The phases of learning a foreign language


Thinking about it, I’ve already spent over 16 years (around 60% of my life) learning 3 foreign languages. I’ve always studied languages in parallel to my main activity (school, university, work) and – due to lack of time – never in an intensive or full-time mode. And I feel that I go through different phases in the process of learning a new language. Nothing that is an absolute truth or scientifically proven just a conclusion based on personal observation. I’ll use the German language as an example, since it’s the one I’m currently learning.

Phase 1: The initial shock

The experimental phase. You just started learning the language. Everything is new. You still don’t know what exactly to expect, and it’s too early to have a verdict. At first sight, the language seems to be a lot more complicated than you imagined.
Frequent thoughts:

  • If in the first couple of German classes I learned that “excuse me” is ENTSCHULDIGUNG, imagine what is coming next!
  • Who said that German is similar to English?!
  • I wonder if I’ll ever be able to say with confidence that I speak this language…

Phase 2: The exponential progress

The initial scare is over. You’ve grown to accept that German has 4 cases, 3 genders, inverted tens and units digits, verbs at the end of sentences and super long words. It doesn’t surprise you anymore. You’ve got the hang of it. Every class you learn something new. You really feel that you’re improving each day, which gives you motivation to keep going. You can even have simple conversations and understand what others are saying – at least the topic.
Frequent thoughts:

  • Oh look, I was able to understand this Internet joke in German! That’s amazing!
  • Sure, I don’t know everything yet and I make many mistakes, but that’s to be expected, given the level which I’m in.
  • You know, German is actually not that hard.

Phase 3: The bipolarity: pride vs. frustration

You’ve been studying that language for some years and are now at an advanced level. All the grammar has already been taught, there are not many new topics, and everything is basically just revision and exercises. It’s not every day that you feel like you’ve learned something new, which can be frustrating. You’re able to communicate, you get around quite well, talk to everyone, but you’re not 100% confident yet. You make mistakes and often miss some vocabulary. You feel like you DO know the language, but not as much as you would like to. Self-demand and other people’s expectations are high, given the elapsed time. Sometimes, you think you know a lot and feel super comfortable with the language; other times, you feel that there is so much more that you don’t know yet and that it will still take quite a lot to achieve proficiency. If someone asks you if you speak German, the answer is: YES – but not exactly fluently. Your German friends compliment you on your language skills and this makes you proud. You try to remember that positive feeling to keep motivated.
Frequent thoughts:

  • Wow, I just debated a complicated topic in German… I didn’t know I was capable of all that.
  • Why did I make that stupid grammar mistake? I should know that by now.

Phase 4: At last, the effortless proficiency

Now you feel reassured. You can have conversations with any native speaker without a problem. You know difficult and specific terms. You live the language. The construction of sentences comes naturally, without having to think before speaking or writing. If you make a mistake, you realize it immediately and correct yourself. Usually you only realize you’re in this phase after having been there for a while.

When we place these phases in the famous “learning curve”, it looks like this:

As to German, I’m currently in phase 3, dreaming of phase 4. Since I unfortunately don’t have all the time in the world to dedicate to studying the language, I try to find a balance between perfectionism and resignation. I have to constantly remind myself that I should always aim at improving, but without demanding too much from myself. The key is having constant exposure to the language. Slow and steady.

4 thoughts on “The phases of learning a foreign language

  1. Reading an article like this is interesting. I’d love to be able to speak more than two languages. This article has reminded me why I need to put more effort into learning Spanish. I love the graph! At the moment, I’m too preoccupied with perfecting my French.

    Liked by 1 person

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