There are many opinions on how we learn a language. From polyglots that blog or vlog regularly to Stephen Krashen and Noam Chomsky’s theories to foreign language programs, people are poised to explain how they feel we learn language. And while the opinions are varied, there are several common threads.
If you’re looking for a scientific, data-based way to understand how we acquire language, then the Learning Acquisition theory is your starting point. The data around language learning is far from conclusive, so these ideas have been open to a great deal of interpretation over the years. And the ideas behind it come mainly from these four thinkers:
Keep in mind that each of these theories is still highly debated. They play off of each other and each has merits, but none is viewed “truth” in the field of language learning. It’s a starting point for understanding how we learn language and it helps to alter the perception that people are somehow incapable of learning a second language.
While the theories varied, people do tend to come to agree on the idea that we learn language through stages. The number of stages depends on who you ask. Some argue three, others say four or five.
There are certain consistencies within the stages. You start with the beginning stage and you end in fluency, what happens in the middle depends on who you ask. The other agreement is that language learning represents a kind of creeping line towards “native speaker” but one that never quite touches it. These are the language learning stages to understand how the process works.
You have to start somewhere. If you’re in the process of trying to learn how to learn Spanish easily, then you’re most likely at the beginning stage. Everything is new and overwhelmingly so. Sounds, pronunciation, vocabulary, all of it is an overwhelming experience. Most of what you do in this stage is listen and mimic. You’ll learn individual words and maybe a few phrases towards the end of the stage, but you’re far from thinking and talking in the language.
With beginner on one side and fluency on the other, the middle leaves room for the rest. If you’re learning how to become fluent in Spanish or any other language, you’ll progress through this part on your way to fluency. Some people lump all of these components into one stage, others break them down as they have been done below.
Fluency is the end game for any language learning program. It’s tricky to define as there’s no agreed upon definition of what fluency means. There is a distinction between being proficient in a language (being able to use it academically or in a professional setting) and being fluent.
The simplest definition is that you’re able to clearly speak and think in the target language without reverting to your native language. In other words, conversation is fluent. This usually takes between six months and two years depending on the language and how much time you have to expose yourself to the target language.
Fluency means that you’re able to talk to native speakers. You’ll have an accent, and you’ll mostly be able to work around it; you’ll also need to relearn phrases and structures as you continue to use the language, but for the most part, speaking in the foreign language occurs easily. Once here, you begin the slow, continuous crawl to native speaker.
Learning a language is a process. It is something that you work towards from the day you decide to become fluent in a second language. It takes time, effort, and energy to arrive at your goal, and like with any long journey, it helps to have markers along the way to help you keep your bearing. Knowing where you are as a language learner can motivate you to push harder and reach the next stage and then the next and so on.