12/08/2016 04:01 EST | Updated 12/08/2016 04:01 EST

The 3 Stages Of Mastering A Foreign Language

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At the banquet of life, each language is another course. The better you can use languages, your own and others, the more you can enjoy the feast. At least that has been my experience.

I have achieved varying degrees of fluency in 16 languages, and look forward to learning more. To me, there are three stages of language acquisition.

The first stage

60-90 hours


Goal: To become familiar with a strange language.

Measurable: Learn to recognize 1000 words.

Main Task: Listen repeatedly to short, simple content.

When I begin, I need to "connect" with the new language and overcome my resistance to its strange sounds and structures. I don't need to speak or understand any grammar. I don't need to get anything "right". I want to get into the language, to get a feel for it.

I start by repeatedly listening to short morsels of content. These are 30 seconds long at first, eventually growing to one minute or longer. I listen to the same content 20 times or more, to help forge the new "neural networks" in my brain. Ideally these short episodes are part of a longer "story", which makes the whole context meaningful. After focusing intensely on a new episode, I review all the old ones so that I am able to digest longer and longer pieces of the language.

Nowadays, I read the text of whatever I'm listening to on my computer. This allows me to access an online dictionary and create my own database of words and phrases for review in a variety of ways. This acquisition of words and phrases, encountered in my listening and reading, is my key measurable goal as I grow in a language.

New words in a language at first seem strange and confusingly similar to each other. However, by staying with simple content, where common words appear often in different contexts, these words eventually start to stick. I usually associate the new words and phrases with episodes where I have heard them. The more associations I can attach to a word or phrase, the easier it is to remember.

I don't speak much at first. I have so few words anyway. I practice repeating words and phrases out loud to myself, in a haphazard manner. I don't worry about pronunciation. That will be easier to work on once my brain gets better at distinguishing the sounds.

The second stage

180-360 hours


Goal: To understand ordinary conversations and most everyday language.

Measurable: Less than 10% unknown words in most conversations.

Main tasks: Listen to natural conversations; Work on vocabulary; Step up speaking and writing activity.

Now that I no longer find it strange, I want to deal with the language as it is usually spoken or written by native speakers. This is sometimes referred to as "authentic" content.

Conversation is the easiest authentic content to understand, because the most commonly used words of a language account for 90-95% of conversations. The same most commonly used words usually account for 70-75 % of more formal written material.

Unfortunately, interesting and authentic conversational audio with a transcript is difficult to find. As a result, I usually end up learning mostly from podcasts on subjects of interest where transcripts are available. Through these podcasts I have learned a great deal about the history, politics and even cuisine of countries that I knew little about prior to studying their languages.

Each item of study is now longer, three, five or even 10 minutes long. I listen to each item less frequently and cover more material, in order to learn more words. I use dead time, doing chores, driving or jogging, to listen over and over. The more words I already know, the easier it is to learn new words.

I sometimes talk to native speakers online. Speaking helps me to identify weaknesses, missing words, concepts that I can't express, and words that I have trouble pronouncing. I also write, especially on blogs and forums. Writing is great for learning as I have time to compose my thoughts, and retain a record of my mistakes and problems.

The third stage

180 hours to forever


Goal: To continue enjoying the language, learn more words and use the language better.

Measurable: Less than 10% unknown words in contexts that are of interest to me.

Main tasks: Follow my interests.

This is the most rewarding stage. I can travel to the country where the language is spoken, or meet with native speakers. I know I will enjoy the experience, even though I make mistakes.

This is the best stage to study grammar as I am now familiar enough with the language, through exposure, that I can use style and usage manuals intended for native speakers. Nevertheless, I find reading books and listening to audiobooks on subjects of interest the most enjoyable and effective way to continue improving.

I am not required to take any language proficiency tests. If I were, this is the stage when I would prepare for them. The keys to success in these tests are the ability to read quickly and comprehend the spoken language, as well as having a wide vocabulary of words and phrases. I have already acquired these things, enjoyably and painlessly.

This is also the stage to work on special skills, like making presentations, writing academic papers, or producing business reports. The goal is to imitate the wording, turns of phrase and ways of organizing information that are most appreciated in a particular language and culture.


Having done it a few times, I know that I can learn a new language. I also know that the pursuit of perfection in any language is futile, so I am happy to make mistakes and do not really ask to be corrected.

I like to feast on languages, drinking, eating, tasting, chewing and digesting them. I never get full, although I may get a little intoxicated from time to time.

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