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