The Three Most Important Characteristics
of Good Language Learners:
A Case Study of Five Indonesian Learners
A large number of studies have been conducted to investigate the characteristics of good language learners. It is believed that good language learners have similar pattern in developing their ability, which differentiate them from bad language learners (Nunan, 1999). Rubin & Thompson (1982) have come to the 14 characteristics of good language learners. The characteristics used by learners are influenced by several factors such as motivation, language learning environment and learning style (Oxford, 2004). This paper will explain the three most important characteristics of good Indonesian learners in learning English as a foreign language. The data were taken from the interviews with five good Indonesian learners. This paper will also discuss factors that influence the use of the strategy, English learning in Indonesia, difficulties in language learning and the three most important characteristics of good learners in learning English.
Learning strategies are defined as particular methods used to get a certain goal (Brown, 2000). Oxford (1990) defines learning strategies as some particular ways used by learners to make their learning process become more effective and more efficient.
Good language learners can be described as successful users of language learning strategies. As it mentioned earlier, there are 14 characteristics of the good language learner, which are summarized by Rubin & Thompson (1982). Good language learners:
- find their own way, taking charge of their learning.
- organize information about language.
- are creative, developing a “feel” for the language by experimenting with its grammar and words.
- make their own opportunities for practice in using the language inside and outside the classroom.
- learn to live with uncertainty by not getting flustered and by continuing to talk or listen without understanding every word.
- use mnemonics and other memory strategies to recall what has been learned.
- make errors work for them and not against them.
- use linguistic knowledge, including knowledge of their first language, In learning a second language.
- use contextual cues to help them in comprehension.
- learn to make intelligent guesses.
- learn chunks of language as wholes and formalized routines to help them perform “beyond their competence.”
- learn certain tricks that help to keep conversations going.
- learn certain production strategies to fill in gaps in their own competence.
- learn different styles of speech and writing and learn to vary their language according to the formality of the situation.
English learning in Indonesia
In Indonesia, English is taught to Junior High School students for three years and then to Senior High School students for three years as a compulsory subject. The main focus of teaching English is on grammar and reading skill. Therefore, other skills like speaking, writing and listening are mostly ignored (Sawir, 2005). The most common method that teachers use in teaching English is the grammar-translation method. Lamb (2004) describes Indonesian students as dependent students. The national curriculum focuses on teachers not the students as the center of the learning process. Textbooks are considered as the only resources that teachers use in the classroom. The result of the leaning process is assessed by national examination without considering the students’ needs. Consequently, students become passive learners.
Research by Exley (2005) shows that about 85 % of Indonesian students are categorized as “less than good” in English spoken and written proficiency. Another study by Setiyadi (2001) suggests that most students are never taught how to learn English by using good strategies.
Difficulties in English learning in Indonesia
The main problem in developing communicative skills in the classroom is the focus of teaching. In many schools in Indonesia, learning English is seen as learning some grammatical rules, doing some tasks without using the language (Sawir. 2005). Reading is the dominant skill taught by teachers. Consequently, the three other skills are ignored (Sugirin, 1999).
Class size is another main difficulty in learning. There are 40 to 50 students in a class. Lack of funds is the reason for the class size (Exley, 2005). Teachers’ ability in teaching English is also considered as the main factor of difficulty in achieving good learners. Many teachers do not have good level in teaching English.
Many studies have examined the language learning strategies used by good language learners. The results have similar patterns. A research by Setiyadi (2001) suggests that most good learners prefer to use metacognitive strategies in learning English. Metacognitive strategies are activities which provide a way for learners to arrange their own learning process (Oxford, 1990). The activities include centering the learning, arranging and planning and evaluating the learning.The use of metacognitive strategies has significant effect on their achievement in learning English. The similar result has also been founded by Mistar (2001). He suggests that metacognitive strategies and social strategies are two dominant factors for good learners to be independent learners. Metacognitive strategies independently make plans for the good learners’ activities as well as evaluate the program. On the other hand, social strategies independently enhance communicative interactions with other people.
A study by Bremner (1999) suggests that most good language learners in China prefer to use metacognitive and compensation strategies in their learning process. A similar study by Nisbet et al (2005) also finds that more students choose metacognitive strategies than other language learning strategies.
The data from this paper were taken from the interviews of five Indonesian students who are studying in Australia. Three of the participants are female students while the two others are male. Four of them are studying at Flinders University while one of them is studying at Australian National University, Canberra. All of them are taking master programs. The letter and the number in brackets identify each individual participant.
They were considered as good language learners because they can get scholarship to study in Australia. To get the scholarship, they had been selected from among over 5000 students in Indonesia who were interested in the scholarship. The selection was focused on communicative skill. At the time of the interviews, they had been studying in Australia for five months.
The participants were asked to comment on some questions about various aspects of English language learning. For examples, how they prefer learn English, what media they used in learning English. They were also asked about their attitudes toward their mistakes in learning English. The questions were adapted from Richards & Lockart (2004).
Findings from the interviews
The three most important characteristics of good language learners
After analyzing the interviews, I found three patterns of good language learners from the participants. The patterns are similar to what other researches found as I mentioned in literature review session. All of the participants preferred to use metacognitive strategies in learning English. They centered, arranged, planned and evaluated their own learning. They became more independent in making any decision of their learning process. The participants were also influenced a lot by their motivation, learning environment, personal style and attitude toward learning.
1. They find their own way, taking charge of their learning
The first pattern of good language learners was they tried to find their own way, taking charge of their learning. All of the five participants took English courses when they were still studying in Senior High School based on their intention. This means that they had strong motivation to find their own way to learn English. They had to spend their time, their money and their attention on learning English outside the classroom. This also means that they realized learning English in the classroom was not enough for them to be good learners.
“I took an English course since I was still in elementary school and then I continued until I was studying in Junior High School and Senior High School. At the first time, it was my parents’ intention to encourage taking the English course. However, I realized that it was good for me to do so. I found the advantages of English courses right now.” (S1)
“I took an English course when I was in Senior High School. I realized that English was very important for my future so that I registered at one of the best English courses in Indonesia.” (S2)
“I started taking an English course when I was at the second year of Senior High School. I took the course for two years only until I graduated from school. I did that because I couldn’t understand what teachers taught at school. There were too many students in a class so that I had a little attention.” (S3)
“My parents suggested me to take an English course when I was in Junior High School. I just followed their suggestion but then I realized the importance of an English course for my English ability. It was very helpful.” (S4)
“I liked English courses because the size of a classroom was very small. The teachers were very friendly and helpful. The facilities were good. The teaching method was better than what I got at school. There were also various kinds of model of learning English.” (S5)
Most of the participants realized the importance of good teaching environment therefore they found their own way in learning English. The most likely choice was an English course. They took English courses because the courses were the only places where they got more attention from the teachers and had more opportunity to practice their English.
Motivation became an essential factor for their decision to learn English outside the classroom. Most of the participants took the courses based on their own intention. This showed their strong motivation in learning English. As mentioned earlier, motivation influenced learners in using language-learning strategies.
2. They are creative, developing a “feel” for the language
The second similar pattern of the participants as good learners of English was that they were creative, developing a “feel” for the language. All of the participants used various media radio, TV, movies, songs and magazines in learning English. They did not depend on the textbooks or any materials they got from school or courses.
“I love learning English from radio and TV. Listening and watching news from radio and TV were my favorite programs. I learnt a lot from the media. It helped me in practice my listening skill. I often listened to BBC London in the morning. That was good experience for me.” (S1)
“I like reading English magazines so that I can practice my reading ability. I bought old TIME magazines. I learned a lot from the magazines. They helped me increase my vocabularies.” (S2)
“I like practicing my English with native speakers. I usually talked to tourists who came to my hometown. However, not many tourists came to my hometown so that I couldn’t practice regularly.”(S3)
“My hobbies are listening to the music and watching movies. I think I can learn English through both of them. For me songs are more enjoyable in learning English as well as having fun. Movies also helped me understand the context of some language items. Movies are more helpful in learning listening and speaking especially English movies without text on the screen.” (S4)
“I like debates and discussions. Usually the teacher gave us an interesting topic to be discussed and then we gave our opinion about the topic. The role of the teacher was only as a guide. At the end of the discussion, he explained some language items and gave correctness. I think it was a good way to do that and I liked it very much.” (S5)
From the comments of the participants above, it can be seen that they had their own media preferences in learning English. They used specific activities to make the learning process easier, faster, more enjoyable, more self-directed and more transferable to new situation (Oxford, 1990). They used the media as facilities to practice using language outside the classroom.
The choice of media is influenced by learning style and personal preference (Oxford, 2004). Learning style can be defined as cognitive, affective and physiological characteristics of how learners perceive, interact with and respond to the learning environment (Brown, 2000).
3. They make errors work for them and not against them
The last common pattern of good Indonesian learners was that they made errors work for them and not against them. They were not afraid of making mistakes in learning English. They learned a lot from the mistakes. The following comments show that attitude.
“One of my teachers told me not to be afraid if you learned a language so that I keep practicing my English in the classroom even though I made some mistakes and my friends laughed at me. But in my English course nobody laughed at me if I made some mistakes in pronounce a particular word. They were very friendly. That was why I loved the environment in my English course’s class rather than at school.” (S1)
“I didn’t care if people laughed at my mistakes. For me, nobody is perfect. English is not my first language so why I have to be embarrassed if I made mistakes. I think I learned from mistakes. Moreover, my teachers in my English courses usually corrected my mistakes at the end of the lesson. Therefore, I didn’t make the same mistakes again next time.” (S2)
“I often made mistakes in grammar and pronunciation but for me, they were not big deals. As long as the person I talked to understood what I said, that’s ok.” (S3)
“I love practicing English in my English courses because the teachers would tell me and my friends about our errors and the they corrected the errors. I usually remembered most errors that I made and then tried not to make the same errors later. In the classroom, I couldn’t do that because everybody would laugh at you if you said something wrong.” (S4)
“I usually made some notes about my weaknesses in grammar and pronunciation and then learned the mistakes at home. If I still didn’t understand about the mistakes I came to my teacher in my English course to find out the right answer.” (S5)
From the comments above, it can be seen that the good language learners were not afraid of making mistakes in practicing the language. They realized that the mistakes they made would improve their ability in learning the language if they could learn from the mistakes. Another common thing is that the bad environment, which discourages them to develop their ability, does not influence the good language learners.
In conclusion, the findings of this study help us understand the strategies used most by good Indonesian learners in learning English. Like what other researches found, this study has figured out the pattern of language strategies used by good Indonesian learners in learning English as a foreign language. This study also shows us the factors that influence the participants in using the strategies. In summary, the interviews have provided the following findings:
- The participants find their own way, taking charge of their learning by taking English courses outside the school.
- The participants are creative learners by using various media in learning English.
- The participants make errors work for them and not against them by keeping practice English to improve their ability.
- Motivation, environment and attitudes toward errors are very influential factors in using strategies of language learning.
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