In the beginning, it’s so easy. You don’t understand much. You can say “thank you”, “I like the food” and ask where the toilet is. You’ll even stand a good chance of finding it, as long as the answer is accompanied by an index finger pointing you in the right direction.
Every new word you learn, every new phrase – it’s just so exciting! Only yesterday, you didn’t know the words for “sun”, “wait” and “wardrobe” in X language, and now you do. Learning is positively blissful.
These are the joys of the beginner. Make the most of it while it lasts, I say. Most people never get beyond that threshold, and there’s a reason: It’s called the ‘intermediate’ stage. You know it is upon you the instant you’re hit by the crushing realisation that you know, in fact, next to nothing.
This most vexatious of all learning stages is marked by an inordinate amount of drudgery: sweating over grammar drills that slide right through the Teflon-coated folds of your brain without leaving even the slightest imprint, your eyes turning bloodshot from staring at vocabulary lists for hours on end, and your throat muscles have gone into spasms over trying to roll Rs, practicing your tones, or whatever. Your short-term reward for all this toil is nothing but frustration and embarrassment over every incompetent utterance.
Language acquisition works on an ‘inverted pyramid principle’: You progress from the bottom up, and even though the levels all cover the same vertical distance, the amount of knowledge, expressed in terms of the area of a pyramid segment you need to assimilate to get the the next level, gets bigger every time
In an effort to improve and test yourself, you watch films, you listen to native speaker conversations, and you do catch some words, but in truth, you struggle to even get the gist most of the time. They speak way too fast for you to even identify any of the vocabulary you know, never mind comprehending the bewildering garnish of idiomatic expressions interspersed with slang, which neither your textbooks nor your well-intentioned teachers prepared you for.
The intermediate phase is immensely risky. On those rare occasions when you’re feeling buoyant about your verbal skills, you just won’t be able to stop yourself from coming out with a couple of not-too-shoddy sentences veering dangerously towards the colloquial. This can easily fool a native speaker into believing that you are, in fact, capable of engaging in a normal conversation. Before you have a chance to take flight, they start talking to you. And there you are, frozen on the spot, nodding at them with a rictus grin on your face, without the faintest clue of where this is going.
Not only do you not want to abort the mission and make yourself look like a fool, but you’re clinging to the vain hope that the very next sentence is going to bring a lighting flash insight, which will reveal all that they’ve been rabbiting on about for the last fifteen minutes. Deep down, you already know that this is futile, because you’ve been in this very situation a zillion times before. The best you can hope for is that they won’t suddenly stop and look at you expectantly, waiting for you to divulge detailed opinions on the topic.
Luckily, in about 80% of these instances, you’ll come away relatively unscathed, because people generally just want somebody with a friendly face to listen to them attentively, not interrupt, and agree with them. Intermediate language learners are perfectly equipped for this purpose. I don’t know why we’re not making shedloads money out of this…!
So, how do you know when you’ve finally made it out of the intermediate morass? Well, in my experience, what happens is that, all of a sudden, you’re able to pick out the words and expressions you don’t understand, and you can ask for clarification.
Welcome to the immensely rewarding phase of the advanced learner. Let the warm wave of recognition that all the blood sweat and tears were well worth it wash over you.
I only just got there with my Spanish. I’ve still got a long way to go until I reach near-native speaker level, which is my goal, but it’s important to celebrate the milestones as I stumble along the path.
You may also be interested in my specialist language blog, see here: http://multilingualbychoice.blogspot.com