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How to Learn a Language, Part 1

Criteria for Success

From the series Effective Language and Culture Acquisition

Ten days earlier, my wife and I had arrived in Taiwan. Now here we were, sitting around a table with four other new arrivals at Taipei Language Institute.

The Chinese teacher came in. We couldn’t speak Chinese and she couldn’t speak English. She smiled and said, “Zao.” We looked at each other, totally confused. The teacher passed out a piece of paper with some writing on it. The first line was:

Zao      good morning

Oh! So zao means good morning. That was good to know. Then she said, “Gen wo shuo.” We all looked at each other, totally confused. But the teacher pointed to the second line:

Gen wo shuo   say it after me

Oh! So zao, gen wo shuo means “good morning, say it after me.” So we all said, “zao.” This was progress. We could say good morning already! And that’s the way two years of Mandarin study began.

Fifty-five years have gone by since then, spent mostly in mainland China. Today we have near-native fluency in Mandarin and we have observed many others seeking to learn Mandarin with greater and lesser degrees of success. What makes the difference? In this and the next several blogs, I would like to share some of what I’ve learned about foreign language learning. Here we look at criteria for successfully learning a foreign language.


Aptitude is the first criterion for success. Obviously, some people seem better at language learning than others. Moreover, success has little correlation with intelligence. Many highly educated persons have dismal language learning outcomes. Conversely, many uneducated people learn more than one language.

Many learners have taken the Modern Language Aptitude Test (MLAT), to discover how difficult it will be to learn another language.[1] On the test, learners with scores in the 0-20 percentile will have difficulty in language learning. Likewise, those scoring in the 80-100 percentile will have little difficulty. In the 20-80 percentile spread, language acquisition efforts and results vary considerably.

However, whether low or high aptitude, except for those with certain disabilities, every human being can learn a foreign language. It may be difficult, but you can do it.


Environment is the second criterion for success. As a university professor, I have observed that the average English ability of Chinese freshmen has improved over the years, thanks to required English courses and better instruction at some schools. Still, it is not ideal.

Ideally, if Chinese students wants to master English, they should go to an English-speaking country. I tell Chinese learners that they should go to the United States—but not to Los Angeles! There are too many Chinese people there. That won’t help their English-learning program.

Instead, they should go to my hometown in Appalachia. No Chinese people! If they want to eat, they must use English. With that kind of incentive, they will learn the language quickly and well. It’s not easy, but it’s an ideal language-learning environment.


Motivation is the third criterion. There are two kinds of motivation, extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation is basically environmental, including demands of school curricula,[2] work requirements, and moving to an L2 or L3[3] location.

Intrinsic motivation is generated from inside one’s self. You want to make friends with people who don’t speak your language. You’re fascinated by the culture or history of another people, or there’s something about their language that sounds nice.

Both types of motivation are important, but extrinsic motivation is imposed from the outside and may be short-lived, depending on changing circumstances. Intrinsic motivation is more powerful because you own it.

Years ago, I was field administrator for a Non-Government Organization (NGO) in Taiwan. All associates were career appointees and the organization required that all new hires had to spend their first two years learning the local language.

At one point I was advised that a new associate, a single lady, would be joining us, but there was a problem. She had scored very low on the MLAT. Since Chinese is considered a very difficult language for English speakers, she had been strongly advised to accept a position in Indonesia, Indonesian being an easy language to learn. But she was adamant—it was Taiwan or nothing!

Finally, the NGO sent her to Taiwan, but with a stipulation. She would be given two years’ probation but would be returned to the States if she did not pass the Chinese qualifying exam.

From the beginning, she had a rigid, self-imposed daily routine. She spent all day at school. After supper, she would go to her room and stay there until breakfast the next day. We were sure she would be a wash-out.

At the end of two years, she passed the language exam with flying colors! All that time she was highly motivated, afraid that she would fail the test. She became one of our most valuable associates, capable in her work and fluent in Chinese. She had embraced the extrinsic motivation imposed by the NGO, made it intrinsic to her, and excelled in the language.

Hard work

Hard work is the fourth criterion for success in learning a foreign language. Of these four criteria, the first three are important but the fourth is essential. You may have high aptitude, an ideal language learning environment, and strong motivation, but if you don’t work hard, you won’t learn the language.

While I was a PhD candidate, my university asked me to join the faculty for a year directing the Intensive Chinese language program. One of our language drill instructors was a visiting scholar from Nankai University in Tianjin. To my astonishment, he spoke English just like I do.

He told me his background. When the Cultural Revolution began, he was sent down to the countryside. When he left Tianjin, he had taken along a small short-wave radio and a hand-held tape recorder with English language tapes. Thereafter, every night, he had clandestinely listened to the British Broadcasting Company, Voice of America, and English tapes. Finally, after eight years he was restored to Nankai University, and a couple years after that I met him in the States.

Hard work had paid off! Amazingly!

Next month, part 2 will discuss how to work hard.

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Mark Newland

Mark Newland (pseudonym) lived in Taiwan for a decade and since then has lived and worked for extended periods in the People's Republic of China. His PhD is in General Linguistics, reflecting his deep interest in language and culture. He has been involved in a wide variety of pursuits in …View Full Bio

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