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May 31, 2010 | Spanish

My Theory of Language Acquisition

The stages language learners pass through in their quest for fluency.

Here is my (highly personal) theory of language acquisition. Many people seem to go through the following three phases as they learn a foreign language:

  • Phase 1. Insecurity
  • Phase 2. Complacency
  • Phase 3. Insecurity

The first phase is characterized by uncertainty and discomfort as learners struggle with the challenges of unfamiliar pronunciation, limited vocabulary, and minimal grammar knowledge.

It is a long phase for many people.

Brandt Reading the Paper at Café Margot Today; I'm Across the Table, Doing Spanish Grammar Drills

After substantial training—maybe several years of good high school courses, for example—learners often enter the second phase, one characterized by confidence and preferably supported by a solid knowledge of the target language’s fundamentals. Phase two people can carry on conversations. They can read pretty well. They can write pretty well.

The danger of phase two is that those who enter it can develop a false sense of security. They can end up believing they understand more than they do.

They miss nuances. They answer the wrong questions in conversations. They read literature carelessly, failing to look up words they don’t know and guessing at meaning. For example, they might mistakenly believe that the protagonist of a story has died when in fact he is merely in a coma, from which he will soon awaken to reclaim his kingdom, maybe even annexing an adjacent kingdom in the process.

I would characterize this as a pretty serious misreading. As you might imagine, bad things can happen in phase two of language acquisition.

Phase three—the return to insecurity—is a better place to end up, in my opinion. Yeah, maybe it is not as pleasant in some ways. Given a choice, most of us prefer not to be insecure.

The cause of the insecurity increase is in part that, as you learn more, you tend to get a more realistic picture of how little you actually know. Throughout the past two months of Spanish, I have constantly been learning constructions and idioms that were different from what I expected. I have been surprised many, many times as the language departed from my original sense of it. I’m talking verb constructions, general syntax, vocabulary, regional variations, and more.

The truth is, not all that many originally monolingual Americans—those whose native language is English, that is—ever get past stage two. It might be good if they did. I believe in linguistic humility.

And by the way, on a somewhat related topic, I also believe in grammar humility, for English. People who think they know everything just because they had Ms. Smith for eighth-grade English commit all kinds of mistakes. These are people who will pick the wrong pronoun in the following sentence while simultaneously being cocky and condescending about it:

Sarah, who/whom I believe has studied French for 10 years, just failed her language test.

Night Falls on My Last Day of Spanish

The correct answer is “who,” but the critical issue is not the correctness (though of course I care about that); rather, it is the condescension. I have no patience for condescension combined with wrongness. Wrong but humble: acceptable. Right and humble: preferable. Wrong and snotty: just plain obnoxious.

Anyway, studying Spanish again has been humbling. If there is a phase four—and of course there must be—I am not in it yet, and I will not reach it before midnight, either.

Tomorrow I begin Greek, so this is it for my Spanish, for now. Except that I will probably continue to speak it almost every day, at least a little, just as I have for years here. And I hope I will be noticeably better at it than before!

Comments (9)

Diana • Posted on Tue, June 01, 2010 - 6:26 am EST

Well I’m really going to miss you studying Spanish! I’m still studying it, and have been really relating to many of the comments you’ve made. Today’s was very interesting and helpful, lots of stuff that I agreed with!  I’d so love to meet you, we have so much in common and would have so much to talk about - learning other languages, as well as defending our own grammar. Here’s an interesting question: at what stage can we say “I can speak (whatever language)”?  Somewhere in Stage 2 I guess, so I do now admit to speaking Spanish, but I’m a long way from where I want and need to be to really communicate and understand successfully.  I’d love to know your thoughts on that one!  By for now, I will follow your Greek progress with interest!

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Tue, June 01, 2010 - 9:22 am EST

Diana, thank you so much for your nice note. As I write this, I am preparing psychologically for my Spanish oral exam this morning!

Generally I feel that “speaking” describes a stage four development, or possibly late stage three. I don’t myself say I speak Spanish—but it has been suggested to me that I may be too strict about these things. I will have to investigate this point further, and I plan to follow up on it in a future entry. It’s a good question for which I’m sure many foreign-language experts have well-formed answers.

¬°Buena suerte con los estudios!

MartyK • Posted on Wed, June 02, 2010 - 8:12 pm EST

This blog makes me laugh. In English. (The only language I know.)

Katherine • Posted on Thu, June 03, 2010 - 11:21 am EST

To comment on Diana’s question, I think it is okay to say “I speak (enter language here)” once you feel comfortable conversing with almost anyone and can basically express your thoughts and ideas.  So for example, you can not only say “Today it is raining”, but can also say, “I think it is raining out, I don’t like the rain, it always makes me sad.”  It’s a different story when people try to say they are fluent.  Technically we are only fluent in one language, the language we know from birth.  That of course can be argued (for example people who move to new country at age 8 and forget their native tongue, or people who grow up in bilingual homes or societies), but in general, to be fluent means you are at a native-speaker level and do not make mistakes.  (Which doesn’t explain the mistakes I make in English all the time!).

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Thu, June 03, 2010 - 3:09 pm EST

I guess I have generally thought of “speaking” a language and “being fluent in” a language as being synonymous. Maybe that’s just a vocabulary problem on my part. I tend to avoid the issue altogether by saying murky and uninformative things such as, “I can get by pretty well in Spanish.” I will investigate further and reform my habits if necessary.

Diana • Posted on Thu, June 03, 2010 - 3:27 pm EST

It’s clearly a fascinating topic that we’re not all going to agree on! To me, fluent is way above ‘speaking’ but just below ‘native’. Maybe ‘I can make myself understood’ is just below ‘I can speak’. I agree with Ellen that it’s just a question of vocabulary really.  The language teaching website Myngle has a category just below ‘native’ called ‘proficient’ which perhaps is a better word than ‘fluent’?  I have friends who can communicate pretty much anything they want in English, but their grammar is far from perfect. What level are they, and do their mistakes ‘matter’?  I look forward to Ellen’s musings in a further blog!

Joe • Posted on Mon, May 26, 2014 - 10:32 pm EST

I got to say I truly enjoyed reading all your day to day adventures on your two months of Spanish studying.  I was just wondering since you say you have watched the news in Spanish, did you ever watch any movies or shows in the Spanish language?? Also, did you ever listen to any music such as music that are currently popular or those regional kind from Mexico??
I find it interesting that you been studying all these languages that you have selected for the past five years.
Well have a great night! I hope you had a great Memorial Day!!

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Wed, July 09, 2014 - 12:07 am EST

I totally missed this one, Joe. I love your post and apologize for the late response!

I have in my life seen quite a few shows and movies in Spanish. Some music, too, but less of that.

Does it also count if I watched FIFA today in Spanish? The last part of the soccer match between Brazil and Germany…

Joe • Posted on Thu, July 10, 2014 - 1:46 am EST

Hi Ellen!... Its cool if you responded very late to my post. Hope you had a great day! Its good to know you have seen some movies and shows. One of my favorite movies so far is Instructions Not Included (No se aceptan devoluciones) and it definitely does count watching the games in Spanish! Just sad Brazil did awful and lost but happy Argentina won.

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