The three stages of language acquisition

To follow up on how long it takes to learn a language, here is something I wrote a few years ago on the stages of language learning.

“You are what you eat”

-popular saying

In the global information age, maybe it should be “you are what you can say”. Language, in its varied manifestations, is mankind’s defining achievement, and it also defines us. Language can be social, political, technical, practical, entertaining, sensual, philosophical, and much more. At the banquet of life, each language is another course. The better you can use languages, your own and others, the more you can enjoy the feast. At least that has been my experience.

I have achieved varying degrees of fluency in 12 languages, and look forward to learning more. To me, there are three natural stages in language growth, which I outline here. Billions of dollars are wasted on ineffective language and literacy instruction programs, which ignore these natural stages.

The first stage    Connecting with the language  –  60-90 hours

My Goal:                           To become familiar with a strange language
My Measurable:                  Learn to recognize 1000 words
Main task:                         Listen repeatedly to short, simple content
My Target Languages:         (planned) Czech, Arabic, Hindi, Turkish

When I begin, I need to “connect” with the new language and overcome my resistance to its strange sounds and structure. I don’t need to speak. I don’t need to understand any grammar. I don’t need to get anything “right”. I am not interested in mastering a few phrases or simple greetings. I want to get into the language, to get a feel for it.

Here is how Fred Genesee of McGill University describes the beginning stages of language learning.

When learning occurs, neuro-chemical communication between neurons is facilitated, in other words a neural network is gradually established. Exposure to unfamiliar speech sounds is initially registered by the brain as undifferentiated neural activity. As exposure continues, the listener (and the brain) learns to differentiate among different sounds and even among short sequences of sounds that correspond to words or parts of words

I start by repeatedly listening to short morsels of content. These are 30 seconds long at first, eventually growing to one minute or longer. I listen to the same mouthful (earful?) 20 times or more, to help forge the new “neural networks” in my brain. Ideally these short episodes are part of a longer “story”, which makes the whole context meaningful. After focusing intensely on a new episode, I review all the old ones, so that I am able to digest longer and longer cumulative doses of the language. The Internet and my iPod shuffle make this content accessible and portable like never before in history.

Nowadays, I read the text of whatever I am listening to on my computer. This allows me to access an online dictionary and create my own database of words and phrases for review in a variety of ways. This acquisition of words and phrases, encountered in my listening and reading, is my key measurable goal as I grow in a language.

New words in a language at first seem strange and confusingly similar to each other. However, by staying with simple content, where common words appear often in different contexts, these words eventually start to stick. I usually associate the new words and phrases with episodes where I have heard them. The more associations I can attach to a word or phrase, the easier it is to remember.

I don’t speak much at first. I have so few words anyway. I practice repeating words and phrases out loud to myself, in a haphazard manner. I don’t worry about pronunciation. That will be easier to work on once my brain gets better at distinguishing the sounds.

I might speak a little, just for fun, to try out what I have learned. I can easily find a native speaker tutor or language exchange partner via the Internet. I don’t got to classrooms, since I don’t want to be confused by other non-native speakers.

The second stage   Getting comfortable in most situations     180-360 hours

My Goal:                           To understand ordinary conversations and most everyday language
My Measurable:                  Less than 10% unknown words in most conversations
Main tasks:                        Listen to natural conversations; Work on vocabulary; Step up speaking and writing activity
My Target Languages:          Russian, Portuguese, Korean  

Now that I no longer find the language strange, I want to deal with the language as it is usually spoken or written by native speakers. This is sometimes referred to as “authentic” language.

Conversation is the easiest “authentic” content to understand, because the most commonly used words of a language account for 90-95% of conversations. The same most commonly used words usually account for 70-75 % of more formal written material.

Each item of study is now longer, 3 to 5 minutes or so. I listen to each item less frequently and cover more material, in order to learn more words. I use dead time, doing chores, driving or jogging to listen, over and over. The more words I already know, the easier it is to learn new words. Vocabulary is like money, “the more you have the more you get” or “the rich get richer”.

I like to stick to interesting and familiar subjects in my listening and reading, so I quickly drop anything that is uninteresting, or where I do not like the voices.  At first it seems that native speakers talk very quickly, but my brain gets used to the natural flow, with enough repetition. I am not frustrated when I do not understand “authentic conversation”. I feel exhilarated when I do.

Again, Professor Genesee’s observations are helpful. Students’ vocabulary acquisition can be enhanced when it is embedded in real-world complex contexts that are familiar to them.

I sometimes talk to native speakers on the Internet. Speaking helps me to identify weaknesses, missing words, concepts that I can’t express, and words that I have trouble pronouncing. I can then work on these things on my own.

With limited contact with native speakers, I also write, especially on Internet blogs and forums. Writing is great for learning. I have time to compose my thoughts, and retain a record of my mistakes and problems.

At this stage, my main emphasis is still to listen, read, and increase my vocabulary.

The third stage     Constant improvement                     180 hours to forever

My Goal:                                    To continue to enjoy the language, to learn more words, and to use the language better
My Measurable:                           Less than 10% unknown words in contexts that are of interest to me
Main tasks:                                 Follow my interests
My Target Languages:                   French, Japanese, Mandarin, Spanish, Swedish, German, Italian, Cantonese, English

This is the most rewarding stage. I can travel to the country where the language is spoken, or meet with native speakers. I know I will enjoy the experience, even though I make mistakes. I can maintain the language, even if I go for long periods without using it.

This is the best stage to study grammar. I  have books and audio books on grammar, intended for native speakers of the language. I am now familiar enough with the language, through exposure, that I can use style and usage manuals intended for native speakers. Nevertheless, my personal interest takes me more to history and literature. I find reading books and listening to audio books, on subjects of interest, is the most enjoyable and most effective way to continue improving, or to refresh in a language that I have not used for a while.

I am not required to take any language proficiency tests. If I were, this is the stage when I would prepare in earnest for them. The keys to success on these tests are, the ability to read quickly and comprehend the spoken language, and a wide vocabulary of words and phrases, all of which I have already acquired, enjoyably and painlessly. Only at this level would I take these test, since I know that I would score well.

This is also the stage to work on special skills like making presentations, writing academic papers, or producing business reports. It is easy to find relevant material in the target language on the Web and elsewhere. The goal is to imitate the wording and turns of phrase, as well as the ways of organizing information, that are most appreciated in a particular language and culture. It is easy enough to find a native speaker professional tutor or coach, again via the Web, to work on these skills.


Having done it a few times, I know that I can learn a new language, or improve in a language I already speak well, including my own. So can anyone else who wants to. The key is motivation and enjoyment, not a school or a diploma. I know, as well, that the pursuit of perfection in any language is futile, so I am happy to make mistakes and do not really ask to be corrected. I just like to feast on languages, drinking, eating, tasting, chewing and digesting them. I never get full, although I may get a little intoxicated from time to time.

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One Response to The three stages of language acquisition

  1. R Msr says:

    The reason I know LINQq works is because it is enjoyment! Also, to read these wonderful insight by (Lingo) Steve on the Posterousand to see and listen to him on You Tube in sharing insights each day through his love of language inspires me everyday and that inspiration fuels the discipine to do it each day; indeed, ‘where much pleasure is taken MUCH profit is given!’

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