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The 4 Stages of Language Learning (And What to Do at Each Stage)


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I was reading through a Spanish novel recently when all of sudden it dawned on me. I had read three pages in a row without having to look up a word.

Years earlier, reading in my target language was the most painful exercise I could imagine. I used to have to stop to look up every second word in a dictionary. It was horrible.

Now, reading in a second language is fun and, contrary to my earlier experience, something I look forward to.

I had known for a while that the secret to being an effective language learner was action-taking.

The more action you take, the faster you will learn.

But, the moment I realised how much easier it is to read nowadays, I discovered that action is relative.

What do I mean? Reading at an early stage of a language learning journey is neither easy nor enjoyable. Unless you have zen-like monk abilities to will yourself through a book word by word, sentence by sentence, then at the start of your language learning journey reading is not an effective activity.

If you accept the premise that the most valuable thing to do to improve your foreign language competence is to take action, then the most essential questions to ask yourself are:

Which are the most important activities to do? And at what stage?

Before I tell you how I answered this question for myself, I need to share with you a simple metaphor. To me, language competence is like an aeroplane in flight.

A Simple Metaphor for Language Learning – An Aeroplane Taking Flight

airplane1

Even if you are scared of flying (which I am), the moment a plane turns onto a runway, and the engines start to fire, can be incredibly exciting. Every time I’m on a plane in those first few moments of a flight, I’m reminded of two things: how amazing humans are, and all the possibilities of adventure that await at the end of the flight.

I get these same two feelings when someone decides to start a new language learning mission. Our ability to carry around the thousands of pieces of information required to speak another language in our heads is remarkable. And after a period of time studying, the possibilities of adventure grow and become real.

To get off the ground, a language student, like a plane, needs to follow a series of carefully coordinated actions.

Stage 1: Take Off

To take off, a plane needs to apply enough force to accelerate, it needs to lower the flaps to get enough lift at runway speeds, it needs to travel in a straight line in the right direction, and it needs to maintain constant acceleration for long enough to get off the ground.

Even though the stakes aren’t as high with language learning, if you want lift off, then you, too, need to focus on a series of carefully coordinated actions. If you aren’t accelerating in the right direction, or you haven’t accelerated for long enough, getting off the ground is going to take more time and be a lot more difficult.

Stage 2: Managing the Bumps

Once off the ground, things become a little easier. The flaps come in, the wheels go up, and you can start steering the plane in any direction you want. That said, the seat belt sign is still on. There is still a lot of work to be done before you are through the bumpy period below the clouds.

Language learning in this stage is about managing the bumps. Conversations won’t be smooth, they will feel awkward, but the more you can do in this bumpy period, the faster you will be through the turbulence.

Stage 3: Gaining Altitude

Now that the bumps and turbulence of the clouds are gone, the seat belt sign is off. You are free to move around the cabin. All you need to do now is simply continue to climb upwards until you reach cruising altitude.

Your conversations are starting to take on more structure and depth. Your target language is starting to become a lot easier and you no longer need your first language to communicate.

Stage 4: Cruising

At the final stage of flight, you’ve reached cruising altitude. This is the easiest part of the journey. Now you can go anywhere you want.

Language learning at this final stage is incredibly rewarding. All of your carefully planned actions have gotten you to where you want to be. You can now start another language learning mission or continue to cruise around enjoying the view and exploring your new surroundings.

So, which stage are you currently at? Let’s look at how to determine competence in a straightforward way.

Which Stage are You at in Your Target Language?

I made a big mistake early in my language learning journey. I focused too closely on grammar rules. In other words, I tried to fly before I had taken off.

I have a background in maths and engineering, which meant I found grammar rules really fascinating. I was motivated to study them, which isn’t a bad thing since motivation is essential for consistent improvement. But I discovered I couldn’t really say what I wanted to say because I was always looking for words I didn’t know.

A common way to judge language competence is to use the European Framework of Reference for Languages. In my experience though, this framework can be deceiving. When I attended Spanish class I was placed in level that didn’t seem to match the students around me. I couldn’t communicate as well as the other students in my class despite knowing all of the grammar rules in the exercise book.

Instead of focusing on grammar rules, I wish I had focused more on vocabulary in the early stages. And not only focus on learning it but actually using the vocabulary that I knew.

For this reason, I’ll offer a straightforward method of measuring language competence:

Your competence in a foreign language = total number of active words in your vocabulary.

[bctt tweet=”Your competence in a foreign language = total number of active words in your vocabulary.” username=”irishpolyglot”]

Therefore, when it comes to the four stages of language learning I outlined above, each stage is defined by the total number of active words you can use.

Let’s take a closer look at each stage as it applies to language learning, and how you can move through each stage as effectively as possible.

Stage 1: 0 – 100 Words

  • Primary activity: learning the sounds of the language / pronunciation
  • Secondary activity: word selection

At this first stage of language learning, there are two activities you should focus on above all else.

Firstly, you need to learn how to make the sounds of your target language. You should work on your pronunciation at stage 1 for three reasons: you want to be able to communicate your message as effectively as possible as soon as you can, adjusting to the sounds of your target language will help with your listening skills, and pronunciation is a habit—it’s much easier to form a good habit early than to change an ingrained habit later.

Find a good language tutor online, or look for a local school. Try to get one-on-one feedback to determine how well you are pronouncing the sounds of the language, and what you need to do to improve.

The next thing you need to do is choose words that are going to allow you to express basic but very important ideas.

My brother recently went on a trip to Colombia for a fortnight. He didn’t have “time” to learn Spanish, and asked me to give him a few essential things to get him through the trip.

I taught him the Spanish words for: “yes”, “no”, “I want”, “I need”, “I can”, “to find”, “to speak”, “this”, “please”, “thank you”.

With these words, he could walk into a shop and say, “I want this please”, “no, I don’t want this”, “thank you”. He could also ask someone on the street, “I want to find this”, or “I need to find this”, and then point to something on a map.

In other words, even at this stage, you can (and should) use and speak your target language.

At this stage, your language skills are like a plane accelerating down the runway. You are a long way from cruising, but if you carefully select practical words, and practise saying them correctly, you will be able to communicate.

Focus closely on these stage-one activities and soon you will have lift-off.

Stage 2: 100 – 1000 Words

  • Primary activity: start having basic conversations
  • Secondary activity: keep studying high-frequency vocabulary

In this second stage, to improve effectively, you need to focus on your active vocabulary.

You are still below the clouds, the seat belt sign is on, it feels very awkward to have conversations in your target language, but you have to actively use what you have learnt.

Basic conversations in this stage allow you to express yourself more broadly, and begin to investigate aspects of the language and your surroundings with practical questions.

Now you can start to ask things like “What is the difference between these two verbs?”, “Can you help me with the translation of this sentence?”, “What are the best things to do and see in this city?”, or “Where is a good place to go to try the local food?”

Your goal during this stage is not to focus on the specific vocabulary of certain topics, but to focus on connecting words and phrases that will allow you to ask about things in a general way.

Search out vocabulary frequency lists in your target language, run down the list and look for words that you don’t recognise in the top 200, 300, 400 etc. words. Learn these words as a priority. Then every time you discover a new high-frequency word, look to use it actively in your next conversation in your target language.

Stage 3: 1000 – 2000 Words

  • Primary activity: build grammar skills
  • Secondary activity: start exploring topics of interest in your target language

With one thousand words in your active vocabulary, you can now express almost any idea in a general way.

Your goal at this third stage is to now improve the structure of how you are a expressing your ideas. This means a greater focus on grammar rules, particularly for languages with difficult grammar.

This is the point where I recommend you buy a grammar book.

It may be common advice to start a new language with a grammar book, but Benny has always said the key to getting good at a language quickly is to speak from day 1. Focusing too much on grammar and not enough on active vocabulary is the mistake I made early when I started to learn a second language as an adult. This is why stages 1 and 2 are so vital for getting to cruising altitude quickly.

Your other goal at stage 3 is to start looking into specific topics of interest. You now have a rock solid base of general words to delve into areas that draw your curiosity, so use them to explore.

Do you like music, sport, art, travel, surfing, cooking, books or hiking?

See if you can find people that speak your target language that also share your interests.

A typical conversation now might involve questions like, “Where do you think the best place is to pitch a tent?”, “Do you have any spare pegs?”, “My portable stove has run out of gas, do you have a spare canister?”

You can now move safely around the cabin and you have a lot more freedom in your target language. Things aren’t totally easy, there is still a lot of specific vocabulary to learn, but you no longer need your first language to communicate and discuss a widening range of topics.

Stage 4: 2000+ Words

  • Primary activity: reading
  • Secondary activity: more of your favourite activities for motivation

At this last stage, you’ve reached cruising altitude. Communicating in your target language is now easy and enjoyable.

You can speak for hours with friends on a range of different topics, and at the end of the night your head isn’t left throbbing from deep levels of concentration and effort.

If you want to improve at this level, just like the other three levels, you need to continue to build your active vocabulary. This is a lot more difficult at this stage, however, as you will come across words that you have already seen or used at stages 1 to 3 over and over again.

For me, the best way to regularly run into new words is through reading.

Conversational vocabulary tends to more limited than literary vocabulary. This means that when you have conversations at this stage, you may find that there are still a lot of words you don’t know but they just don’t come up regularly in conversation.

See if you can find some books, fiction or nonfiction, in your target language that appeal to your interests. As you are reading, every time you discover a word that you don’t know, take note and then look for an opportunity to use that word in your next conversation.

This process will ensure that you are deliberately and systematically adding new words to your active vocabulary.

As a simple example, I recently had a discussion with a friend about two words I had read in a book and made note of. The two words were the English equivalent of ascertain and investigate. We discussed which words would be used in certain situations and when. As a result of this conversation, I can now use these words in the right context.

Changing Your Language Learning Activities As You Grow

Each stage of language learning requires a different approach.

At the start, activities like reading can be very frustrating. Down the path, they can be quite fun. Knowing grammar rules may not be useful if you don’t have a core set of active vocabulary to use. And learning the specific vocabulary of certain topics is something you should only look to do once you have solid base of general high-frequency words.

As you improve your skills, you’ll want to challenge yourself in different ways. The more often you can do activities appropriate to your level, the faster you’ll get to cruising altitude, and the easier it will be to get to wherever it is you’d like to go.

author headshot

Andrew Barr

Founder, Real Fast Spanish

Andrew has been studying Spanish for 7 years. He writes and podcasts for language students that want to be conversational in Spanish at RealFastSpanish.com.

Speaks: English, Spanish

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