The 3 Types of Language-Learning Stages and Their Role in Effective Language Learning

Making your language learning stage-based could be one of the smartest things you ever did.

Making your language learning stage-based could be one of the smartest things you ever did.

There are people who have tried to learn another language multiple times and yet failed every time!

What’s up here?

Is it a lack of talent? Discipline, maybe?

No, rather, it’s a lack of understanding and experience.

You see, learning a new language comes in stages. And these stages have so much to tell you: where you are, what to do next, if it’s time to drastically change your methods or not, etc.

But only if you understand them…

I hope to give you some of that understanding today.

There are three types of language-learning stages. And working with them is an excellent way to finally learn that new language or make your language learning more effective.

It’s important to realize beforehand, that all these stages are like a map but the not the territory. They’re great guides to improve your language learning but they are not necessarily exact reality.

So without further ado, let’s start exploring them right away.

Proficiency Levels – Where You Are

This is the most straightforward and the most understood stage type.

These can be as simple as:

  • Beginner
  • Intermediate
  • Advanced


  • as complicated and elaborated as you like.

In other words: they aren’t fixed.

You can immensely increase the effectiveness of your language learning by adjusting the methods and techniques you use, to the stage you’re in.

If you use something like Pimsleur when you’re already in the advanced stage, you’re wasting your time. On the other hand, using only native materials to learn a language will probably bring you a lot of frustration when you’re just starting out. You’d retain very little of what you learn because you’d have to learn too much at once.

Psychological Phases – What You’re Experiencing

These are the emotional stages you go through while learning a new language. They are quite the threat — many people quit learning a language due to the emotional power of these experiences.

A decent sketch of them can be found on the Transparent Language blog.

It’s important to understand that these stages aren’t fixed either. The stages that appear in the article are a bit too linear (generally inevitable with articles about the psychological experiences of a language learner). The sequence and frequency with which they come can vary quite a bit.

Some of you may not experience some of the stages and others will have different psychological experiences than the ones listed.

The important thing to remember is, as the title of the article suggests, that language learning can be quite an emotional roller coaster. A manic experience, almost. A period in which you feel you progress immensely is quickly followed by one that makes you feel you’re going backwards.

On the surface, a lot of these stages seem to be negative. It’s only after overcoming them that you see the value of the experiences. When a negative stage returns, you’re not going to be so upset as you was the first time. And with time, they’ll lose their grip on you.

Stages of Change – Using the Laws of Change to Your Advantage

This is closely related to the psychological phases.

At first, the connection with language learning may not be clear but…

To start to learn something on your own, is to make a change within yourself.  Tweet This

This change comes in stages and many people get stuck in one of them.

As with the proficiency levels, the methods and techniques to help keep you at it need to be adjusted to the stage of change you’re in.

According to the brilliant book Changing for Good there are five stages of change.

Stage 1 — Precontemplation

“I’d love to be able to speak another language, but it isn’t worth the work. I’m not willing to give up my leisure time in front of the TV.”

In this stage a person is unaware of the need to change. She generally finds that the cons of changing outweigh the pros. With more serious issues (alcoholism, smoking and drug addiction) people generally deny they have a problem.

Stage 2 — Contemplation

“I really need to learn that language. I work for an international company, it would really help me climb the ladder and get a better life.”

By increasing the perception of the pros and decreasing the cons, she is now aware that changing is necessary or desired. Her intention is to take action some time within the next 6 months.

She’s more aware of the pros of changing but it’s still 50-50% when it comes to the pros-cons balance. This complicates the passage to the third stage. In fact, some people never get out of this stage.

They need to reduce their perception of the cons and increase their perception of the pros in order to progress to the Preparation Stage.

Stage 3 — Preparation

“I will do my language-learning activities in my house but there are many distractions there. How will I deal with them when they come up?”

She’s now ready to start taking action within the next 30 days. The pros of changing outweigh the cons!

It’s now important to make an action plan and to take into consideration the likely obstacles that she will encounter in her way. Failing to do so and deluding herself that everything will succeed just by positive thinking, will stop her in her tracks when things get though.

Stage 4 – Action

“I’m now well prepared to really start learning the language. My action plan will tell me what to do in difficult situations.”

This is where it really starts. Here, she needs to strengthen her commitments to change and ward off self-sabotage attempts. As new obstacles arise that she didn’t take into account in the preparation stage she may need to tweak her plan slightly.

Stage 5 – Maintenance

“I’ve really made progress but I’m feeling the temptation to let it slip. Is it really necessary to study every day, anyway?”

Months after starting her action plan, it’s now time to maintain the changes.

Threats to slip up come from stress and tempting situations. Planning how to deal with them is a must. It’s also important to maintain the dominance of the perception of the pros of learning your target language.

A growing perception of the advantages (pros) of changing is required to progress through the stages. We need to constantly remind ourselves of the pros of learning a new language. The pros can also include the cons of not learning the language (sometimes more effective). Ideally we augment both.

The above model is called the Transtheoretical Model of Change, and the book in which it’s featured, Changing for Good, is a real eye opener. Hey, we’re heading for 2014 — now is the perfect time to read it and finally keep your new year’s resolution of learning another language.

Don’t Have Stage Fright

As you can see, language-learning stages come in different guises. An understanding of them, especially if you keep failing to learn a new language, is essential to effective language learning.

It’s not your memory, talent or any other excuse you can come up with. No, if you think you can never learn another language, you need to pay attention to the three types of language-learning stages. They hold the key to overcoming your hurdles and achieving your dream of speaking your target language well.



  1. Hi Noel 🙂 Oh yes, the stages you write about are so true… From my personal experience, I would say that having a motivation is a key thing in language learning. For certain time it has been my language teacher at school, I admired her and considered her to be my role model and that kept me going and working on myself. And then my motivation was actually the fact that I fell in love with the language I learned, so I decided to study it at university.

    • Noel van Vliet says:

      Thanks for the comment, Hana.

      Motivation is definitely important. And your story illustrates perfectly that for normal persons the motivation has to come from an outside “event”. In your case, initially, your language teacher.

      There are some polyglots talking about how you need intrinsic motivation to learn a new language and I disagree. In order to become a polyglot, then yes, you need intrinsic motivation. You probably won’t find the external motivation to learn seven languages.

      The problem is that intrinsic motivation is very hard to acquire. If you don’t have it you have a problem. You can’t just say: “I want to learn French, I need to have intrinsic motivation.” But with an external motive like: “If I don’t learn French for my solo trip five months away, I will be extremely lonely and my trip will be probably be a bad experience.” it’s way easier to keep at it even if you don’t like it.

      • I completely agree with you, Noel. External motivation is most probably more important than intrinsic motivation because, I would say, it’s more powerful and it pushes you forward – towards your goal.
        For instance, I even know a friend who learned foreign language just because he liked a girl from another country and he learned her native language to be able to communicate with her. That is a cute example of external motive 🙂

  2. Hello Noel, All of the stages you have mentioned are really true. As per my view being passionate is an important thing in language learning. There are many benefits of learning different languages that can help you reach success in international markets.

    • Noel van Vliet says:

      Hi David,

      Thanks for your comment!

      Yes, being passionate about it is a good thing. The problem, in my opinion, is that you can’t really manufacture passion. The more you try to manufacture it, the less passionate you’ll actually be, or at least, that’s my experience. It’s often something you either have or you don’t.

  3. Excellent post…as per my observation one concept most commonly endorsed by the current theorists is that of a continuum of learning which is predictable and sequential stages of language development, in which the learner progresses from no knowledge of the new language to a level of competency closely resembling that of a native speaker

  4. Its really an interesting post Noel, language learning would really be fun if we start following your suggestions.

  5. Sergio Rodrigues says:

    Hi Noel

    I’ve started to learn French from Pimsleur Course 1 and I found the method extremely useful, at least for me, whose knowledge of the language date to first grade at school times, Would you recommend to follow with the next levels of Pimsleur (1,2 e 3, comprising 30 lessons each one) or trying to mix with other sources (Youtube vídeos, podcasts, etc)?
    Thanks for your time.

    • Noel van Vliet says:

      Hi Sergio,

      I’ve never learned French so I don’t know if Pimsleur French is good. I’m pretty sure it’s at least decent.

      I would definitely mix it up. Pimsleur is good, but way overpriced for the level it takes you to. If you already have access to these higher Pimsleur levels then keep doing them as an extra.


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