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A Guide to Navigating the Stages of Language Learning

A Guide to Navigating the Stages of Language Learning

Learning a language is like gaining a superpower. It's a supremely useful skill that allows you to bridge into a completely new culture and segment of the Earth’s population. It's also super good for you, with real benefits professionally, psychologically, and socially.

Acquiring any new skill is a process of transformation, of watching and examining the self and pushing it to grow and adapt. As you embark on this journey, there will be various stages you pass through. Whether you're learning a new language at home, or heading abroad to learn a new language, you'll experience everything from feeling like you just beamed down onto a new planet to feeling so deeply engaged in a foreign language that you actually dream in it!

Here are some of our best practices for navigating every stage of language learning, from absolute beginner to fluency.

Stage 1: Absolute Beginner

Everyone has to start somewhere -- and that somewhere is being completely and totally lost. You’re useless in this language. You might understand a few words here and there that are similar to English or another language you speak and you might be able to say hello and thank you, but you really have no idea what’s going on.

An absolute beginner has spent a week in Japan and is bewildered. She can order a bowl of ramen and a beer, but other than that, Japanese is unintelligible to her.

This is fine because 1) it’s an unavoidable part of being exposed to a new language, and 2) it’s a beautiful stage to be in. Once you’ve studied a few other languages and have gotten used to understanding things and being able to at least communicate in a foreign tongue, you start to take it for granted. This stage leaves you feeling like an alien who descended into another planet, which is actually kind of awesome when you think about it.

Navigating the Stages of Language Learning: Absolute Beginner

Tips for Navigating the Absolute Beginner Stage of Language Learning:

  • Take a language learning course. It’s important to get a solid base in a foreign language, and taking even a month-long course can give you some basics to upgrade yourself to the next stage of language learning. You really need a textbook to explain grammar or else you’ll be fighting mistake-making tendencies for years to come because you learned your foundation on the go.
  • Listen to native speakers -- a lot. Start picking up on words and sounds you hear a lot and write down your closest approximation of them. By asking a native speaker what those words mean, you can start to piece together common phrases used in that language.
  • Focus on phrases, especially those you need for daily life. At this stage, you want to transition into the ability to “get by.” Write down (in English) the phrases you wish you knew that you’d use every day and get a native-speaking friend to teach you how to say (at least) those things. Focusing on the practical things you can use right away is also encouraging because it’s stuff you use immediately and get positive feedback from locals.

Stage 2: Getting By With Baby Talk

My best friend had been taking a course in German for two months when she proudly reported back that she had a full phone conversation in German to check up on the delivery of a FedEx package. The rough translation of the conversation was something like: “Hello, good morning. Package is not here. When does package come here? Saturday in the morning, please? Monday is good, thank you.”

This is what we can call the "baby talk" stage of language learning. At this stage, you’re piecing together the words you know using the most basic grammatical structures. You sound downright silly, but you’re getting around! People understand you!

It’s a stage that’s actually a ton of fun because you’re in a sweet spot: the locals are delighted that you’re trying and will entertain your attempts, and you’re freed from the pressure to speak perfectly since no one expects you to actually say things right. Take advantage of this stage to babble like a toddler!

Navigating the Stages of Language Learning: Getting by With Baby Talk

Tips for Navigating the 'Baby Talk' Phase of Language Learning:

  • Move your mouth. This is exactly what babies do. Shamelessly chat everyone up and switch into the language whenever you can in day-to-day life.
  • Use what you know. I started learning Arabic by listening to native speakers, tracking my learnings in a notebook that I reviewed every night, and saying everything I could in Arabic, even if it was two words out of a twelve-word sentence. Eventually, I was saying the whole sentence in Arabic!
  • Keep a notebook. Keep track of what you want to know. Keep track of the words you’re missing to get your point across. Then take time to go over your questions with a native speaker and jot down what they tell you.

Stage 3: Comfortably Conversational

Congratulations, you’ve reached the stage where you can have a sensible conversation in this new language. You’ve mastered a variety of tenses, grammatical structures, and have a vocabulary wide enough to encompass most conversations around daily life.

You can speak about how school is going, what your hometown is like, and what you did last night. You can order food and hang around with locals, but you’ll still dip back into English when speaking about more complex ideas.

Although you can communicate about a variety of topics, you still make a lot of mistakes and have a (very) noticeable accent. Locals may be tempted to switch back into English with you if they sense that keeping up a conversation is a struggle for you, but persevere and let them know you’re enjoying the practice.

Navigating the Stages of Language Learning: Comfortably Conversational

Tips for Navigating the Comfortably Conversational Stage of Language Learning:

  • Get a language partner. This is the perfect point in time to start a serious language partnership, which will give you the opportunity to practice with a native speaker on a regular basis. You know enough of the language now to be ready for corrections, especially because you’re probably still making a lot of mistakes. Read our tips for finding and making the most of a language partner here.
  • Watch TV and movies. Many people in other countries learn English just by watching TV. Make sure you’re spending a few hours per week watching your favorite show in Portuguese or Chinese. Bonus points for watching Spanish telenovelas and Korean dramas -- you can learn a lot about the culture as well as the language by consuming local media.
  • Read blogs and books. In addition to listening to native speakers in movies and shows, make sure you’re reading in the language, too. Find blogs written by native speakers about topics that interest you, or struggle through Harry Potter in Japanese. You’ll get through anything with patience and a dictionary.
  • Take a proficiency exam. There’s nothing like sitting for an exam that will motivate you to clean up your grammar and expand your vocabulary even more. In Chinese, you can sign up for the HSK exam, or there's the DELF/DALF for French learners.
  • Don’t fall back into English. It can be tempting to just switch back to English, especially if you’re speaking with someone who’s fluent in your mother tongue, but persisting in your practice is the only way to get to fluency.

Stage 4: Finally Fluent

What distinguishes a "fluent" speaker of another language? There’s no one set definition, but I’ve always looked at it as: the point where I stop panicking when I have to spend all day speaking that language. When I feel a degree of physical comfort speaking this language, when I can date someone in that language, when I can take a course in that language (and actually learn something), and when I can enjoy watching a film in that language, then I consider myself fluent. If I've finally had a dream in that language, then I also consider that an important milestone.

Once you’re a fluent speaker, people no longer feel compelled to switch back into English with you. Congratulations, you’ve demonstrated your competency and earned their respect. It’s also a more challenging stage because people notice your mistakes more, simply because there are fewer of them, but they still give away your status as a non-native speaker. (Yep, after you’ve come all this way, studied Mandarin for 5 years and learned 15,000 characters in a tonal language, natives will still poke fun of you for mispronouncing the tone of one single word.)

It’s a stage that makes your ego feel amazing one moment, and utterly crushed in another when you realize you’ll never quite sound exactly like "them."

And that’s okay. The goal of language learning, I believe, is to 1) communicate and be understood, 2) gain cultural empathy, and 3) seamlessly maneuver in a foreign environment that lives in that language. If you can do all of those things, you’ve done what you came to do, considering you were not born and raised in that linguistic environment.

Nevertheless, here are some tips to perfecting your command of this language within reason.

Navigating the Stages of Language Learning: Finally Fluent

Tips for Navigating the Stage Where You're Finally Fluent:

  • Seek full immersion experiences. At this stage of the game, you need to be thrown into a circumstance where you only speak this language every day all day long for 90 days or more. It’s really the only way you’re going to get significantly better.
  • Date someone. Don’t force it, obviously, but having a partner who speaks the language natively is a common (and terribly fun) way of mastering a language.
  • Get a private tutor. It could also be a worthwhile investment of time and money to simply hire a tutor and spend a few hours per week one-on-one with someone who will mercilessly call out every mistake you make. In earlier stages of learning, you had an instinct that you were saying something wrong, but by now your patterns in the language are so deeply ingrained that you’re probably unable to notice them yourself anymore.
  • Focus on improving your accent. At this point, you can speak perfectly well, but you still sound foreign. So what's the best way to fix the accent? Immersion! Listening to and speaking with native speakers as often as humanly possible will naturally bring your pronunciation closer to theirs over time.
  • Keep a journal. Writing in the language is a technique you can use as soon as you have enough vocabulary to start doing it, and testing the limits of your ability to express nuanced ideas and emotions is a good way to continue advancing your command of the language.

The best, all-encompassing tip for learning any language I ever learned, at any stage, is to pay equal attention to the four parts of language: speaking, listening, reading, and writing. If you spend time interacting with the language in each of these linguistic domains on a regular basis, you will gradually build mastery.

And most importantly, never let your ego get the best of you. Language learning is the ultimate meditation, forcing you to defeat the voice that tells you that you must do everything perfectly. In this field, success is a journey, and as long as you’re learning, you’re succeeding!

Ready to start your language learning journey?

Elaina Giolando
A former NYC management consultant turned legal nomad, Elaina Giolando writes about the intersection of career, life, and travel for today's 20-someth Read More...
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