And here you are, at the giddy heights of Stage 7 – congratulations! And if you haven’t reached Stage 7 in your own learning yet, hey, just look at the view – that’s got to inspire you…:-)
Stage 1, you get yourself 5 questions and answers.
Stage 2, you start listening to recordings of conversations using what you’ve learnt.
Stage 3, you build one new domain-specific conversation.
Stage 4, you introduce a real, live person, and start talking to them for 5 minutes a week.
Stage 5, (once you’ve done 5 cycles through Stages 3 and 4) you start doing bulk, accelerated listening.
Stage 6, you spend an entire day listening to radio and TV, and another entire day talking to people.
Once you’ve done Stage 6, you are an official Stage 7 learner. That doesn’t mean you won’t go back and cycle through Stages 3, 4 and 5 again (I’ll give you tripwires for when to stop doing that in a moment) – but it means you are firmly in the complicated, glorious and rewarding heights of Stage 7 from here on in.
You can now speak this language.
Let’s not beat around the bush here – if you’ve spent an entire day talking to people in this language, You Can Now Speak This Language.
I can already hear you protesting. I bet you’ve got one of these lines going on right now:
‘But, but, but I can’t say everything I want to exactly how I want to say it!’
‘But, but, but I can’t understand everything other people say!’
‘But, but, but there are loads of words I don’t know!’
‘But, but, but look, I know perfectly well I’m not fluent!’
Here’s the thing:
All those lines are completely true.
They’re also entirely irrelevant.
Languages aren’t about perfection, they’re about communication. If you can communicate in a language, You Speak That Language. Fluency is just an ill-defined abstract concept that helps you undermine yourself (and lets alpha polyglots engage in pointless bragging competitions).
So now You Speak This Language, what are your next steps?
What are the action points for Stage 7?
There are just two things to do in Stage 7 – one of them is familiar, and the other is challenging.
First up, you keep expanding your range of language.
– revisiting Stage 3 whenever you have enough new material
– keeping Stage 4 ticking over
– revisiting Stage 5 whenever you’ve done 5 new runs through Stage 3
…and that’s it.
It will seem like a slow process – you’ll often fall into the trap of believing that you’ve hit a plateau – but that’s just mathematics.
If you know 10 words in a language, and you learn 10 new words, you’ve doubled what you know (or even more, if some of them are handy modal verbs and suchlike).
If you know 1000 words in a language, and you learn 10 new words, that’s a hefty 1% improvement – you won’t even notice it, and you’ll think you’re on a plateau. But you’re learning At The Same Rate as you were at first!
So don’t try to measure yourself – just revisit Stage 3 when you find enough connected new vocabulary for it to be worth it, carry on with Stage 4, and run Stage 5 whenever you’ve done 5 rounds with Stage 3. That’s all you need, and it will keep you moving forward steadily (until you get to the tripwire).
Second step, you make yourself at home in your new language
That might sound a little vague, but it is the last and in many ways the most important part of your language journey.
Here’s what I mean by it:
Now that You Speak This Language, you have to decide how it fits into your life.
This decision will, inevitably, affect how much like a native speaker you’re going to sound, and how easy and instinctive the language will (or won’t) become for you. It’s hugely, hugely important for you to be clear about this.
By way of example:
I started learning Welsh when I was 32 (I also had some early exposure as a baby, which gave me something of a head-start).
Once I could maintain a conversation, I moved to Porthmadog so that I could lead my life through the medium of Welsh.
I ended up working for the county council (through the medium of Welsh) and then working for a Welsh language and communities pressure group (through the medium of Welsh).
Then I met and married Catrin, a first language speaker, and now we’re raising our two children through the medium of Welsh.
The fact that my Welsh can occasionally (although certainly not always!) confuse people into thinking I must be a first language speaker has got nothing to do with how hard I worked, or what tactics I used. I didn’t work hard, and my only tactic was ‘talk to people’.
No, it was all about what a central part of my life Welsh became.
Now, by contrast, my Spanish.
My approach to learning Spanish went: Michel Thomas Spanish Course -> Michel Thomas Advanced Spanish -> my mate Dave -> a pub.
And, er, that’s it.
Dave and I meet up most weeks for a pint, an hour or so of Welsh, and an hour or so of Spanish (although French seems to have barged Spanish rudely out of the way recently).
I can speak Spanish – but it’s immediately obvious to any Spanish speaker that I’m a learner.
This is okay. I’m a Stage 7 Spanish learner, and I’ve decided that the part it plays in my life at the moment is: something I enjoy doing for an hour or so most weeks.
That means my Spanish sounds like: someone who speaks it for about an hour most weeks.
If I wanted to improve my Spanish, I’d need to change the part it plays in my life. I toy with the idea sometimes – I’d like to take the kids and Catrin and go and live in Spain for a year – and if I ever did, my Spanish would become massively more natural – without me needing to do any extra work.
And now, the end is near…
If you haven’t reached Stage 7 yet, you should now be able to see what the next steps are that will help you get there.
If you’re at Stage 7, keep working through Stages 3, 4 and 5 until you hit the tripwire.
Oh, the tripwire?
Stop doing Stage 3 the first time it feels genuinely boring. That’s the only clue you need that you’re ready to acquire new vocabulary in the wild, by talking to people (which is easier, and much more entertaining).
Once you stop Stage 3, you won’t need Stage 5 any more. Stage 4 becomes ‘the part you want this language to play in your life’, and you can do Stage 6 again just for kicks any time you feel like it.
And once you’ve hit that final tripwire:
You’ve Learnt This Language.
Let it find its natural place in your life, celebrate what you’ve achieved with a glass of something fine, and enjoy every chance you get to play with your new skill.
And if you’re not going to move to a community where your new language is the normal everyday language, be at peace with that. Be at peace with not speaking the language as though it were your first and everyday language.
It’s okay for you to sound like yourself…:-)
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The 7 Stages of Learning a Language: