Language Learning Archetypes

Athlete, Actor, Child & Networker

What does an athlete, actor, child, and networker have in common? Each is a great metaphor, an archetype for language learning. Archetypes are symbolic representations that capture complex ideas in easy-to-digest packages—the abstract becomes familiar. They are a collection of attitudes, desires, behaviors, and beliefs; near-perfect models of the ideal language learner. Equally important is to be familiar with shadow archetypes so that learners know what to avoid. There is an entire spectrum between the archetype and the shadow archetype, learners will fall somewhere in between. Each archetype can be expressed in different degrees, but it’s more useful to talk about the extremes. The shadow archetypes—escapist, narcissist, adult, loner-hermit—lie on the other end of the spectrum.

For each archetype, where on the spectrum would you be?
What can you do to move towards the perfect archetypes?
What can you do to move away from the shadow archetypes?

The idea of applying archetypes to language learning came from reading Moore and Gillette’s book,King Warrior Magician Lover, published in 1990. The authors combine Jungian philosophy with mythology to describe healthy and unhealthy masculine and feminine archetypes. The central argument in the book is that spiritual growth, physical prowess, intellectual knowledge, and emotional connection need to be equally developed to attain true maturity and fulfillment. Self-development is a lifelong journey and archetypes can help give purpose and structure to this path. The same type of thinking can be applied to language learning. Students should emulate archetypes and defeat shadow archetypes to achieve better results.  

The Athlete

The Athlete is the epitome of professionalism. Athletes do not depend on bursts of motivation or inspiration; they show up every day. They are creatures of habit. Their process, often simple routines and rituals, brings them closer and closer towards their goals. Consistency in diet and training is key. They design their environments to maximize training efficiency and minimize any distractions or temptations. They are committed to this lifestyle for the long-term and face their demons head-on. Setbacks are mere learning opportunities. Injuries are chances for reflection. They are humble because they understand that they owe their success to countless people – family, friends, coaches, trainers, fans, and, sponsors. They are constantly learning and picking up knowledge from different sources. They willingly share their own experiences and care about the next generation of athletes. Their tremendous confidence is a result of grueling hours of practice, and their motto is: Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. When they’re not training, they engage in recreational activities to refuel their batteries: work hard, play hard. Finally, the greatest athletes do not seek fame; instead, they seek legacy, hall-of-fame immortality. 

The shadow archetype of the Athlete is the Escapist. Escapists are amateurs. They only work when inspiration strikes them. The rest of the time, they jump from one interest to another without making real progress in anything. They are proud of their jack-of-all-trades generalist approach and use the label “creative” or “troubled soul” to mask their lack of focus. Their passion and motivation fade away quickly because they lack the discipline to show up every day and the mental fortitude to overcome long dry spells. When confronted by loved ones, they assume a victim mentality and believe they are tortured souls. Every reality check is discarded. Each intervention is a threat. And any feedback is discouraged. These characters are perverse hedonists and holier-than-thou narcissists, often engaging in self-sabotage behavior. Stagnation, procrastination, distraction, and aimlessness are constant themes in their lives. They prefer convenience and comfort over hard work and effort. They do not know the limits of their competence and have a tendency to feel superior and overconfident in their abilities; mainly because they cannot recognize their own incompetence, and they lack the experience to understand the complexities of the task. They often describe tasks as easy, and repeat such ignorant phrases as, “anyone can do that.” Lastly, Escapists are cowards who are afraid to be vulnerable, afraid of failure, and afraid of judgment. They are experts at blaming their circumstances, and when the going gets tough, they detach from everyday reality. 

What does this mean for the language learner? Learning a language is not something that happens in 3 months, certainly not overnight. Developing fluency requires an incredible amount of investment in energy, time, and commitment, with tremendous opportunity costs. The questions you need to constantly ask yourself: what your goals are. What’s the purpose? Why am I learning this language? How badly do I really want to speak the language? Is it a hobby or a real skill I want to acquire? Should I speak the language or must I speak the language? Tony Robbins, an inspirational life coach and author of multiple bestsellers, often says that real change happens when you transform something you should do into something that you must do. This single change determines the difference between the life you want and the life you have. The more visceral the purpose, the higher chance of long-term commitment. You have to show up every day. You have to be consistent. You have to commit. You have to prioritize. You have to develop habits of success. You either use it or lose it. You’re either moving forward or moving backward. You have to practice and practice and practice. You have to be a professional. Dabbling is a recipe for mediocrity.

The Actor

The Actor is a sponge. Actors and Actresses spend enormous amounts of time studying people. They need to become adept observers of human emotion and human behavior. What is acting? Acting is pretending, convincing the audience that the actor or actress is someone else. They observe, empathize, and mimic people. They copy a character’s speech patterns, mannerisms, postures, gait, habits, ticks, facial expressions, fashion style, and among other things. Plus, they need the imagination and improvisation skills to remain in character. What enables them to create this consistent mental image of is empathy. They embody the spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical elements of each character they play. Actors can spend months preparing for a character. They undergo drastic body transformations or serious lifestyle changes in order to build credibility for the portrayal of that character. The American actor Adrien Brody, who played Wladyslaw Szpilman in The Pianist, sold his apartment, car, and phone; immersed himself in Szpilman’s memoirs to learn about the horrors of the Holocaust; broke off a long-term relationship; and moved to Europe where he went on a crash diet and lost 30 pounds in 6 weeks. He experienced extreme hunger and soul-crushing confinement to know what the character went through as a Polish Jew in the second World War. This obsession is the hallmark of acting greatness; and he became the youngest actor, at age 29, to win an Oscar award. Actors scramble from audition to audition, hoping to land a lead role in some kind of production; but most actors fall short of their dreams. Even successful actors face rejection and failure on a regular basis. To survive and handle all the judgment and scrutiny, they need to have thick skin and tenacity. They need to persevere, treating triumph and disaster just the same. Their self-esteem might be hurt from time to time, but their self-belief and dedication to their craft should never waver. 

The dark side of the Actor archetype is the Narcissist. Narcissists have an inflated sense of self-importance and require excessive admiration. They overvalue themselves and undervalue others. They have difficulty with empathy because they view everything through their own lens. They don’t understand the importance of seeing the world from another person’s perspective. Perhaps, it’s not a lack of ability but a lack of motivation. When their needs are not met, they react with anger, blame, shame, or manipulation. When confronted they respond with arrogance, contempt, deception, or indifference. When their inflated egos are exposed, they answer with avoidance, denial, or escapism. There is always a “reason” for their shortcomings. Narcissists feel special, almost godlike. Many suffer from a God complex—people who feel above others and have an overwhelming belief that they understand how the world works. Conversations are about their fantasies, their achievements, and their brilliance, never about others. They are enamored by the sound of their own voice, the quality of their own thoughts, and the beauty of their own appearance. Yet paradoxically, they are supremely sensitive to public perception and social rejection. 

What does this mean for the language learner? Students should first capture the essence of the language. Language is similar to music. Each country, each region, each city, has its own melody. You need to feel the rhythm and flow of that language. You need to be in observer mode and absorb as much as you can from other people. Pay particular attention to speech patterns and nonverbal communication – gestures, facial expressions, body language. Learn everything about the culture—its social norms, social expectations, history, stories, values, and beliefs. Surround yourself with native speakers and reduce the times you use your native tongue. Pretend to be someone else and adopt a new identity. Your identity can be reconstructed. Each language has its own soul. Case in point: polyglots often describe themselves as having multiple souls. Many students hit a plateau after a few years because they are unable to reshape their identities. Other students can’t reduce their accent for the same reason. In contrast, actors, singers, and performers are empathic chameleons with the ability to form new identities. They make you believe that they belong. They are not outsiders. Some students argue that they are unable to change their identity. I would say that the point is not changing, but “shapeshifting”. This ability takes a great deal of conscious effort, but with time and practice, switching identities will become natural. Adrien Brody, when describing his job, said, “The beauty of what I do is it gives you the opportunity to give up who you are and attempt to understand someone else, another time, other struggles, other emotions. If you really do experience a lot of them, you connect, and it’s very rewarding”. Indeed, the tools of an actor are observation, empathy, understanding, and connection. Remember that the apprentice imitates the master, until one day, he or she becomes the teacher.  

The Child

The Child is a bundle of positive emotion and insatiable curiosity. Children are natural learners. Their positivity broadens their lives as they play and explore the world. They ask questions, socialize with others, and engage in tasks with enthusiasm. Kids have an almost endless supply of energy when they are having fun. They follow their interests. They are wired to achieve and create. They are beginners, open-minded and therefore, not shackled by existing knowledge or stereotypes. Securely attached children are unafraid of vulnerability or failure. They are open books and wear their emotions on their sleeves, unconcerned with status, social comparisons or other people’s judgment. They instinctively trust their parents to provide them with love, support, and security. If they fall, they know their parents will be there to catch them. This allows them to continue with their adventures. They are resilient. Lastly, they are not in a hurry to achieve anything. There is no time pressure. They enthusiastically show up, practice fun activities, and over time develop competence. Fear, judgment, failure, stress, surrender, and shame are just not a big part of their daily vocabulary. 

The polar opposite of the Child is the Adult. Adults treat learning as an obligation. There’s no more exploration, experimentation, or fun. Adults who have neglected their inner child end up cynical, skeptical, and pessimistic. Pablo Picasso once said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” With experience, knowledge, and time, adults create a map of reality—a worldview. Maps can be a curse since adults are more likely to reject solutions or ideas that do not fit their preexisting models. Their minds are closed off, incapable of thinking outside of the box. Moreover, knowledgeable adults fall into the trap of polarization. Adults are extremely skilled at categorizing people and things. For example, men vs. women, black vs. white, right vs. wrong, or liberal vs. conservative. Categorization can create unnecessary separation between two seemingly opposing sides. Reality is not black and white, but shades of grey. Children, on the other hand, have no need for this kind of categorization and judgment. Adults also engage in protectionism. With time, they build personal resources—wealth, reputation, credibility, network, power—and feel a strong need to protect these assets. Any activity that undermines their status is unwelcome. They are fragile, weak. Their aim is no longer to explore and take risks but to survive and protect. 

What does this mean for the language learner? The stresses of adulthood should not discourage you. You have to reconnect with your inner child and remain positive and open-minded. You must not be afraid of judgment or shame when you make mistakes. You need to stay resilient in the face of failure. You need to have a healthy relationship with yourself by practicing self-compassion, positivity, mindfulness, and gratitude. Always be ready to take risks and step out of your comfort zone. Adopt a beginner’s mindset. Learn from everyone around you and don’t think you know it all. You need to bring that childlike curiosity and sense of wonder to language learning. Experiment with different learning strategies and methodologies. Ask other people what helped them develop fluency, and soak up all those tips. Practice with enthusiasm and forget about all the internal and external sources of pressure. Stay curious. Stay hungry. Stay foolish. 

The Networker

The Networker builds relationships and communities. Such groups automatically facilitate interaction, which is the gateway to connection and belonging. Relationships are ultimately about trust: are you a friend or foe? Networkers are skilled at conveying warmth and competence. Warmth— friendliness, loyalty, empathy, kindness, sincerity—communicates good intentions. They smile, make eye contact, and remember other people’s names. They are genuinely interested in other people and enjoy listening to their stories. They make other people feel important and in return benefit from strong social ties. Relationships take time to build, even so, networkers are unafraid of the commitment; they take small steps and are not easily discouraged when other people don’t reciprocate their interest. Networkers are deep souls with an awareness of our common humanity. They understand that people from all corners of the world are essentially the same. Human needs, desires, and sufferings are universal. Recognizing how much we share with others promotes compassion, respect, humility, and fellowship. 

The Networker’s alter ego is the Loner-Hermit. These lone wolves prefer to keep to themselves. They are fiercely independent and falsely believe that they can do everything alone. They do not want to be affiliated with groups and unfortunately miss out on countless social benefits. They have trust issues and are skeptical of other people’s intentions. They don’t naturally seek disconfirming evidence, preferring to search for information that’s consistent with their beliefs. They live in echo chambers in which ideas and opinions are rarely challenged. Arrogance, stubbornness, and overconfidence are typical personality traits of the Loner-Hermit. They play it safe and are afraid to venture anywhere outside their comfort zones. As a result, they do not receive any feedback, adding to their overconfidence since they compare their performance to inaccurate reference levels. Emotionally, loner-hermits are more prone to falling into the abyss of negativity, lacking the support network to pull them out of a slump. 

What does this mean for the language learner? Language is a social construct, a tool for communication. Human beings are social animals. Our brains are designed for connection. You need to find at least one conversation partner. There is no way to accurately gauge your language skill by practicing alone. You should practice in real-life situations, preferably face-to-face but online learning has its advantages. Develop a rich social network. Positive social feedback is a strong reinforcer and motivator. You need someone, preferably a teacher, to give you specific and timely feedback. You need to receive as much authentic input as possible. If you don’t practice with real people, you will always live in a small bubble. Immersion—living in a country that speaks your target language—has many benefits. It’s easier to find conversation partners, receive more authentic input, and build your cultural knowledge. Nowadays, however, it’s not entirely necessary to move to another country to pick up the language. Technology has diminished the limits of geographical factors on language acquisition. The Internet has become a valuable resource for many students. You can download language applications, find conversation partners online, and join digital communities. The resources are endless. This is an exciting time to learn different languages.


To be clear, the archetypes and shadow archetypes outlined in this article represent extreme ends of the spectrum. Students can use these examples to diagnose their strengths and weaknesses in order to make language learning more efficient. Focusing on archetypes gives you the maximum bang for your buck. Learning is more efficient when students have clear goals and role models.