from a condition that needs addressing urgently, I believe it is the need to feel they matter as individuals. Education is meant to inspire future generations to be better than us and do greater things than we have. But inspiration, like education, is not something that we can do to our students. Truly inspiring and educating our students is not possible without giving them a very clear message through our words, attitudes and actions: you matter.

The Importance of Online Communication in Language Learning

Following the recent publication of Online Communication in a Second Language we asked the book’s author, Sarah E. Pasfield-Neofitou, to explain the importance of online communication in language learning.

Online Communication in a Second Language
“Online Communication in a Second Language”

The inspiration to research learners’ uses of online communication in a second language outside of the classroom came from my own experiences of using email, chat, forums, and other online tools as a language learner, over a decade prior. In the years since my own initial forays into the online world in a second language in the late 1990s, the internet has exploded with online videos, mobile content, massively open online games, blogs, and social networking, and in undertaking the research for Online Communication in a Second Language, I had the opportunity to analyse over 2,000 such instances of interaction in Japanese, English, and other languages from 12 language learners.

Although many studies have shown the benefits and drawbacks of using ICT in classroom or laboratory settings for language learning purposes, I was interested in finding out how other language learners were actually using their second language online – how they developed networks, managed their communication and identities, how they maintained interest – and what happens when they lose interest? I was also very interested in the organisation of online communication at both the micro and macro level, particularly when two or more languages are involved, and the opportunities for language learning that online communication might facilitate. While there is an extensive and growing body of research on young people’s use of CMC, much of it tends to focus on monolingual contexts, particularly English.

Launch Display of "Online Communication in a Second Language"
Launch display of “Online Communication in a Second Language”

One of the most often cited advantages of online communication for second language learners is that it provides access to native speaker peers, can help develop literacy, and enhance formal learning. And indeed, I found that computer mediated communication provided exciting and important opportunities for language acquisition through the availability of contextual resources, authentic communication, repair, and peer feedback. However, as my study tracing learners’ online engagement for up to four years shows, access is not always easy or automatic. Students reported that they perceived language-specific ‘domains’ in the online environment – a sense that certain online ‘spaces’ were ‘owned’ or primarily designed ‘for’ particular groups. Thus, I became interested in what factors promote the establishment and maintenance of relationships online and participation in online communities, and what factors might conversely encourage ‘lurking’ behaviours, where negative experiences (or a fear of them) left learners too shy to contribute.

Although it is often assumed that only intermediate to advanced language students will have the capacity to engage in online communication, in my interviews with language learners who ranged in proficiency level from beginner to upper advanced levels, I found that often, online communication held an even more important place in the language use of beginner students. Those who had not yet had the opportunity to travel to Japan, host an exchange student, or share classes with native speakers of Japanese, often reported that the online environment was actually their primary or only use of Japanese outside of the classroom. Those students who had undertaken such activities reported that online communication was a way of maintaining those relationships they formed in face-to-face settings, and very advanced learners reported use of online communication in their occupational uses of Japanese as they transitioned to the workforce.

A small sample of kaomoji
A small sample of kaomoji

Despite their active engagement in online communication across the different levels of proficiency, and the central role that this communication played in terms of students’ overall use of their second language, I found that learners encountered a number of challenges in their online interaction. Some encountered differences in genre in terms of the kinds of messages they sent, and what they received, and expressed dissatisfaction, or felt excluded from certain online spaces, or were overwhelmed by the dazzling array of intricate and nuanced Japanese emoticons (emoji/kaomoji). A factor as seemingly basic as typing proficiency was found to greatly affect student’s language choice and participation in online communication in their second language.

Developing typing literacy is important
Developing typing literacy is important

I argue that the central role that online communication plays in language learners’ day-to-day lives and their holistic use of their second language, coupled with the challenges that exist, demonstrates the importance not only online of communication, but of learning how to communicate effectively online. This means fostering technical literacy, typing proficiency (which, especially in the case of a non-alphabetic language like Japanese, is not reducible to typing speed alone), and the ability to use tools like online dictionaries, glossaries and translators effectively, among other skills.

Keyboard and MouseNow, I am interested in concepts of ‘ownership’ of online domains, identity tourism (where playing online games, for example, can allow students to ‘try on’ different identities), and notions of what counts as a ‘conversation’ online, as well as how we can support and scaffold students’ use of online communication in out-of-class contexts.

For further information, please see Sarah’s website: