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The 6 Stages of Language Comprehension Posted by on Jan 22, 2014 in Language Learning

I wrote this comic back in 2011, right around when I began to understand a foreign tongue for the very first time. I had taken Spanish classes all through middle and high school, but the only useful information I remember from those years is how not to ask a girl out. Spanish didn’t stick, and there’s nothing like full-on immersion in an Anglophobic country like France to speed up the process of comprehension. I was amazed: one day I literally woke up and could piece together the conversations of people passing by on the street! And man – they were so boring!

Comic2

After having gone through the same immersive process now with Italian and German (you may also find this recent comic relevant), I’m starting to notice patterns when it comes to understanding a spoken language. There are certain stages, like checkpoints in a race, that you cannot skip, you cannot miss, and once crossed, you cannot uncross. Here are the ones I’ve come to identify so far (although they do not always appear in this order):

1. Jenga Sentences

You’ve just started living in a new country and studying a new language. You’re past the tourist bits like “hello” and “where are the bathrooms” (which I don’t include as a stage of language learning because you can definitely completely forget those), and you’re starting to notice something funny when you hear natives converse. You don’t understand necessarily what’s being said, but you can identify where each word stops and starts within the sentence. If you’re lucky, the sentence is built almost completely out of words that you understand – hooray! A rare victory. I call these Jenga Sentences because if you don’t know just one critical word within the sentence, the whole damn thing is lost on you, even if you understand almost everything else. Extremely frustrating!

2. The Gist

Now you can keep up. If you concentrate hard and pay close attention to what’s being said, you will pick out the keystones of the sentence, and use them to build up the gist of what’s being communicated. This is an exciting time, because you feel like every conversation is laying another fat brick on the foundation of your language learning. And it is! The trouble is, this takes a lot of effort, and if you relax and let the words just wash over you, you’ll lose your place, and you’ll have to start all over to figure out the context. Conversations move quickly! After a dinner party or evening out with friends, you return home mentally exhausted. Your brain hurts! It’s been running on high gear all evening!

3. Helpful Strangers

This is kind of a spooky one. You’ve had hundreds of successful conversations. You can go to the supermarket or bar without risking humiliation. One day you’re in a shop or out in the park and you overhear a number of strangers speaking to one another. Why is it that now, after weeks or even months, why now is everyone speaking slowly and clearly? Why couldn’t they have done that at the beginning, when you were just starting out? Before, you had to really concentrate to understand because everyone spoke at breakneck speed and mashed their words together like they were chewing on them. Now they’re all using simple language, at an easy pace, and talking about ordinary topics. Or … could it be that it’s not them speaking like dummies, but you’re actually getting better?

4. Humor

I’d heard before that you truly understand a culture when you can understand their humor. I don’t know if I completely agree with that, but when you can hear the setup and punchline of a joke in a foreign language and laugh along with the locals, you know you’ve taken another step in language comprehension. This one’s a bit dodgy since there are plenty of just unfunny jokes out there (looking at you, Germany), but when it’s a home run, you’ll feel that first spark of camaraderie with your adopted culture.

5. The Bilingual TV

My mother, an American who speaks fluent German, told me about this one when I was a child frustrated by my Spanish homework, and it wasn’t until I experienced it for myself fairly recently that I believed her. If you’re like me, you watch TV shows, movies, or the radio in your chosen language-of-learning, just to keep your brain active. Well, at some point you’ll look up from whatever you’re doing and realize that you understood the radio ad or sitcom conversation so easily, you couldn’t say which language it was in. Wait, was that English? No, because now they’re speaking in French again. How strange…

6. Reader’s Choice

Actually I don’t have a #6, because I don’t think I’m truly fluent in any of the languages I’m learning, so I don’t know what comes next! I’m sure some of you readers are fluent, so this is your cue to chime in with what you think the sixth stage of language comprehension is. Understanding dialects? Or poetry, or songs? Or being able to turn your brain off during a conversation and then pop back in at any time? You tell me, so I can have it in my mind to look forward to.

Disqualified: Bilingual Dreams

I’d heard this one dozens of times before I even started learning languages. Various people told me, “when you dream in another language, that’s when you know you’re fluent.” I say – balderdash! I don’t know about you, but there’s no one narrating my dreams. There are no subtitles or texts to read along with. My dreams are images, feelings, and the occasional conversation. When I converse in my dreams, I think I’m actually talking to that person, so why would I talk to my mom in French, or my long-lost childhood friend in German? If I speak German in my dreams, it’s probably a supermarket anxiety dream, and I speak at the same level of German I do in real life! If you can speak a language fluently in a dream, then you can speak it fluently in real life, and you don’t need the dream to tell you that.

Are there any stages I missed? Any substitutions? Share your thoughts!

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Comments:

  1. Amanda S.:

    I had to chuckle at 5 not just because it’s happened to me before but the same sort of feeling happened with my actual thoughts. I’m learning Dutch because of my husband and one day walking to my car after work I thought ‘Ik heb honger’ (I’m hungry). After a few moments I suddenly stopped walking feeling confused and wracked my brain because something hadn’t seemed normal about that last thought. It wasn’t in Dutch was it? Wait, it was? Such a strange but cool experience.

    Once you catch yourself thinking IN your language of choice without making yourself do it you may not still be fluent but it sure is a good sign your brain is working at it.

    • Transparent Language:

      @Amanda S. It’s that kind of “ah ha!” moment that makes all the frustrating moments so worth while, huh? 🙂

    • robert:

      @Amanda S. The power of understanding is funny. The crude way of saying I am hungry in Japanese (only used by men) is “haraheta” and I love the look on the utterer’s face when one can reply, “Oh, we’ll take a break in 5 Minutes.” In German, Ich habe hunger. In Spanish, Yo tengo hambre. But, I consider French my 2nd language. “Faim”? Is it “Je suis?” or is it “J’ai?” I think the multilingual mind (or at least mine) is so frustrating because sometimes I respond in a foreign language just because I heard the accent. Sometimes my response is automatic and instantaneous. However, sometimes I can’t think of the word or phrase I want in the language I want, but I just thought of it in 4 or 5 other languages. Worse is when I can’t think of the word in English (my mother tongue) but I can think of it in other languages. I have a feeling that someday someone will develop hyper-polyglot drills to discipline the mind, but not soon enough.

  2. Veronica:

    I recognise all of these stages! No. 3 is so true, I have been through that relatively recently with Spanish. And no. 5, yes, all the time, both with TV and conversations.

    What Amanda says about thinking: in my opinion you can’t consider yourself fluent if you don’t think in the language. If I’m speaking, listening to, or reading French, I think in French (and dream in French :-D). Doing constant translation in your head is just too cumbersome, and also trips you up when you don’t know a specific word in the target language.

    • Transparent Language:

      @Veronica Very true! You’ve got to be able to put it all in context, and you’ll miss out on far too much if you’re constantly relating your new language back to your native one.

    • Malachi:

      @Veronica Yeah I think #6 should definitely be “thinking in the language.” I’m not there on any of mine yet, but I bet it’s nice and relaxing…

  3. Nikki:

    Stage 6 is when you can eavesdrop on a group of teenage girls and understand what they’re talking about. 🙂

    • Transparent Language:

      @Nikki Like, totally, um duh! 😉

    • Malachi:

      @Nikki Good one! Although I’m sure sometimes even adults native in the language have no idea what they’re talking about…

  4. andrea:

    I don’t quite know where to place it exactly, but a common stage I notice with language learners is when they are at the conversant level. You hit a plateau wherein yes, you do speak and understand the language, but to get to a “fluent” level, it takes more practice or have to use the language at a more challenging situation (academics for instance). I don’t quite know how to explain it. For instance, when I speak to native French speakers, they say I sound great. I can carry a conversation and get through general situations. However I also know that my level is not good enough for university or business, or that I still make some mistakes when I speak or write. When I talk to language teachers, they say I just need “just a little bit of advanced grammar classes” or something of that sort. So I get the feeling that I am somewhat “in between” the advanced grammar classes and fluency. Almost fluent, but not there yet.

    • Transparent Language:

      @andrea Good point. You can certainly be highly proficient in a language, especially for everyday purposes, but for highly specialized language use (like in a formal business setting), it takes a little something extra. You have to brush up on industry-specific terms, observe the tone/attitude of the business environment, etc. But it’s something you can master over time with more exposure and practice. 🙂

  5. Jen:

    While in college, I spent an academic year as exchange student in Germany studying German as a foreign language. At some point in the middle of that year I started having difficulty remembering words in English (my native tongue). Nouns were particularly troublesome. When speaking English, usually only when talking to family & friends in the States, I would end up describing the object rather than using the actual noun. I also recall a time when I asked a German friend how to say something English! In my defense, I was working on translation homework (Ger to Eng) and was trying to figure out if I was using g the proper synonym!

    • Transparent Language:

      @Jen Haha! It happens to the best of us! 😉 But yes, that’s a great Stage 6: when your new language takes over!

    • Malachi:

      @Jen Yeah there’s a good contender. I think there’s an Itchy Feet comic in that idea..!

  6. Simon Mayer:

    #6 When your new language starts breaking your native one.
    For instance, I occasionally phrase English (my native language) sentences with Dutch word order. This happens when I’ve spent a lot of time actively thinking out my sentences in Dutch, rather than just letting it flow off my tongue. I then seem to subconsciously apply this same approach in English.

    Also, I recently wanted to ask “how late…” something would be ready, instead of the more normal “what time…” – a symptom of the Dutch phrase “hoe laat…”

    • Transparent Language:

      @Simon Mayer Good one! Hopefully with more practice in Dutch, it will flow more freely and you will break the habit of thinking about it so much and carrying that over to English. But either way, that’s a major accomplishment when your new language starts to take over! Keep it up. 🙂

  7. Judith Walens-Webber:

    My stage 6 was when I was staying at a friend’s place and someone knocked on the door and I automatically answered in hebrew instead of english. I should add that I was sleeping soundly and wasn’t thinking when I woke up. then again I can hold conversations in my sleep too.

  8. Emanuel:

    i just believe we can dream what we know in the other languague, I know a couple phrases in polish, in my dream I was speaking on my native language when i heard my aunt saying in polish ” to jest moja córka” what i defenitely know what means, then she went back speaking in portuguese, because i would not understand whatever else she had to tell me in polish. Whatever we hear that we dont know in other language we will not be able to remember or memorize because our brain is like a ” blank slate” to print those words and recieve them ;).

  9. Elle:

    I have to disagree with your disagreeing about the dreaming in another language. While I certainly don’t think it is an indicator of fluency (I am not close to being fluent) when I stayed in Berlin for two weeks to study German more intensely, I very clearly dreamt in German a few nights towards the end of the stay. It was very strange and actually felt alarming. While I don’t think it indicates I was fluent (because I was and am not) my brain was obviously so intensely packed with learning the language that it was placing it everywhere.

    • Malachi:

      @Elle I definitely have dreams ABOUT the language struggles – like I’ll be talking at the supermarket or with other native language speakers about something. But the way people describe it is like your dreams are somehow IN that language. So I don’t disagree with you there.

  10. KPhaurde:

    For me, #6 would probably be being able to hear accents. I have been speaking Russian for almost 11 years, but have only recently gotten to a point where I feel like I’ve achieved any kind of fluency with it. But I’m still learning, and I feel like I’m just now starting to get to the point where I can tell when the speaker is not Russian. American accents in Russian can be pretty blatant, so that one doesn’t count.
    Also, about dreams: I wouldn’t say that you know you’re fluent when you dream in that language, but I would say it can qualify as an earlier stage. Right around number 2 or 3, I would say. I’ve always thought that you know the language is starting to become inherent for you when you dream in that language, even if it’s just a few words. So right about the time when you can stop thinking about it so hard, when the language starts to come a little bit more naturally — that’s what I’ve always considered to be the “dream” stage.

  11. Atd:

    I would say the 6th stage is when the wrong language comes out of your mouth without you realising it’s not that one the one you should use.
    Ir happened quite often to me to answer in polish to questions are in Spanish by people who definitely can’t speak polish (my mother).
    I’m thinking now of very fast questions like are you hungry? Or similar.
    And another funny one… When native speakers can’t decide if you are a native with some kind of defect in the pronunciation or a foreigner…
    I don’t think that’s the last stage of fluency, though.

    • Sly Reference:

      @Atd I don’t think that’s a sign of language learning, but something that comes up when learning your 3rd+ languages. When I was studying Mandarin in college, when we had say what certain vocab words were, I’d first think of the French, which I had studied in high school. Same thing happened to a classmate of mine. It’s almost like there’s one big box for “foreign languages” that doesn’t get sectioned off until you get to a certain stage in language learning.

  12. marcus:

    My native language is Dutch and I am not sure but how about when in the beginning of my visits to my wife’s family (American) it was difficult to follow different conversations at the same time at full speed! It was just a lot of noise at that time! Now I can ‘jump’ in and out of those different conversations.

  13. Zach:

    I am now living in Israel. I have been studying Hebrew for the last few years becuase I want to live and work in Israel. Israelis all love to speak to me in English. I get fustrated at that sometimes but when they speak Hebrew, they talk really fast expecially if they suddenly change the subject on me. I feel that I have to backtrack a bit. The funny thing is once Israelis get to know American born people they start to only respond in English and that become a problem because I would answer in Hebrew and they would speak to improve their English. I do prefer to listen to the media such as TV in radio in Hebrew. I do however, have a fear that Israelis will one day stop speaking Hebrew, but I doubt that. They like to speak in English because Israel is such a small country and most of them dream to live in America. I am picking it up, I just have to write down new works and concentrate. This was a really useful article.

    • Malachi:

      @Zach They do this exact thing in Germany, too. They’re quite proud of their English, and take every opportunity to practice it. Luckily my German’s at the point where though they know I’m not a native German speaker, they can’t quite be certain that English is my mother language…

  14. Tanya:

    About the bilingual dreams: I’ve heard about it too and when it actually happened to me, I was pleasantly surprised. You just wake up and realize that you were thinking and talking in another language in your sleep just now. And in a way, it made me feel even more confident about my proficiency.
    Nice comics. 🙂

  15. Maxwell Smart:

    How can you discredit bilingual dreams just because you’ve never experienced them?
    I started having dreams in Japanese about 4 months after I started learning. The words I dreamed weren’t exactly complex at first, but even without having visited Japan at the time, I knew enough words that my subconscious was able to put things together.

    • Malachi:

      @Maxwell Smart Because I dream about myself speaking that language at the same level I would in real life. It’s not that the dream is somehow “IN” that language, but rather I’m struggling or speaking the language just like I would when awake.

  16. Linda:

    I’m still at the stage where I can speak pretty well but find that I have to say everything twice to correct small mistakes. But I used to say everything 3 times so I guess that’s progress!

  17. Sarah:

    I think it’s funny that you dismissed the bilingual dream as a major milestone. I personally had anticipated my first bilingual dream for a while. When it finally happened, it was not what I was expecting! It wasn’t, as you mentioned, a narration of a dream, but rather during conversations, if I dreamed about someone who spoke German, she spoke German, and I spoke German back!
    Now I even have dreams in languages I am far from fluent in. My favorite are the Arabic ones 🙂

  18. Emma:

    Im at helpful stranger bit with icelandic. I sometimes think i dream in icelandic but i know full well that im not fluent. I dream in what i “think” is icelandic then fall on my arse round my partners mums house the next day over coffee. Fluency is a long way off but his mum reckons i can put “good” instead of “accept able” on app forms when asked about my level of speaking the language, which is good because absolutely no one wants to employ a foreigner who cant speak the local language round here. Light at the end of the tunnel hopefully after 3 long and lonely years in this country 🙂

  19. Apollide:

    For those of us who grow up multi-lingual and multi-national, dreaming works as the author of this article supposes. Our dialogue is in the same language that we converse in with these people when we are awake. If your friends from middle school appear in your dream, for example, they will speak to you in whatever language you spoke to them then. If your friends or relatives appear to you they will speak whatever the lingua franca is shared by you. It would be odd, then, for you to have a dream and hear your monoglot German boyfriend speak to you in French just because you know French (or, rarer still, because you are studying and learning French). Of course, there could be a stranger in your dream who speaks to you in the language you need to learn. This would be a great learning aid!

    • Malachi:

      @Apollide I’d like to learn how to control my dreams, just so I could spend them traveling to remote regions and speaking fluently with native locals. It’d be great!

  20. Wayne:

    I’d say you’re only half right about the bilingual dream. They’re real and plenty of people have experienced them. When I was in all-day Russian classes, myself and other students would dream with at least some component of Russian included in the dream. It didn’t indicate fluency though. Sometimes I woke up and had to spend some time with the dictionary to find out what I was saying (and others reported this phenomenon also). My dreaming mind was more fluent than my waking mind.

    I think it’s just the brain wiring in new connections for this new language. It may be experienced more at higher levels of fluency because that’s when most people are exposed to it for long enough in the day to make that type of impact.mI’ve also had dreams that were little more than Russian-sounding jibberish. I think of it as sort of a “you’re soaking in it” phenomena.

    Just because you haven’t had those type of dreams doesn’t prove anything. One case does not a rule make. People are just different. Interestingly, the Russian concept is that a dream is something you see, not something in a language. This sounds similar to what you’re describing of your own dreams. As a result, it’s impossible to say for example “I dreamt in Chinese” in the Russian language (or so I’ve been told by the handful of native speakers I’ve asked).

  21. Laurens:

    Studies have actually shown that a new language incorporated in dreams can be a sign of progress. Here’s a quote from De Koninck et al, 1990:

    “Confirming previous observations, it was observed that those subjects who made significant progress in French learning, experienced French incorporations into dreams earlier and had more verbal communication in their dreams during the language training than those who made little progress. Combining these results with those of the earlier study revealed significant positive correlations between language learning efficiency and both increases in REM sleep percentages, and verbal communication in dreams, as well as a negative correlation with latency to the first French incorporation in dreams.”

    Personally, I often have dreams in English, while my mother tongue is Dutch.

    Also, as someone in the “the gist” phase of learning Spanish, this inspired me to practice the language in a lucid dream. That could make for some very interesting research if it hasn’t been done before. Thanks for giving me the idea. 🙂

  22. Tika:

    well, after I read a part of your blog about “bilingual dreams”, I suddenly remind of someone on facebook told about this too, few months ago. Yeah, it sounds silly when you just dream speaking foreign language and suddenly you become a fluent. I’m a little bit not believed with this, why can you speak fluently in another language just in dream with short time while others trying hard to speak in another language in long time, for instance 1 – 2 years, but they hardly speak fluent until now? yeah this is a problem, but don’t take it too seriously. the point of view is you must have an efford to speak, speak, and speak. don’t be shy, don’t be afraid if you find something wrong, just speak. That’s all 😀

  23. Elodie:

    #6 Struggling to speak your mother tongue.
    Close friends telling you that you speak with a foreign accent when travel back home. Accidentally speaking your second language to your grandma without realising until her stunned face gives it away. Struggling to spell, find your words or write an official email in your mother tongue.

  24. Frank:

    For me, stage 4.5 is a sign of progress: When you create a play on words and your friends understand and laugh. And a sure sign that you’re not quite there yet: When you create a play on words and your friends give you a funny look and still don’t understand after you’ve explained it to them.

  25. Manya:

    I’m fascinated and intrigued by dreaming in a second language.
    My son is enrolled in a dual immersion program. He started kindergarten in
    August and during our Thanksgiving holiday while
    Spending the night in a hotel, he woke me up on two seperate nights
    Talking in his sleep in his new language! He was 5 years old.
    I was thrilled!

  26. Sp3ctre18:

    I shared this on my Facebook page. I made this comment:

    “I feel like I’m still in between 1 & 2 for Mandarin. However, at least in my experience, moments of 3 and 5 do happen, and 4 is quite rare – it’s much easier to learn to make your own jokes rather than understand one, I think. At least in my case, I’ve definitely made a few jokes and funny puns but wouldn’t as easily understand them coming from others.”

    In addition to that though, as someone else joked about in reference to teenagers, I think it is important to note registers of speech. It’s definitely interesting when you start suspecting or able to realize different levels of speech and how well you understand them. I have a few friends who seem to speak very plainly and simply and I understand their Chinese quite well. I have other who seem to lace their speech with a bit of slang and they’re impossible. High schoolers’ weird grammar took a while to get used. On the other end of the spectrum, I have a good friend who prefers to express herself clearly and effectively (read: “big words”), so even when texting or IM’ing (which is usually where I excel), it’s tough to follow her. I joke she’s the only person who forces me to look up 4 words in the dictionary for every message she sends. And yet, it’s funny when I went to a tour of an electrical transformer company, I actually understood many technical terms from context and words seemingly put together from characters I already knew.

  27. Rob:

    I have been studying French for a couple of years now and have only had one dream in French. It was when I was taking an intensive course with lots of grammar. My dream was about people sitting around conjugating verbs. Borrring!
    As for another column of yours re: French people not appreciating foreigners attempting to speak French. I live in a small village in the Southwest and when I returned from the intensive everyone was thrilled that I could now somewhat converse. My 85 year old neighbour who doesn’t speak a word of English told the whole village that I spoke very well (which of course I don’t). I just get by.
    Really enjoy your site.

  28. Maria:

    I agree with the “disqualified” one. I don’t really think it’s a sign of fluency. Case in point: a few months ago, I had a dream where I was speaking in Korean…fluently. I can assure you that I am NOWHERE near being anywhere above an advanced beginner. I just think it was my brain stringing together some phrases and random vocabulary. I’ve always been bilingual and never really distinguished between languages until that moment. However, I do think I tend to dream in English or at least remember my dreams in English. Even when I dream about my Spanish-speaking friends, I always remember our conversations in English, and I’m no less fluent in Spanish. I think it’s just a matter of our brain’s personal preference.

    The true mark of fluency is when you can lie in another language. 😉

  29. Marit:

    I don’t really think that #4 is a separate stage of language learning. Sometimes you can enjoy jokes in languages you don’t speak well, on the other hand, I consider myself fluent in English, but don’t necessarily find English/American humor amusing even if I understand the jokes.
    In my experience, humor varies a lot from country to country.

    #5 sounds a lot like fluency to me. If you make it past #5, you should be approaching native-like fluency, and all of the things you mentioned probably belong there, and I’d like to add generally being able to play with the language, for instance knowing when and how it’s okay to break the rules of the language for effect. Language learners often try to speak perfectly, rather than naturally, native
    speakers break the rules deliberately all the time.

  30. Thatyane:

    I have lived in Germany for one year, when I was 18yo, and since that time four years are already gone. I’ve never stopped learning German since then, I can understand and speak very good – just writing is an issue since I didn’t practice it that much. I often have dreams in German, and my dreams in German are much more complex than my actual level is. I don’t believe dreaming in another language it’s a sign of fluency, but I also don’t believe you can only dreams about things you know. In my dreams I speak words I didn’t know I’ve learnt, I say and hear complex sentences which I was not aware I could. So my theory is, the more you hear and are immerse in learning a language, even though passive, the more it will be stocked in your mind even if you don’t remember. Dreams are good way to bring back all these things you didn’t even know you knew. 🙂


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