How To Learn A Language and the Seven Stages Thereof

No, don’t expect any ground-breaking insights on this matter – not from me, anyway – because to be honest, I don’t really know how to do it. I just sort of muddle along, trying to listen and read as much as possible and usually ignoring the grammar section (which I shouldn’t do), and hope people can actually understand me.

Instead, I’m just going to post this video:

I completely agree with just about everything he says. Just pay attention to the guy, people.

Anyway, I was particularly interested in his “Seven Stages of ‘Knowing’ a Language”. As I’ve mentioned before, I really hate the ambiguity of trying to work out whether you’re “fluent” or not. That’s why I like the previously-mentioned CEFR system. But this one’s also good.

Basically, if you’re in the target-language-speaking country and go out to a restaurant with your native-speaker friend, these are the various levels you might be at:

1 – You can read the menu and understand most of it, given a bit of time.

2 – You can order your meal, and perhaps ask for the waiter’s advice or explanation on a dish.

3 – You can actually understand the waiter’s advice or explanation.

4 – When your friend starts chatting with the waiter, you can understand the general gist of what they’re saying.

5 – You can actually chat with the waiter yourself.

6 – You can argue politics or philosophy, or simply discuss the Eurovision results, over dinner, with your friend.

7 – You can do all of the above without mistakes.

I’d probably divide both 3 and 6 into two stages, but generally this list is pretty good. It has some benefits over the CEFR system:

In CEFR, A1 has quite a broad spectrum in terms of the levels second-language learners are usually at, from the complete beginner to someone capable of holding a simple conversation and conjugating verbs in at least three tenses. Therefore, Konstantin Andreev’s system has a massive benefit in being able to differentiate between these stages – at least the first three stages, and possibly the fourth, fall in the A1 level.

The fourth and fifth levels roughly correspond with A2, while the sixth can be managed by someone at around B1 – provided they’re not actually discussing politics or philosophy, which require specialised vocabulary, but something more mundane and commonplace, such as the Eurovision.

The seventh level, I’ve got to say, is often not even achieved by native speakers – that is, native speakers of English, anyway, it might be different for other languages where they actually teach grammar in schools.

I don’t think there’s much more I can really say, but I’ll finish off by trying to work out where I am with each language.

Korean – 1, but only because pretty much the only stuff I know in Korean is names of dishes. If I were reading anything else, I wouldn’t have a clue.

Gaelic – probably a 2, although I’ve got to say I’m far better at understanding Gaelic than actually stringing words together. Not Irish, though. Irish is very difficult to understand.

French – either a 3 or a 5. French is strange, because I’ve certainly got the grammar knowledge, and I can even understand and speak it decently on occasion… but my aural comprehension is significantly worse than it should be, given my grammar knowledge, compared to other language. Well, I suppose that’s what happens with a language which is spoken without opening the mouth…

Spanish – is sitting comfortably around the 5 level. I could probably discuss Eurovision results, supposing I even knew them (for some reason, Eurovision gets more boring the older I get), but politics an philosophy are currently beyond my grasp.

German – definitely a 6. I’m comfortable discussing most topics in German, although I no doubt make errors! And I dread to think what my accent is like… My German’s pretty good in most areas, but I still find it insanely difficult to read a novel. Why is it that I have specialised vocab in strange areas, but still come across thousands of verbs and adjectives I don’t know in your average teenager’s book? (Kiddie books are fine.)

English – 7, and it’s probably the only language I’ll ever manage a seven in. I am – very occasionally! – picked up on grammar, though. Very, very occasionally.

Italian – I’m just going to throw this in for fun and say it’s about a 3, possibly a 4. I wouldn’t be able to write Italian to save myself, but four years of (really bad) Italian lessons in primary school and a decent knowledge of Spanish means I’m able to understand the general gist and even speak a little, even though I have a strange and inexplicable aversion to the language.

Oh… I know I said I’d finish up here, but I’ve just thought of something better to finish with. In the video, Konstantin Andreev talks about not letting your native language’s grammar get in the way of your target language. Each language has its own quirks about how things are phrased, particularly when it comes to prepositions. Here are some of my favourite examples:

I like music.
I like speaking (English).
I’m hungry.

Ich mag musik/ Musik gefällt mir gut. I like music/ Music falls to me good.
Ich spreche gern (Deutsch). I speak (happily? Likingly?) German.
Ich habe Hunger/ Ich bin hungrig. I have hunger/ I am hungry.

J’aime musique. I like music.
J’aime parler (le français). I like speaking French.
J’ai faim. I have hunger.

Me gusta musica. Music pleases me.
Me gusta hablar (castellano). To speak Spanish pleases me.
Tengo hambre. I have hunger.

‘S toigh leam ceòl. Music is pleasant to me.
‘S breagha leam a tha a’ bruidhinn (as Gàidhlig). To be at the speaking from Gaelic is beautiful to me.
Tha ‘n t-acras orm. The hunger is upon me.


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