The 10 Stages of Language Learning

The journey from cluelessness to fluency can be an emotional one


Illustration by Ale Giorgini

The time has come: you’ve decided to learn a new language! Whether it’s your first adventure into this realm or you’re already a veteran in the area of foreign languages, the path to your goal always follows the same steps. So don’t worry if you sometimes want to throw it all away, or when, after finally understanding those confusing rules, you realize that in reality you’ve still got a long way to go. Errare humanum est said our old friends from Rome: (“to err is human”), and it happens to everyone. The secret is to keep at it. And it’s exactly this persistence that will help you reach that final, longed-for step: triumph.

1. Enthusiasm

It always starts like this… Whether you did it for fun or necessity, you probably struck out on this path with good intentions, high motivation and a spectacular fireworks show of new insights. A good start is half the battle!

2. Obsession

Then comes the brief period in which it seems like your entire existence revolves around the effort to penetrate this new language and culture. I don’t know if that’s ever happened to you, but it’s always that way for me. When I learned French, everything I did had to shimmer with Parisian elegance. It was around this time that my wardrobe filled up with striped shirts and my interest in French authors and directors grew to unprecedented heights. Do you find that excessive? Maybe, but I learned French – and that’s what it’s all about!!

3. Discomfort

After the manic phase is over, the time comes for the actual language learning to begin. And it’s exactly at this point that the first setbacks emerge. You’ll first be overcome with a feeling of sheer panic… because nothing you learn seems to stay in your memory. The words seem so different than anything familiar to you and you can’t make any connection between them. Not to mention the many verb forms. It’s at this stage that you’ll feel the temptation to simply disappear and leave it all behind.

4. Shyness

We all know that the key to fast progress when learning a language is practice – preferably with a native speaker. Sounds easy. But putting this knowledge into practice is something totally different. In truth we’re all incurably shy, and it’s hard for us to get past ourselves and show our vulnerable sides. The secret is to always ask yourself, “What could happen if I make a mistake?” The answer: nothing terrible!

5. Lack of Understanding

It usually goes something like this: you’ve finally found the courage to jump in the deep end. You’ve rehearsed everything you want to say over and over in your head and even practiced in front of the mirror so you look as cool as possible when you say it. You finally get the opportunity to use your knowledge on the lady at the register, on a passerby or on the waiter at the restaurant. You already imagine emerging from your conversation bursting with pride. But what happens instead? After listening to your well-thought-out sentence with a big smile, your conversation partner answers and… you don’t understand a thing!

6. Frustration

Now comes a truly critical phase. “How can it be?” you ask yourself sadly. “I’ve been learning this language for months and don’t understand a thing when someone speaks to me. I have absolutely no talent for languages. That’s it! I’m done!”

7. Revelation

And then something magical happens. It happens unexpectedly when you’ve given up all hope: suddenly you understand! Everything seems to be in order and you no longer have thoughts of trying to escape when asking a random stranger something on the street. Off you go! It’s all downhill from here!

8. Excitement

At this point you’re suddenly sociable and your shyness is all but gone. You talk and talk and aren’t afraid of anything. Isn’t it great? Just don’t let go of the reins now, because there always lurks the danger of…

9. Embarrassment

You feel so safe that no one and nothing can stop you. And it’s exactly at this point that the most embarrassing – but also funniest – things happen. A falsely-used word, one verb in the place of another, a saying that actually doesn’t exist in that language. But have no fear: you learn from your mistakes, and this is how you progress along the way.

10. Triumph!

It’s done: the new language doesn’t hold any more secrets from you. You understand everything and can speak without difficulty. You can even laugh at the mistakes that just a short time ago were so frustrating. Great job! As we said earlier, the most important thing is to keep at it!

Begin your journey of language discovery!