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September 14, 2017

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The Journey of Language Learning

June 15, 2017

As we learn a new language we pass through a series of phases, each with different durations, challenges, and feelings. We all want to reach a high level of proficiency, enough to speak with our friends or family effortlessly, to study in the language, or work in the language. We all have an idea of exactly how that language success looks. For me learning Japanese, was about going out and hanging out with Japanese friends and talking entirely in Japanese. When I was learning Chinese I wanted to be able to work with Chinese clients and do business. I achieved different goals in these languages but the road I travelled for each was in many ways very similar. The journey can be likened to approaching an island and making our way from one end to the other.

Learning the language is full of curiosity and joy. Buying the textbooks, telling friends about your new hobby, thinking about how great it will be to use the language proficiently, making new friends and reconnecting with old friends who also have a connection to the language.It is similar to how we feel when we see the island from the boat as we are approaching. Once we hit the sand and learn the greetings and the basics of the sound system, the alphabet (for English), we can feel huge amounts of progress in the first hours of learning. We are also finding out about the most salient aspects of the culture and it is exhilarating.


We can now see the general argument structure of the language: Subject, Verb, Object. The words we learn come up regularly in almost every English discourse. Once we know the 100 most commonly used words and their general meaning we already recognise about half of all the words in English writing - that's a lot!

We learn major modals like 'can', 'must', 'should'. We can negate. Grammar follows consistent patterns with many of the verbs. While there are a lot of difficulties, we are still using present, past and future simple to express basic meanings. All you have to do is add 'will' and you can talk about the future, and put an '-ed' on the end of the verb to talk about the past. Present continuous is just 'to be' and the -ing, and we can use it to talk about now or the future - how easy is that. Our confidence is building as quickly as our vocabulary is. There are so many resources for us. The way forward is clear, grammar is relatively straightforward.


The trees are becoming thicker and the trail harder to follow, but through the canopy comes plentiful light. The easiest parts of the language have already been mastered, but there are so many irregular past simple verbs. It's harder to guess when to use 'in/on/at'. We need to learn perfect tenses and some of these need the use of participles. Eat/Ate/Eaten is fine, but so many others don't seem to follow any clear rules. The problem of when to add an 's' hasn't gone away.

But the light still shines, you are having conversations where you really feel you are better, you can see the improvement, it is slow but consistent. You recognise more of the words from TV series and can understand most of the jokes. Learning about culture in the language, either in written form or video is satisfying.

The sunlight that comforted us is long gone as we hear different uses of past simple and present perfect from different speakers, but regardless, we always seem to be getting them wrong. Why do people keep saying there is no 'to + verb-ing', I thought I just read that. I know that I have to remember which verbs need the to-infinitive and which are gerunds, but how can I remember that in the middle of a sentence during conversation. I am still struggling with when to use a/an/the/no article, maybe I should just give up and say whatever I feel like - the rules are so complex and seem to change anyway.

You have invested so much time in this. At first it was so fun, the progress was so clear. Now it seems like there is no improvement. It doesn't matter which article you read, roughly 20% of the words will still be words that you don't know, or words that you have learnt before, but can't remember the meaning of anymore because they appear so infrequently. Every essay is full of mistakes and it is hard to tell stories.

From the vantage point you can see the other side. You still have a long way to go, but the path is clearer. Many of the words you studied and forgot are now becoming more familiar. It is easier to process speech at full speed, but comprehension of authentic listening and reading is still very hard. Essays have persistent spelling and small grammatical errors but '?' is seen less and less often. The logic and structure of essays and oral presentations are always acceptable - it's about the accuracy and fluency now.You are able to develop meaningful friendships with native speakers and other advanced speakers of English with whom you talk freely and have a deeper knowledge of each others' histories, values and goals for the future. You may even have a boyfriend or girlfriend. The ice of the long winter is melting, but you still need to get 7s in your IELTS and still need to submit essays.


You made it, you are studying real content completely in English where there is a very low language barrier, or you are working in an English office and have the advantage of also being a native speaker of another language. You go out with friends and can follow everything, tell jokes and live it up.




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