18 January 2016

The Two Stages of Language Learning: The Upside Down Hockey Stick

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There are two stages in language learning: the initial intense study of a limited number of words, and the later more extensive approach to learning in order to acquire the up to 10,000 words needed to function at a professional level. These two stages make up the upside down hockey stick.

During the initial growth period – the blade of the hockey stick – progress is quick. Here you are learning the high frequency words and basic structures of the language. The most common 2,000 words account for between 75% to over 90% of all content. These words appear frequently and so they are easier to learn.

You should be listening and reading a lot, and repetitively to the same content, without worrying too much whether you understand all that well. Keep listening over and over, slowly moving on to new content. The more you hear and see words, in the same content and then in different contexts, the more likely you are to remember them. You need to do a lot of intensive reading and listening. You need to listen to the same content over and over again. You may start to use some of these words in limited situations.

If you do this you will experience a sense of elation, and early sense of achievement. From not being able to understand or say anything, you all of a sudden can actually understand something and be able to say a few phrases in the new language. Wow! But you still can’t carry on a conversation. You still can’t function at the train station, bank or post office even though you have studied dialogues based on these scenarios. In a way, you have an ornament and not a useful tool.

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It is at this point that you move to the more extensive approach to learning. This is the long shaft of the hockey stick. It is the most difficult stage of the language learning process because it takes so long, and the sense of achievement is more elusive. It can at times seem like a journey without any progress. Nevertheless, you must continue. You need to expose yourself to a lot of content. You need to listen and read a lot, moving on to new content more frequently. You need extensive exposure, rather than the intensive exposure of the early period. At times it feels as if nothing sticks. But you are learning all the time.

If what you are reading and listening to is interesting, you keep going. It is your interest in the subjects of your reading and listening that keeps you going. Read widely. Read first in your area of personal or professional interest. Try also try to broaden your base by reading novels and other literature. Gradually you will start to notice words and phrases more and more clearly, and even remember them. Naturally and ever so slowly you will start to use these new words and phrases and they become a part of you.

The more you read, the better you get at reading. The faster you read the words you already know, the better you understand the meaning of content that you are reading, even if it contains unknown words. Your range of comprehension expands and your vocabulary starts to snowball. Yes, there are still words that you do not know, or have learned and forgotten. But your overall comprehension skills improve. You understand the surrounding context better. And soon you start to master those elusive lower frequency words that are so important to your understanding of more difficult content. Soon you even start to use more and more of your gradually accumulating vocabulary in speaking and writing.

Stay positive, keep listening and reading. Gradually start using the language more and more. All of a sudden, when you least expect it, you will feel that you have made a great deal of progress. The shaft of the hockey stick is longer and less steep than the blade. At times it almost seems flat. If you persevere you will find that the end result makes all of your effort it worthwhile.

5 Comments

  1. Mike
    Posted January 21, 2016 at 12:48 am | Permalink

    I am thrilled to know that it is okay to make mistakes. Steve, thank you for being such a positive influence on my language learning. For a while, I wanted to give up on learning Spanish. I told myself, “why don’t you quit Spanish and learn another language?”. This is not goo thinking! The more I understand that it’s okay not to be correct 100% of the time makes it less stressful. I am now learning bit by bit. I’m enhancing my vocabulary. I’m thankful for the journey. I do hope to one day be able to speak a handful of languages and talk with people in them. Continue to do what you do man! You rock!

  2. Steve W.
    Posted January 21, 2016 at 2:49 am | Permalink

    An excellent analogy and definitely true. Once you get near that 95% you feel you are really doing it … and then the 5% comes round to make fun of you half the time. At least in conversation I can usually get by with throwing in the English word; if that fails, circumlocution, and lastly a dictionary on my phone. When not speaking English, I speak Norwegian, so English is usually known well enough as a first port-of-call when a linguistical storm hits!

    Language is, and ever will be a journey, and that is part of the fun, to slowly uncover the “darker secrets” of a language, especially complex word-play and shared cultural knowledge.

  3. Posted January 21, 2016 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    This is really encouraging– I’m kind of dealing with this with my Spanish. I’m pretty advanced in terms of listening and reading (I don’t have too many opportunities to speak), but I still get kind of frustrated with what I don’t know, or when I have a loss for words. I’ve made it a point the past couple of years to read broadly, and it’s nice to know it’s just a matter of time. Thanks!

  4. Posted January 27, 2016 at 1:27 am | Permalink

    his is really encouraging– I’m kind of dealing with this with my Spanish. I’m pretty advanced in terms of listening and reading

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