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What Are the Stages of Language Acquisition?

There are many opinions on how we learn a language. From polyglots that blog or vlog regularly to Stephen Krashen and Noam Chomsky’s theories to foreign language programs, great thinkers are ready to explain how they believe we learn language. And while the opinions are varied, there are several common threads.

What Is the Theory of Acquisition Language?

If you’re looking for a scientific, data-based way to understand how we acquire language, then the Learning Acquisition theory is your starting point. The data around language learning is far from conclusive, so these ideas have been open to a great deal of interpretation over the years. And the ideas behind it come mainly from these four thinkers:

  • John Locke: created the concept of the “Tabula Rasa” or the blank slate, the idea that we are born with a blank mind at birth and experiences fill it up along the way and make us who we are.
  • B.F. Skinner: positive and negative reinforcement condition us. Praise inspires us to perform well and criticism prevents us from making mistakes. Essentially, Skinner builds off Locke.
  • Noam Chomsky: Universal Grammar gives us a playbook inside our brains for how grammar works; we come to any language after birth, with a general understanding of how it works inside of us.
  • Stephen Krashen: Monitor Model, a set of five hypotheses illustrating how we learn a language. “Comprehensible Input” rests at the center or approachable material that we can easily internalize that pushes us to further successes.

Keep in mind that each of these theories is still highly debated. They play off of each other and each has merits, but none is viewed “truth” in the field of language learning. It’s a starting point for understanding how we learn language and it helps to alter the perception that people are somehow incapable of learning a second language.

Definition of the Language Learning Process

While the theories varied, people do tend to come to agree on the idea that we learn language through stages. The number of stages depends on who you ask. Some argue three, others say four or five.

There are certain consistencies within the stages. You start with the beginning stage and you end in fluency, what happens in the middle depends on who you ask. The other agreement is that language learning represents a kind of creeping line towards “native speaker” but one that never quite touches it. These are the language learning stages to understand how the process works.

Stage 1: Beginning Language Learner

You have to start somewhere. If you’re in the process of trying to learn how to learn Spanish easily, then you’re most likely at the beginning stage. Everything is new and overwhelming. Sounds, pronunciation, vocabulary, all of it is an overwhelming experience. Most of what you do in this stage is listen and mimic. You’ll learn individual words and maybe a few phrases towards the end of the stage, but you’re far from thinking and talking in the language.

Stage 2 – 4: Developing Language Learner

With beginner on one side and fluency on the other, the middle leaves room for the rest. If you’re learning how to become fluent in Spanish or any other language, you’ll progress through this part on your way to fluency. Some people lump all of these components into one stage, others break them down as they have been done below.

  • Developing Speaker: You will sound strange to native speakers, somewhat like a small child in how you speak. You’ll make clear errors in grammar and syntax, but people will be able to understand you. You’ll say things like, “I make toilet.” Your pronunciation is not accurate.
  • Intermediate Speaker: You will be able to have simple conversations with natives with improved punctuation, but you will struggle with some words. Grammar and syntax have improved, but there are still errors.
  • Conversational Speaker: You will be able to talk to natives, but you’ll still need help with some rare words. You will begin to think in your target language, and you’ll have a firm grasp on grammar.

Stage 5: Fluent Speaker

Fluency is the end game for any language learning program. It’s tricky to define as there’s no agreed upon definition of what fluency means. There is a distinction between being proficient in a language (being able to use it academically or in a professional setting) and being fluent.

The simplest definition is that you’re able to clearly speak and think in the target language without reverting to your native language. In other words, conversation is fluent. This usually takes between six months and two years depending on the language and how much time you have to expose yourself to the target language.

Fluency means that you’re able to talk to native speakers. You’ll have an accent, and you’ll mostly be able to work around it; you’ll also need to relearn phrases and structures as you continue to use the language, but for the most part, speaking in the foreign language occurs easily. Once here, you begin the slow, continuous crawl to native speakers.

The Importance of Language Learning Stages

Learning a language is a process. It is something that you work towards from the day you decide to become fluent in a second language. It takes time, effort, and energy to arrive at your goal, and like with any long journey, it helps to have markers along the way to help you keep your bearing. Knowing where you are as a language learner can motivate you to push harder and reach the next stage and then the next and so on.


Entrepreneur and Linguist, Jonty Yamisha created OptiLingo after his efforts to protect his native language, Circassian, from extinction. Using scientifically proven strategies such as Spaced Repetition and Guided Immersion, OptilLingo has helped thousands finally achieve fluency.