The 7 Stages of Learning a Language: Stage 2

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So, you’ve done your initial acquisition in Stage 1 – and although I suggested a very specific way of doing that, you’ll have a comparable initial experience with pretty much any language course you care to try.

Stage 2 may not seem as familiar and predicatable – most language courses find it difficult to steer people through Stage 2, as a result of which many learners end up putting off Stage 2 until ‘later on’.

This isn’t a good idea – because the longer you put off Stage 2, the more of a shock to the system it is when you can’t avoid it any more.

Stage 2

You need to start hearing and understanding what you’ve already learnt to produce.

It’s simple, yes, but it’s not all that easy, especially when you’re just getting started.  You may well be surprised by how ‘off the pace’ you feel if you just build a list of all the different sentences you can say, get someone who speaks your target language to record them all in one sound file, and then listen to it.

[It’s even better, though, if you can script a certain flow into the sound file – so that the sentences come more or less in the order in which you might use them in a conversation.  It’s tricky, but it gives you an advantage in terms of starting to predict what might be coming next, which is why our listening practices are built like this as much as possible.]

Early stage learners can often feel disheartened at this point (and all the more so if they’ve skipped Stage 2 and are coming late to the party, when the disconnect between what they can say and what they can understand in realtime is even more dramatic).

It’s very important to realise, though, that if you make listening to learnt material a regular part of your progress, you’ll be giving yourself exactly the exposure you need to understand the spoken language more easily.

So don’t be disheartened – cherish the difficulty!

It’s a great example of what Dr Robert Bjork calls a ‘desirable difficulty‘, and you will reap huge benefits from throwing yourself into this as soon as you’ve learnt an initial collection of sentences.

Some things you don’t need to worry about

Listening and understanding is a an area of language learning which triggers a lot of uncertainty.

I suspect this may be because it simply isn’t possible to control it in the same way that many learners like to control their production – when people like to make sure they’re going to say something ‘perfectly correctly’ before they open their mouths, or even just when people want to feel 100% certain that they can remember a particular list of vocabulary or conjugate a particular verb.

None of this works with listening – you either get the meaning, or you don’t – so it makes a lot of people feel disempowered.  That’s a challenging emotion – but you can get through it by being almost meditative about your listening.

Does that sound a bit fuzzy?!

What I mean is, change your aim.  Instead of the understandable (but misplaced) aim of ‘understanding what you’re hearing’, switch to the aim of ‘listening to the parts of the language you’ve learnt’.  Let the process of listening itself be a success for you, and don’t worry about the understanding.  Whenever you start to worry about the understanding, just pull your attention gently back to the sense of success that you are spending some time listening.  [That’s the pattern that reminds me of the process of meditation].

The myth of ‘understanding without translating’

Lots of people who take on the challenge of regular listening get side-tracked by the idea that they can and should somehow be measuring whether or not they are ‘translating to understand’ or ‘understanding without translation’.

We quite often have people come onto the SaySomethingin support forums and ask about this – and what they’re usually looking for is a technique for moving straight to ‘understanding without translation’.

Don’t go down this particular rabbit hole – it doesn’t take you anywhere useful.

Here’s how the process goes, if you just relax and let it take its course:

At first: you hear with a vague sense of familiarity, but you don’t understand.

Then: you start to pick out individual words, and you link them correctly to words in your first language (which feels as though you’re ‘translating’).

Then: you understand longer collections of words, and start to feel that you’re ‘getting the gist’, but you’re still hearing a kind of echo in your first language, so you still think you’re translating.

Eventually: the echoes in your own language become more and more quiet, until at some point you realise that you’ve understood something without any conscious connection to your first language.

The more you try to fight this process, the more you try to force yourself ‘not to translate’, the less fun you’ll have (and, probably, the more slowly you’ll progress).

A summary of Stage 2

Start listening to a first language speaker saying the words and phrases you’ve learnt.

Ideally, build them into a flow that echoes an ordinary conversation as much as possible.

Finally, be meditative and relaxed about the process of listening – let it run to its own timetable, and don’t fret about whether or not you’re ‘translating’.


You should now be able to see very clearly if you are on Stage 1, Stage 2 or beyond – or if you have skipped Stage 2 entirely!

In my next post, we’ll look at Stage 3 – which is where some learners become a little prone to despair.  I’ll do my best to show why the despair is unnecessary, and how you can let go of it…:-)

As ever, if you think this might be helpful for other language learners, do please share it with them!

And if you’d like to hear via email when I publish new posts, just use the ‘Follow blog via email’ link below.


The 7 Stages of Learning a Language:

Stage 1  |  Stage 2  |  Stage 3  |  Stage 4  |  Stage 5  |  Stage 6  |  Stage 7


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