How to Master the 5 Stages of Language Learning
Grab your backpack and your Five Star notebook.
It’s time to go back to school.
Don’t worry, this is school without the lunchroom drama or surprise math quizzes.
This is language learning in five easy-to-understand stages, each of which is similar to a stage in school.
Learning a new language is a big, sometimes scary undertaking—and it’s not always easy to see the light at the end of the tunnel. To help you visualize where you are in the language learning process and where you’re going, we’ll use a familiar framework.
Think of learning a second language as if it’s an accelerated version of school. You start small, learning letters and numbers, and by the time you graduate you’re communicating complex ideas confidently.
We’ll start with elementary school and take you all the way through college! For each stage, we’ll show you what to expect and provide some helpful learning tools.
Class is in session!
How to Master the 5 Stages of Language Learning
For each stage we’ll provide some learning timeframe estimates, which reflect self-paced learning or in-person study. These stages will go by quicker if you’re lucky enough to be immersed in your target language (like if you’re living in a country where it’s spoken).
Stage 1: Elementary School
How is this stage like elementary school?
You’ll be working with the building blocks of language, using lots of repetition and learning how to learn.
What can you expect?
When you first start learning a new language, it’s important to build a solid foundation. Generally speaking, this means learning the following:
- The target language alphabet
- Numbers 1-100
- Essential nouns/verbs
- Simple phrases
This process can take anywhere from three to six months, depending on how consistently you study.
At this point, focus on getting your pronunciation right to avoid developing bad habits that are hard to break later on. Internalizing the correct pronunciations will also help improve your listening skills, and ease comprehension as you progress.
Look for learning tools with a wide selection of audio recordings to help train your ear. This is a good stage to dive into some comprehensive online language learning courses, which typically provide essential tutorials and lessons along with audio demonstrations.
As you use these tools, be sure to practice out loud until you’re comfortable with forming the different sounds. Websites like Forvo and LanguageGuide have lots of audio samples to augment your study sessions.
Now, remember how your elementary school teachers used to teach new information. Did they pass out some worksheets and call it a day?
Probably not. There was lots of repetition not only to help you absorb essential information, but also to get you comfortable with the process of studying and memorizing in general.
So, at this stage of language learning, channel your inner elementary school teacher! Drill new words and phrases every day (flashcards are a tried-and-true tool that’ll be helpful here). Write a daily journal entry using some of the new words you’ve learned. Make language study a regular part of your day—you can even schedule it into your daily calendar until it becomes routine.
Stage 2: Middle School
How is this stage like middle school?
You’ll be learning basic communication skills and trying to find new friends to talk with. You’ll start learning grammar in a focused way.
What can you expect?
Once you’ve created a solid linguistic foundation and accumulated a few hundred words, you’ll begin exchanging short phrases and answering questions. You’re passing out of early childhood language learning and into your pre-teen phase. Continue building your vocabulary and checking your pronunciation with the tools mentioned above.
You’ll notice that it’s easier to recognize the patterns and sounds of speech in your new language. You’ll be introduced to new verbs and begin teasing out the rules of grammatical structures. At this stage, listening to audio language courses is a smart option.
You’re probably still pretty nervous to use your new language skills out loud, but you have to take a deep breath and find someone to talk to.
Don’t worry, it’s not nearly as scary as finding a lunch table to sit at on the first day of middle school! Check out these language exchange apps and these pen pal websites to find language partners with a click!
The only way to grow and mature is to test your skills, and you need practice to improve! This stage can take up to six months, but stick with it. Once you hit the year mark, your vocabulary will have expanded to roughly a thousand words and you’ll be well on your way to fluency.
Stage 3: Upper Middle School/Junior High
How is this stage like junior high?
You’ll be able to understand and communicate more complex ideas. You may develop some teen-like frustration with studying as concepts get harder (but we’ll show you how to get over this).
What can you expect?
For every language student, there comes a point where it feels like learning starts to plateau. This typically happens around stage three in the learning process, when you’re tackling more difficult grammar concepts or having trouble understanding the native speakers you connected with in the last stage.
Don’t you just want to slam your locker shut, ditch your homework and go meet up with your friends?
Resist this urge! Getting past the language learning plateau is possible, and extremely rewarding once you do it. One key is to regularly track your progress so you’ll see that you actually are still learning and growing, even if it doesn’t feel like it.
Keep a diary of what you’ve learned every day, ask your language exchange partners to comment on your growth, and use the progress tracking features in your apps.
You may find that you’re still awkward with conversation and second language social interaction (who isn’t a little awkward in junior high?), but the only way to absorb that natural ebb and flow is to practice. A lot. Make time for your language exchanges and keep writing in that journal every day.
Toward the end of this stage, your comprehension will be coming together nicely. You’ll be able to follow conversations comfortably, distilling subject matter from contextual clues and even participating in a limited capacity!
So don’t lose heart! You’ve learned somewhere around 3,000 words and are roughly a year from the point where it all clicks! All of that hard work will pay off and there’s finally a light at the end of the tunnel.
Stage 4: High School
How is this stage like high school?
You’ll feel more confident in your abilities and will begin communicating more. You’ll start exploring “extracurriculars,” or outside interests in your target language.
What to expect:
Around two years into this journey, you’ll hit a point where it suddenly comes together. You’ll wake up one day and be able to carry on basic conversations without breaking a sweat. You’ll rely less on rote memorization and more on verbal exchanges to accumulate new vocabulary.
This is the point where you find yourself thinking in your second language during conversations, constructing longer and more complex answers.
It’s an exhilarating peak to reach! Finally being comfortable in a second language will allow you to really embrace the depth and complexity of communicating in another tongue. It’ll also allow you to explore your hobbies or outside interests in the target language.
For example, you’ll be able to start watching foreign language movies or listening to authentic podcasts on any topic that grabs you. You can looks for books or blogs written in the target language on anything you care about, from sports to cooking to stamp collecting.
You’ll spend a few years in this stage, sharpening your conversation skills and learning to express yourself with ease.
Stage 5: College
How is this stage like college?
Time for more fun and more concentrated study in your target language. You’ll be branching out in your interactions and continuing to explore authentic materials like in the last stage. But you’ll also work on improving your writing and learning how to express complicated ideas and opinions.
What to expect:
The last stage of language learning is the point where your education solidifies into fluency and you finally come into your own. You’re comfortable reading, writing, speaking and listening to the new language.
Don’t kick back and relax, though—you haven’t graduated yet! At this stage, honing your skills will be a solo venture, as you’ve passed the scope of most language learning programs.
Many students find, at this point, that literature is the best way to acquire new vocabulary. Novels and nonfiction works expose advanced students to detailed cultural perspectives, complex grammar and rarely used words. For starters, head to Project Gutenberg, which offers free books in dozens of languages.
Conversation might be second-nature at this point, but verbal discourse is often limited in scope and doesn’t require a wide range of vocabulary. Reading helps bridge this gap.
You’ll also start learning how to have arguments, state opinions and express nuance the way any fluent speaker should be able to. Consider subscribing to a newspaper or watching the news in your new language and then responding to them in writing or with your language exchange partners.
It’s also important to continue pursuing outside interests, as discussed earlier. Every language develops from a rich cultural tradition. Exploring the background of a new language will deepen your appreciation for the multitude of subtleties and nuances it contains.
Learning a new language is a little like growing up all over again. It’s intimidating, stressful, embarrassing and then completely worth the work. Taking on an entirely new mode of communication might seem terrifying, but don’t let it discourage you! The stages of language learning are predictable. Once you realize this, it makes the whole process a lot easier.
We bet you’ll be graduating before you even know it!
Tiffany Edgecomb is a freelance copywriter and owner of The Alphabet Soup Company. She specializes in creating blogs, newsletters and email sequences for lifestyle topics like cooking, language, real estate, travel and personal finance.