The Three Language Acquisition Stages

The Three Language Acquisition Stages

They say “you are what you eat”. In the global information age, maybe it should be “you are what you can say”.


Language, in its varied manifestations, is mankind’s defining achievement, and it also defines us. Language can be social, political, technical, practical, entertaining, sensual, philosophical, and much more. 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 17 languages, and look forward to learning more. To me, there are three language acquisition stages, which I outline here. Billions of dollars are wasted on ineffective language and literacy instruction programs, which ignore these natural stages.


The First Stage

60-90 hours

The Three Language Acquisition Stages

My Goal: To become familiar with a strange language.

My Measurable: Learn to recognize 1000 words.

Main Task: Listen repeatedly to short, simple content.

My Target Languages (possible future): Hindi, Turkish, Farsi.


When I begin, I need to “connect” with the new language and overcome my resistance to its strange sounds and structure. I don’t need to speak. I don’t need to understand any grammar. I don’t need to get anything “right”. I am not interested in mastering a few phrases or simple greetings. I want to get into the language, to get a feel for it.


Here is how Fred Genesee of McGill University describes the beginning stages of language learning.

“When learning occurs, neurochemical communication between neurons is facilitated, in other words a neural network is gradually established. Exposure to unfamiliar speech sounds is initially registered by the brain as undifferentiated neural activity. As exposure continues, the listener (and the brain) learns to differentiate among different sounds and even among short sequences of sounds that correspond to words or parts of words…”


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 mouthful (earful?) 20 times or more, to help forge the new “neural networks” in my brain. After focusing intensely on a new episode, I review all the old ones, so that I am able to digest longer and longer cumulative doses of the language. The Internet and my iPhone make this content accessible and portable like never before in history.

Nowadays, I read the text of whatever I am listening to on my mobile device. 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.


I might speak a little, just for fun, to try out what I have learned. I can easily find a native speaker tutor or language exchange partner via the Internet. I don’t got to classrooms, since I don’t want to be confused by other non-native speakers.


The Second Stage   

180-360 hours

The Three Language Acquisition Stages

My Goal: To understand ordinary conversations and most everyday language.

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

Main tasks: Listen to natural conversations, work on vocabulary, step up speaking and writing activity.

My Target Languages: Korean, Polish, Ukrainian, Czech, Romanian.


Now that I no longer find the language 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” language.


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 content with transcripts is difficult to find. Graded reading and listening material, usually stories, is another useful form of intermediate learning content. The key is to find material of interest. There are lots of graded readers available for English, often with audio. Less is available for other languages. Olly Richards’ collection is a great resource in this regard.


As a result, in my most recent languages, I usually end up learning mostly from podcasts on subjects of interest where transcripts are available. These are more difficult than conversations, but by importing them into LingQ I am able to use these as learning material and increase my vocabulary and familiarity with the language. Material like this is more readily available in some languages than in others. 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 language.


Each item of study is now longer, three to five minutes or even 10 minutes or longer. 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. Vocabulary is like money, “the more you have the more you get” or “the rich get richer”.


I like to stick to interesting and familiar subjects in my listening and reading, so I quickly drop anything that is uninteresting, or where I do not like the voices.  At first it seems that native speakers talk very quickly, but my brain gets used to the natural flow, with enough repetition. I am not frustrated when I do not understand “authentic content”. I feel exhilarated when I do.


Again, Professor Genesee’s observations are helpful. Students’ vocabulary acquisition can be enhanced when it is embedded in real-world complex contexts that are familiar to them.


I sometimes talk to native speakers on the Internet. Speaking helps me to identify weaknesses, missing words, concepts that I can’t express, and words that I have trouble pronouncing. I can then work on these things on my own.


With limited contact with native speakers, I also write, especially on blogs and forums. Writing is great for learning. I have time to compose my thoughts, and retain a record of my mistakes and problems.


At this stage, my main emphasis is still to listen, read, and increase my vocabulary.


The Third Stage

180 hours to forever

The Three Language Acquisition Stages

My Goal: To continue to enjoy the language, to learn more words, and to use the language better.

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

Main tasks: Follow my interests.

My Target Languages: French, Japanese, Mandarin, Spanish, Swedish, German, Italian, Cantonese, Russian, Portuguese, English.


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. I can maintain the language, even if I go for long periods without using it.


This is the best stage to study grammar. I have books and audio books on grammar, intended for native speakers of the language. I am now familiar enough with the language, through exposure, that I can use style and usage manuals intended for native speakers. Nevertheless, my personal interest takes me more to history and literature. I find reading books and listening to audiobooks, on subjects of interest, is the most enjoyable and most effective way to continue improving, or to refresh in a language that I have not used for a while.

I am not required to take any language proficiency tests. If I were, this is the stage when I would prepare in earnest for them. The keys to success on these tests are the ability to read quickly and comprehend the spoken language, and a wide vocabulary of words and phrases, all of which I have already acquired, enjoyably and painlessly. Only at this level would I take these test, since I know that I would score well.


This is also the stage to work on special skills like making presentations, writing academic papers, or producing business reports. It is easy to find relevant material in the target language on the Web and elsewhere. The goal is to imitate the wording and turns of phrase, as well as the ways of organizing information, that are most appreciated in a particular language and culture. It is easy enough to find a native speaker professional tutor or coach, again via the Web, to work on these skills.



Having done it a few times, I know that I can learn a new language, or improve in a language I already speak well, including my own.


You too can move through the three language acquisition stages and gain fluency in your target language. The key is motivation and enjoyment, not a school or a diploma. I know, as well, 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 just 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.


Want to learn a language from content you love?


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12 comments on “The Three Language Acquisition Stages


I think this is a very accurate depiction of Language learning. its like the Begginers stage, the intermediate stage, and the Advanced stage. Or at least how I had envisioned them.

The reason I know LINQq works is because it is enjoyment! Also, to read these wonderful insight by (Lingo) Steve on the Posterousand to see and listen to him on You Tube in sharing insights each day through his love of language inspires me everyday and that inspiration fuels the discipine to do it each day; indeed, ‘where much pleasure is taken MUCH profit is given!’


Firstly, I would like to say that I felt really inspired when I described how you don’t feel frustrated, but exhilarated when you don’t understand “authentic content”. I don’t necessarily feel frustrated when I don’t understand authentic content, but when there is an abundance of content that I don’t understand, it can be discouraging. It reminds me of when I was learning about different factors of second language acquisition and how one’s self-efficacy is highly influential on his/her success in learning a language. I will aspire to embrace my mistakes and learn from them!

Secondly, I love your method of learning and how you stated that you would drop anything that you did not find interesting. Learning a language should always be enjoyable. I think that an input method is great. I try to watch movies and shows in languages that I am wanting to learn. However, I always have subtitles in English turned on so that I know what is being said. Should I turn off the subtitles or at least have them on in my target language in the beginning stage? After reading your post, I think that I should focus on pronouncing the words first and then learning the meaning as babies do when naturally learning their first language.

I really enjoyed your post! Thank you for writing!

John M

Excellent article. This is exactly what I’ve been needing to read. If you ever want to elaborate more on the first stage in an article or a video, I would love it! I am trying to apply your methods to the Levantine Arabic dialect.

J. Price

I love the Linguist’s enthusiasm, but he underestimates the time it takes to learn hard languages. Though I learned the Korean alphabet in roughly 10 hours, it probably took me 40-60 hours just to learn to read and write Arabic (never mind understanding a single word, since Arabic omits the vowels).

Right now I’m living in Korea and studying Korean, which is equally as hard as Arabic. After roughly 700 hours of Korean study, I’m nowhere near your “stage 3.” I can understand elementary and intermediate written texts, but the grammar involved in newspaper articles stumps me. The language doesn’t have any relative pronouns, dammit. Someday I’ll reach your level 3, but it will take more than 180 hours.

And for people who want to speak a language with native speakers (NOT professional language teachers) it will also take much longer. It took me roughly 2000 hours of study to know enough Arabic for everyday conversations in Cairo.

I’m not a bad language learner or dumb (I was a three-time winner on Jeopardy a few years ago). It’s just some languages are hard.

I hope people don’t get discouraged from language learning if they don’t reach these three steps quickly. Learning a new skill requires pushing ourselves, but not so hard we get frustrated. If you’re learning a foreign language, good for you! Don’t pay too much attention to these numbers. It’s okay (in fact it’s highly likely) that you’ll take longer. That’s okay.


Great thanks , Steve, for your article. I had real enjoy , when I read it. You’re a good example for others , your thoughts are very important. Actually , studying of foreign languages can change a life of man and make our future more beautiful. Andrew from Russia.

    Name *Katherine

    I agree. The foreignness, therefore difficulty of Finnish to at least native English speakers, is also rarely mentioned by language learning experts or bloggers. Numbers are not really helpful here. Also, if getting stage one to stage three means going from not necessarily understanding/speaking the language at all to being able to e.g. write and read academic literature then I guess stage two is massive.


Merci pour cet excellent article. L’usage de vos expériences personnelles fait qu’il s’en dégage une authenticité, un véracité, et fait qu’on est enclin a vous croire.
Ce n’est pas toujours facile car, comme vous le décrivez dans d’autre articles, il est difficile de ne pas vouloir des résultats immédiats et de finir par lâcher en pensant que parler avec aisance n’arrivera jamais.
A bientot sur Lingq et merci encore. Ces articles nous apportent du soutien 🙂

Name *Patrick

I have been studying Portugues for 3 years and 11 months and been to Brasil 13 times but I can’t converse yet or understand much at all. I can’t order food in restaurants yet because I can’t understand the waiters. There are only a few one and two word things that I don’t need to translate in my head. When listening to normal conversations I only understand 1 word out of about 12. Then I have to translate that word usually. I use quite a few different methods to learn. Teachers, books, online classes, movies, videos, audios, apps, I write Brasilians every day. My girlfriend in Brasil only speaks English with me because I can’t understand her so that doesn’t help me. Any ideas? It’s the most frustrating thing in my life. I want to live in Brasil.

Steve Kaufmann

I suggest you try LingQ if you haven’t already. You should progress quickly there. Let me know how it goes.

Name *Anita

Hello. I’ve just become a premium Lingq member and am really getting a lot out of it… I have 2 questions… 1. I’ve listened to you say many times that it is vitally important to you to read/listen to COMPELLING content, rather than graded (boring) readings. Yet you say you usually listen many times to the same content. Don’t you find THAT boring? I find that content is interesting only the FIRST time I encounter it and is drudgery in the re-listen. How do you fight THAT form of boring drudgery?

2. You say you listen and read simultaneously, yet you listen while jogging or washing dishes, and have said you dislike sitting at desk to listen. How then do you READ while listening. I find that content that is (say) “+1” or “+2” when I both READ and listen becomes FAR too advanced (+8) when I only listen. I’m curious as to how you handle that vast difference in “comprehension level” depending on whether the “training wheels” of the written word are added to the audio. Thanks much…

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