Learning a language is like gaining a superpower.

According to the experts at ALL ESL, there are five recognisable stages of learning a language.

To help you on the way to the ultimate goal of fluency in another language, here we share some tips to help you master the different stages of learning a language. We’ll take you from absolute beginner to super speaker!

Stage 1: Absolute Beginner (Preproduction)

Everyone has to start somewhere, and that usually means being completely lost. You know nothing! You understand a few words here and there and you can say ‘hello’, but the rest is gobbledegook.

This is perfectly normal, an unavoidable part of being exposed to a new language. This stage leaves you feeling like an alien who has arrived on another planet. It’s actually a nice stage to be in – full of promise and possibilities.

Tips to help with this stage: 

  • Take a language learning course. Give yourself a solid base – even a weeklong course would be helpful. Buy the textbook to go with it to look up grammar when you need it.
  • Listen to native speakers. Do this as much as you can and ask them what words mean. 
  • Focus on phrases, especially those you need for daily life.  Think of useful phrases, find out what they are in your new language, then write them down.
  • Write it down, learn it and try using it even if it makes you feel silly – who is going to care or criticise you if you get it wrong?

Stage 2: Getting by with Baby Talk (Early production)

How to book a table in a restaurant: “Good morning. Table four people? Tonight 7.30? Table outside please? Thank you, goodbye!”

This is the “baby talk” stage of language learning. You are piecing together the words you know using the most basic grammatical structures. You sound babyish but people understand you.

This stage is a lot of fun because you’re in a sweet spot: the locals are delighted that you’re trying, and you’re freed from the pressure to speak perfectly because no one expects you to say things correctly. Enjoy it!

Tips to help with this stage:

  • Babble. This is what babies do. Shamelessly speak to people in baby talk in your new language whenever you can in day-to-day life.
  • Act. So, you are not an extrovert who can talk to any stranger you meet. Make the effort to change your personality and act sometimes. Don’t worry about looking silly. No-one will mind.
  • Use what you know. Try to use new things that you learn – purposely put yourself in situations where you can use them.
  • 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. It’s worth it.

Stage 3: Comfortably Conversational (Speech emergence)

Congratulations, you’ve reached the stage where you can have a sensible conversation. You can speak about how work is going, what your hometown is like, and what you did last night. You can order food and hang around with locals.

You make a lot of mistakes and have a (very) noticeable accent. You are starting to understand conversation. Locals may be tempted to switch back into English with you if they sense you are struggling but persevere and let them know you’re enjoying the practice!

Tips to help with this stage:

  • Find 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.  A private tutor would be a good idea if you do not know anyone suitable, or a local club or language group. 
  • Watch TV and movies. Many people in other countries learn English just by watching TV. Spend a few hours per week watching your favourite show. You can learn a lot about the culture as well as the language by tuning in to local media.
  • Read newspapers and books. Make sure you’re reading in the language, too. Find online newspapers in your chosen language, or struggle through a translation of Harry Potter in French. You’ll get through anything with patience and a dictionary.
  • Take a proficiency exam. There’s nothing like sitting for an exam to motivate you to learn grammar and expand your vocabulary even more. How about a GCSE?

Stage 4: Finally Fluent (Intermediate fluency) 

When are you finally a “fluent” speaker of another language? Perhaps when you feel a degree of physical comfort speaking the language, when you can enjoy watching a film in that language, then consider yourself finally fluent. 

It’s a 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. (You have studied Mandarin for 5 years and learned 15,000 characters in a tonal language, and natives will still poke fun at 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.”

Tips to help with this stage:

  • Seek full immersion experiences. 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.
  • Find 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. 
  • Focus on improving your accent. At this point, you can speak perfectly well, but you still sound foreign. 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. Testing the limits of your ability to express ideas and emotions is a good way to continue advancing your command of the language.

Stage 5: Super Speaker! Speak Like a Native (Advanced Fluency)

Now people think that you are a native. Your accent is so perfect that people don’t bother to correct you, they take it for granted that you are native so excuse mistakes as, well, just everyday mistakes that we all make with our own language. 

Tips to help with this stage:

You hardly need any, but of course, native fluency should include the four aspects of language learning: 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 rest on your laurels. Success is a journey, and as long as you’re learning, you’re succeeding. You have your superpower, now use it or lose it! 

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