Acquiring native-like fluency in any language is hard in itself if you're only focused on the end game. However, if you break the entire process of reaching the highest level of English language mastery into multiple stages, then it's suddenly a much easier picture to paint.
Nobody can go form 0 to 100 overnight, but you can certainly pick specific pieces up on the go and acquire as much language skill, knowledge, and finesse as possible before you can pair up with the natives.
Everyone's language learning journey has to start somewhere, whether it's at the first English lesson at school, through music and television or during a trip to an English-speaking country. The fun part of it all is during whatever comes next.
If your ultimate goal as an English language learner is to become a native-like speaker, it is imminent that you go through these 5 stages at a certain point in time, one way or the other.
1. Conversational Basics
The first steps of the English language learning journey are small, indeed. However, mastering each and every step at this stage serves as an immediate compass for setting your language learning goals and a stimulus toward reaching the more complicated stuff as soon as possible.
In order to do get to the hard stuff and hang out with the grown-ups, language learners simply must learn to express themselves at the basic level first before being able to pick up a Hemingway book or watch a Nolan movie without any difficulties.
The following is a short list of all the things that are covered at this particular stage:
- Learning the English alphabet by heart
- Using basic expressions, e.g. greetings, introducing one's self, asking for directions, etc.
- Knowing how to respond to questions and converse with basic expressions
- Practicing listening of short conversations for comprehension
- The ability to communicate routine information on familiar concepts
- Touching on the basics of reading, e.g. reading only short sentences, singe words, etc.
2. Vocabulary Frenzy
Although abundant vocabulary is not the only thing English learners face at this particular stage, it is by far the one aspect of English they will spend most time on. Personally, I like to re-visit this stage on a daily basis even to this day.
An English speaker can never know too many words due to the infinite amount of situations they can find themselves in. Moreover, touching upon the world of English grammar to be able to fully express one's self goes hand in hand with continually enriched vocabulary.
Here are a few bullet points with things to be mastered at Stage 2:
- Learning a plethora of new words that are used in different contexts
- Learning new phrases and expressions beyond everyday usage
- Practicing proper pronunciation
- Practicing reading of larger pieces of content
- Learning the basics of English grammar
- Learning the basics of written English, e.g. comma placement, subject-verb agreement, etc.
3. Grammar Galore
Once you swim into the waters of English grammar, there's no going back. You're either in or you're out. Yes, words and expressions are important, but they mean absolutely nothing if they are spoken in a senseless way.
This stage is the grey area between knowing the basics of English expression and turning it into coherent language output in the real world.
Here you have some inevitable steps of an English learner that is mid-way to attaining native-like fluency:
- Getting acquainted with all of the English regular tenses
- Learning more advanced grammar, e.g. conditionals, passive voice, etc.
- The ability to understand and express complex ideas, feelings, and topics
- The ability to properly articulate a wide range of language in most situations
- The ability to effectively discern and use advanced vocabulary e.g. homophones, synonyms, antonyms, etc.
- The ability to read fluently without little to no pronunciation errors
- The ability to speak fluently but with a lot of pronunciaton and grammar errors
- Having a broad active reading vocabulary with difficulties in understanding infrequent idiomatic expressions
4. Earn Your Stripes
It always becomes the hardest towards the end. Just wanted you thought you've mastered all the words you'll ever need and all the grammar possible, English pulls a rabbit out of its hat in the form of idioms, phrasal verbs, complex sentence structure, weird writing rules, etc.
This stage is about learning the bits and pieces for improving and polishing all of the English language skills, even though they are still somewhat rough around the edges. They contain all the tiny, multi-shaped pieces needed for finishing the giant puzzle that is the English language.
The following things are must-learn aspects of English before you can head into the deep waters of native-like speakers:
- The ability to understand everything you read, with some trouble understanding all the details during listening
- The ability to understand and use academic, obsolete, and slang words and expressions without much difficulty
- The ability to produce written and verbal content for different purposes, e.g. academic papers, verbal presentations, etc.
- The ability to follow and understand long formats of text at once
- The ability to fluently and effectively understand and use phrasal verbs
- Having a great command of all English tenses and advanced sentence constructions, more written than verbally
- Having a good command of idiomatic expressions, both written and verbally
- Having a flawed command of spoken English, but good enough to be properly understood by others
5. All Hands on Deck
We have arrived at the final stage, where the initial learning process is sort of over. However, you can never know all of the language that is out there. If English is your second language, your job does not stop at reaching the highest level of fluency. A skill that is acquired and not natural can deteriorate over time.
In other words, a native-like English speaker can naturally use all that the language has to offer, but they are also one to naturally and always learn more, finesse and polish their existing skills, and never seize to use what they know to the fullest of their capabilities.
That being said, these are the characteristics and virtues of a native-like English speaker:
- The ability to understand everything you hear and read
- The ability to read and speak fluently without major pauses in output
- Knowing how to make inferences in context, both written and verbal
- The ability to produce written and verbal content for different purposes at a native-like level
- The ability to communicate fluently and precisely in complex conversation and discussions
- The ability to recognize and understand spoken English in a variety of accents without much difficulty
- The ability to imitate a native-like accent
And last but certainly not least...
- Being aware that the process of learning the English language never stops, as it is the ultimate form of human expression – one that is constantly developed and enriched over time.
So, which stage are you at?
Learning how to track your progress and recognize flaws in your language learning process is a big part of answering this question.
A great way to do this is through daily practice and self-assessment on a simple piece of paper. Just write all the aspects and things to be learned at any given stage that we've mentioned above as bullet points and simply tick the ones you have gotten out of the way.
Oh, and one small thing...
You may end up learning bits and pieces from upper stages early on but you have to be aware that you are still not ready to progress until you've fully mastered every language aspect at your current stage.
Knowing how long it may take for each individual learner to go from Stage 1 to Stage 5 is almost impossible to say. While linguists directly attribute the growth and development of the human brain to the ability to master specific concepts as the time passes, learners of different age, e.g. 14 vs. 40, have pretty unique and vastly different English language learning experiences.
In fact, some learners spend more time than others (or even a lifetime) at a specific stage, so there is no need to have second doubts about whether or not you are reaching your goals quickly enough.
In a nutshell, the goal of today's lesson was to provide you with the much needed insights that can help you determine exactly where you fit on the English language learning scale en route to becoming a native-like speaker.
Until our next meet-up, I hope you're going to tick as many of those bullet points as possible and reach new heights of English mastery! Happy learning!