Many people have their opinions about how we learn a language. From foreign language programs, to Stephen Krashen and Noam Chomsky’s theories, to polyglots that blog or vlog regularly, people regularly weigh in on the process that happens in our minds when we interact with a new language. And while they all vary in the way they describe how we learn languages, there are some striking similarities. Ultimately, it seems that we all learn language in a similar manner and through similar stages.
Language acquisition theory involves a scientific, data-based approach to how we learn languages. Because language learning centers deeply around psychology, the data around it is open to interpretation in a lot of aspects. The best way to gain an understanding about how we learn language is by taking a brief look at the works of these four different thinkers:
- John Locke: Locke looked at the mind as a blank slate or “tabula rasa” He argued that we are all born with nothing in our brains except a clean slate. We write down our experiences through life on this slate, and this creates who we are.
- B.F. Skinner: Skinner builds off Locke and argued that we are conditioned to learn through positive and negative reinforcement. When we perform the way society wants us to, we receive praise. This inspires us to continue to do well. And the same is true in the opposite when we make mistakes.
- Noam Chomsky: Chomsky comes along after Skinner and argues for Universal Grammar. This is the idea that we are all born with a playbook inside of us for how grammar works. He believed that grammar and language were too complicated to learn on our own and that we would need structures set up inside us from birth to learn as rapidly as we do when we are young.
- Stephen Krashen: Krashen’s Monitor Model is a set of five hypotheses about language learning. He argues that all human beings learn languages the same way and that the key to learning language is to be exposed in an anxiety-free environment with enough “comprehensive input” to develop language abilities.
All of these points have been debated and have criticisms against as well as strong arguments for them. However, rather than argue which one is right, understand that there is an active process going on behind the scenes aside from simple vocabulary acquisition. Knowing that there’s a process behind language learning will help you develop fluency faster. Because you’re able to trust that language learning is possible, you can avoid defaulting to the belief that you’re unable to learn a language.
Regardless of which model you believe is the most accurate for language acquisition, nearly everyone believes that foreign language learning occurs in stages. The amount of stages, however, varies. The lowest number tends to be three and higher numbers are typically between four and five stages.
Everyone agrees that the lowest stage is the beginning stage, and the end stage is fluency. They also note that the advanced stage doesn’t have a final “end,” but it rather is a continuous process where you creep closer and closer towards the level of “native speaker.” We will look at the stages and generally cover what occurs in each one so you can have a better understanding of where you are in your language learning process.
In the beginning learner stage, when you’re trying to figure out how to learn Spanish easily, for instance, you are just starting out with the language. The sounds, pronunciations, and sentence structure are alien to you. You do not have enough familiarity with the words to be able to say much of anything at all, and if you can, it’s typically fundamental phrases that you have memorized. You may say words like, “hello, green, five,” etc. that show that you have picked up a word or two happen towards the end of this stage.
Whether or not you start talking in this stage differs between who you ask. According to theorists like Krashen, you are silently absorbing words, learning to mimic sounds and facial expressions, but you don’t speak yet. Others argue, however, that as second language learners, you may attempt speaking, but it is mostly incomprehensible and your comprehension is non-existent.
It may be easier to understand the stages by skipping to the final stage next and then reading the middle stage to gauge what comes after this level.
Everything that is in between being a beginner and being fluent falls in the middle. As you progress through your Spanish language program, for instance, you steadily gain fluency. Whether you believe there are three, four, or five stages, this gradual process looks like this:
- Developing Speaker: As a developing speaker, you sound funny to native speakers, almost like a young child. This is where you would say things like, “I make bathroom. I food. I cold.” Natives can understand you with a little work as your pronunciation is inaccurate.
- Intermediate Speaker: You can have casual, mundane conversations with native speakers. Your pronunciation is better than in earlier stages, but you still struggle with uncommon words. Your sentence structure is not perfect either, but it’s much smoother than at the previous stage.
- Conversational Speaker: Here you can talk reasonably well. You may still need help from natives with some words, but you understand for the most part. Here you begin to think in the second language as speaking no longer becomes about translating words into your brain. You also have a decent understanding of basic grammar.
This is the final stage of language learning. The time it takes to reach here varies on your exposure, learning style, and dedication to acquiring fluency. Some can reach it within six months or sooner, others can take up to two years.
As a fluent speaker, you can carry on conversations and communicate your ideas with natives around your accent. You may need to remember or relearn a complicated word or phrase occasionally, but for the most part, speaking is effortless. You understand grammar and sentence structure and can most likely write as well. This stage does not end as fluent speakers are always working towards becoming nearly native.
When you’re hiking a huge hill, passing people on the way down, you’ll typically asking them, “how close am I to the top?” You only want to hear one answer: “You’re almost there.” Learning a language is a lot like climbing a hill. It takes a lot of work and effort, but when you get to the top, the view is worth it. However, along the way, it helps to know where you are and how far you’ve come so you can keep moving forward to fluency.