3 Stages of Language Acquisition: How Long Does It Take?
3 Stages of Language Acquisition was uploaded onto Steve’s YouTube channel on
May 13, 2019
Hi there, Steve Kaufmann. Today I want to talk about something that I think is very important, a question that I get all the time, and that is how long does it take to learn a language. I want to talk about that in terms of what I consider to be the three stages of language acquisition. So let’s start with that, the stages of language acquisition.
If you Google stages of language acquisition most of what you find will talk about the stages of language production. You know, initially can answer yes or no, can say a few short sentences, whatever. To me, language acquisition is not about language production. It’s initially about how we acquire the language, how we get the language into us.
Particularly on my experience these last three-four months with Arabic and Persian and as I contemplate getting into let’s say Turkish next year, how long do I think it will take for Turkish. What will be my stages along the way towards acquiring that language?
I looked at an article that I wrote quite a long time ago and recently put up again on my blog where I talk about three stages of language acquisition. In the first stage, which I say takes 60 to 90 hours, call it three months at an hour a day, and, of course, this is going to vary depending on the language, I describe in that article many years ago, seven or eight years ago, exactly what I experienced with my Persian and Arabic and that is that I need to listen often and repeatedly to simple stories.
What I didn’t know when I first wrote this article, or at least I wasn’t aware of, were the mini stories, the point-of-view stories. I became aware of them when I was studying Polish and Piotr at RealPolish.pl uses these very effectively. I then discovered that AJ Hogue does this in English. I discovered that these have been around and that some of the people involved in the TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling) have also used this technique. We have our 60 mini stories at LingQ. That’s only one example of this point-of-view storytelling technique, but by listening to these many, many, many times and reviewing them on LingQ and reviewing the words I got a sense of the language. So I call the first stage, this 90 to 100 hours, I call it connecting with the language. That’s all you have to achieve so that I have a sense of Persian.
Now, depending on the language, it can be more than three months. In the case of Persian, three months even combined with Arabic, I was able to connect with the language. I actually can say some things now. I know more or less how the language works, although there are fine points of grammar that I’m not aware of. Arabic is much more difficult. Arabic is more difficult because the grammar is more complicated, at least more different from what I’m used to as a speaker of European languages. The writing system is more difficult and I began sort of connecting with the Arabic script with Arabic so that by the time I got to Persian I had an easier time reading.
Stage 1: Connecting with the language
So depending on the language it can be longer, but the first stage is connecting with the language and it is done through a lot of listening and reading and, ideally, content like our mini stories at LingQ where the most common verbs of the language are used over and over again and a lot of the very common conjunctions and connecting words and phrases are used over and over again so you naturally absorb the language.
I personally enjoyed having a tutor once a week in each of Arabic and Persian, but it’s not a condition. I think it’s useful to do, but it’s not a condition because you’re mostly trying to get the language into you. So, based on an hour a day, that’s three months. It could be longer, it could be shorter, depending on how similar the language is and the writing system is to what you are familiar with.
Stage 2: Getting comfortable with the language
The second stage then is what I call getting comfortable with the language. Here, again, it’s largely input-based because in my experience if you are comfortable, if you can understand, if you have a high level of comprehension, if you have sufficient vocabulary, the output will come. As you have more opportunity or you create more opportunity to speak you will improve your ability to speak, but you will then activate this passive knowledge, this comprehension, this vocabulary that you have acquired.
So in the second stage now I still could continue, as with Persian and Arabic, listening to my mini stories. In fact, I’m even doing that now with my Russian and Ukrainian in order to get a better sense of the structure, the case endings, the verbs of motion and this kind of thing, but I need to expand my vocabulary. I need to expand what I am comfortable with, what I understand. For example, in Arabic and Persian if I get an article from Al Jazeera and there’s 40-50% unknown words there that’s not comfortable. In fact, it’s difficult for me to read and listen to.
So, ideally, in the second stage, which is twice as long as the first stage, if the first stage was three months, the second stage could very well be six months. Here, ideally, I would look for conversations. To some extent the podcasts are conversations, but a lot of the podcasts that I’ve been listening to have a lot of sort of special vocabulary. If I continue doing it I would eventually acquire that vocabulary, let’s say it’s politics or economics, and these texts would become more comfortable to me. However, I felt with Arabic if I could find an intermediate level of content, maybe mini stories about economics and politics where the vocabulary repeats. Although the nouns will not repeat as often as the verbs, which repeat more often and in a sense are more important to our ability to express ourselves.
So, ideally, maybe we should start our LingQ podcasts up again where we had two people talking to each other in Italian or French or Japanese so that you get sort of a natural conversation, but spoken first and then transcribed, not something that’s written and then read. So this becomes very lively. It’s interesting. You’re sort of eavesdropping on a conversation and yet if you’re at LingQ you have then the ability to read the transcript, save the words. After a while if it’s the same two people talking to each other about everyday life or things that are of interest to them, a lot of the vocabulary will repeat.
Another thing that I very much enjoyed with Chinese, and to some extent I found some of this in Russian, is books on subjects of interest to me, non-fiction, which is usually easier than literature, non-fiction history, geography, but with a simplified vocabulary. So, again, as I am increasing my comfort level with the language I’m not facing 50% unknown words.
If it’s possible, find this sort of intermediate level of material and then gradually migrate towards genuine, authentic material, which I pushed myself to do in Korean and I pushed myself to do in Romanian and I pushed myself to do in Greek and in Arabic, but it was just a little too difficult for me so I wasn’t getting to that comfort level.
Ideally, you would have six months to work at material that is no longer simple mini stories, but it’s not quite the full-blown authentic material or you simply plow into the authentic material and just suck it up. You want to get there. You’re interested in it. There are a lot of unknown words. You save these words, you listen to the audio and gradually you’ll become more comfortable. There is this period then of becoming comfortable with the language, so that, in my opinion, is another six months. So now we’re at nine months, three months predominantly with the mini stories, then the fourth to the ninth month plowing into either intermediate material or interesting, authentic material so that you can increase your comfort level with the language.
At this stage I would normally increase my interaction with a tutor. I might even go twice a week because now I’m starting to acquire enough vocabulary that I can actually talk about things that are interesting. And, of course, at LingQ I get a report from the tutor with the words and phrases that I struggled with and then I study these as content. If I’m lucky, the tutor gives me an audio file to listen to as well. So here we are at nine months.
Stage 3: Continued improvement
Now, the next stage I simply call constant improvement because there is no perfection, but you are now sufficiently comfortable in the language that you can listen to almost anything of interest or read anything of interest and continue to acquire vocabulary, to pay attention to aspects of the language and therefore to continue to improve. This can go on for as long as you have time to spend with that language. Once you achieve that level, in other words comfort with the language, you are now launched so you can go as far as you want in the language.
Now, what about grammar in all of this or what about fine points of pronunciation, such as the conversation we had the other day about pitch in Japanese? When I started Arabic there were all kinds of complicated explanations about different types of Arabic verbs and in any language you’re going to find this. If I start into Turkish there’s going to be a lot of explanation about Turkish grammar and Turkish pronunciation.
Most of these explanations are more intimidating than anything else because they describe something that the learner has as yet no experience with. Therefore, I think it’s far better to let the learner experience the language, notice certain things or not notice certain things. When the learner is curious about some aspect of Arabic grammar or curious about pitch, if they’re curious about pitch, then they can go in and read up on it and it will be dealing with something that they already have some familiarity with, but it is not the main path to sort of fluency in a language. The main path to fluency is letting the language come into you and I think that is done in these three stages.
Nowhere in my three stages do I try to guess what the learner is able to say. In stage one they can answer simple questions. In stage two they can talk about their family. In stage three they talk about the weather. I think that’s meaningless. If the learner has gone through these three stages of language acquisition they will acquire more and more vocabulary, a better and better sense of the structure of the language and they will gradually be able to use this. But the focus is, in my opinion, on what we can acquire rather than what we can do because we will be able, eventually, to use that which we have acquired. We need only increase our opportunity to use it and so as I progress in the language, I would perhaps talk three times a week with a tutor maybe and then at some point go to the country, but I would go to the country once I have already achieved a level of comfort in the language so that I can take full advantage of being there.
So there you have it, nine months to a year gets you to that comfort level. It could be longer for Arabic or Chinese, it could be shorter if you’re a Portuguese speaker learning Spanish, but that’s roughly what it is, in my opinion.
I look forward to hearing from you and I apologize for the long video. Bye for now.