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Language Acquisition: How It Works

Language acquisition is the reason why we don’t necessarily have to study or understand our native languages to be able to speak them fluently.

It’s like a superpower that every human has innately due to our brain's constant attempts to recognize patterns to prepare and protect ourselves for the future.

In this article, we’ll talk about what language acquisition is, and how to use it to learn your target language almost effortlessly.

Afterwards I’ll give you the methods that I use daily to acquire new vocabulary and grammar in my target languages.

picture of a cartoon head with a download symbol and a title that says "Language Acquisition (How It Works)"

What is language acquisition?

Language acquisition is the process by which a person becomes proficient in a language through exposure and interactions.

Take your native language for example, by the time you begin studying grammar for the first time, you already know how to use it.

You were able to gain a native level in your mother tongue just by listening for many hours and trying to replicate words to communicate with the people around you. This is language acquisition.

Language Acquisition According To Dr. Stephen Krashen

Stephen Krashen is known for popularizing the idea of “Comprehensible Input” and “Language Acquisition” during the 80s and 90s.

Stephen Krashen's view of language acquisition emphasizes the importance of comprehensible input and motivation.

He believes that language is best acquired through immersion in a language-rich environment, where learners are exposed to language that is just slightly beyond their current level of understanding.

His theories have had a significant impact on language education and continue to influence language teaching methods and approaches.

What is comprehensible input?

Comprehensible input is described as messages that are understood by the learner, despite using some vocabulary and grammar that the learner doesn’t yet know.

So it’s about listening to things that are just slightly above our current level in a language.

I personally measure comprehensible input like this: Do I understand between 65-85% of what I am hearing? - Then this is a perfect learning material.

Picture of a cartoon teacher pointing to a chalkboard that says "Comprehensible input: Messages that are understood by the learner although they use grammar and vocab that the learner doesn't know yet"

Stages of Language Acquisition

When acquiring a language you will pass through a natural order of vocabulary and grammar acquisition that is found even in children.

Luckily as adults, we can overcome these issues quicker than kids by focused listening and imitating, and using our mother tongue to better understand the target language.

Here are two examples of the natural order of language acquisition:

The natural order of vocabulary acquisition:

The natural order of vocabulary acquisition is just another way of saying “the learning of the most common and important words first.”

Our brain is always trying to pick up patterns to assist us in the future. This means that what we hear and see most will become most relevant to our brain.

So you wouldn’t learn words like “Window” and “Clock” before learning “You” and “This.”

The natural order of grammar acquisition:

The process of acquiring grammar in English, for example, might look like this…

A man is just beginning to learn English and needs to say “I don’t speak English” This will be the evolution of him expressing that meaning.

  1. No English - Man learns no = negation and connects the dots to form this thought)

  2. No speak English - Man learns the verb speak and connects the dots [negation-speak-English]

  3. I no speak English - Man learns where to put the subject in the sentence [subject-negation-verb-object]

  4. I don’t speak English - Man learns “don’t” is the correct word to use to negate this thought, driving him to say the sentence in a grammatically perfect way.

How To Acquire A Language

Let’s break down the stages so that we can better understand what the language acquisition process looks like by relating it to the CEFR levels and what one should do during each level.

A graph that I made which shows all of the CEFR levels up until B2 and explains how many words you need for each level and what you can do with each level

After we understand the general guidelines, we’ll look into methods, and common misconceptions about language acquisition that you probably have been told before.

A1 Input Period

In this stage, we should be paying attention to the sounds of the language and acquiring vocabulary. However, we shouldn’t try speaking too often, so as not to develop bad pronunciation habits.

A2 Input & Early Production

When we reach A2, we can start to read out loud more often, and even practice imitating native speakers. However, this should still be considered an “Input-Stage” (75% Input / 25% Output)

B1 Intermediate Output/Input

At the B1 level, our abilities to speak, pronounce, and read the language are much greater. In this stage, we can have basic conversations with friends/co-workers. (65% Input / 35% Output)

B2 Beginner Fluency

Once we reach the B2 level in a language our abilities to enjoy the language become so vast that most people stop here. However, to continue acquiring we must choose harder listening materials, and challenge ourselves with conversations about richer topics (50% Input / 50% Output)

C1 Fluency

At this stage, one can use the language with ease and comfort in all situations. At this point, to advance one must listen to lectures, and read vocabulary-rich books. This is the hardest level to surpass, and once completed, the learner will be considered to have “Native-like” fluency.

C2 Native Fluency

Of course, this is the holy grail and highest level of the CEFR. Of course when reading or engaging in complex topics, one might find new words from time to time, but with just as much frequency as they would in their native language.

Method Examples

There are a plethora of methods that we can use as adults to acquire a language with ease, even while having a bit of fun in the process. These are all methods that I use daily and have seen work over and over again.

Comprehensible Input Videos (A1-B1)

While in the stages from A1 to B1 I use comprehensible input YouTube channels daily to improve my comprehension, vocabulary, and pronunciation of the language.

Of course by definition “comprehensible input videos” are any videos that I can understand.

However, I am referring specifically to content made by native speakers which aims to provide beginner learners with comprehensible input. For example: Dreaming Spanish or InnerFrench.

screenshot of the Dreaming Spanish Youtube channel

Acquiring Vocabulary & Grammar Through Music

I created a method that I use for 30 minutes every day called “The RRSL Method” and these are the steps to follow as you listen to the song(s):

  • Read the lyrics in your native language (The translation) 5-10 times or as needed to memorize the meaning

  • Read the lyrics in the target language 5-10 times or until you remember at least 70% of the meaning just by reading the original lyrics

  • Study the meaning of the phrases, and vocabulary that you haven’t yet acquired

  • Listen only to the song and use it as comprehension practice (and repeat the process with other songs)

Acquiring Vocabulary & Grammar Through Journaling

I journal in my target language daily with a method that I created called “The TWRF Method” and these are the steps to follow to use this method:

  • Translate your journal entry from your native language to your target language using Google Translate

  • Write your journal entry in your dedicated notebook/journal in your target language

  • Read the journal entry in your target language, or have Google Translate read it to you

  • Forget about the entry and move on to other acquisition techniques (repeat daily)

screenshot of me using google translate to translate my journal entry from english to french

Read Sentences Using Apps Like CLOZEMASTER

The CLOZEMASTER app is super simple, as it just shows you useful sentences and asks you to fill in the missing word by clicking one of the four options.

It’s extremely simple even to guess the correct word if you have some knowledge of the language, and reading these sentences will increase your vocabulary and teach you how to better express yourself.

screenshot of me using clozemaster website to acquire a language

Language Acquisition Misconceptions

There are many misconceptions about language acquisition and how to implement it into your study sessions. In this section, we’ll go over those misconceptions and challenges that you might face at first.

Misconception #1: Using Duolingo

Apps such as Duolingo where you are required to think, read, write, and learn specific vocabulary and grammar are not acquisition methods.

Language acquisition is passive and has no curriculum to define it.

Anything with a specific curriculum that you must study/learn with will not be truly aligned with the ideals of language acquisition.

Misconception #2: Language Acquisition = Studying

Language acquisition is a passive process by which we learn vocabulary and grammar through the natural order, that is to say, the order by which we see and acquire the most basic words & vocabulary first.

This means you generally acquire language through listening and reading passively, not by answering questions or reading about the rules.

Misconception #3: You Need Special Traits To Accomplish Your Goals

Many people think that a polyglot who knows 10+ languages must possess some extraordinary skill or talent - but this is simply untrue.

All of our brains are wired to pick up patterns in language, so by feeding your brain texts and audio clips of your target language, you will certainly acquire it.

My Personal Experience With Language Acquisition

Just like you, I was curious as to what “language acquisition” was when I first heard about it. It sounded intriguing and almost like get out of jail get-out-of-jail-free card for studying.

However, the more I learned the more I realized that this was all pointing to one thing - BABIES! Okay, maybe not babies, but how kids acquire their native languages.

That’s it, language acquisition simply focuses on replicating the process by which we developed our abilities to communicate for the first time.

So my story started by understanding that and deciding to give the “language acquisition stuff” a go.

a picture of me studying spanish at a desk with a fountain pen in my hand

I spent 2 years listening to comprehensible input in Spanish and got to where I could communicate fluently, use conjugations correctly, and have a vast number of ways to say the same thing.

Every once and a while I studied, but very seldom, and I NEVER studied grammar, I just repeatedly exposed myself to it.

I have used these methods to acquire vocabulary in Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, French, Indonesian, Tagalog, & Georgian, and I don’t ever plan on stopping - because it’s fun and easy.

If it’s so easy to acquire a language, why doesn’t everybody accomplish their goals?

If you were to take nothing else from this article, I would hope you would at least remember this: Consistency & Discipline > Motivation. If you want to become fluent in ANY language I guarantee you that you can, you are more than smart and capable enough.

However, if you can’t discipline yourself and stay consistent, your chances of accomplishing your goals are low. Just showing up for 30 minutes to an hour a day will change your life a year from now, but for many, this is easier said than done.

The progress will seem slow during the day-to-day, so your motivation will not be increasing constantly, in fact, it will probably decrease with time.

So you need to choose discipline over motivation because your motivation will come and go, but the habits you build will stay for as long as you wish.

Conclusion: Language Acquisition

Now that you understand language acquisition better, and how to implement it into your studies with some of the methods that I provided to you, go out and try it!

Remember though, that while language acquisition is the most powerful of the two, studying your target language is also very valuable.

When I say study, I don’t mean buy a textbook, although that may help you too - but make sure your resources vary. You can use your mother tongue as leverage to better understand concepts in your target language.

Personally, I use Busuu to study French for about 30 minutes every day, and I use acquisition techniques for about 1 hour a day.

If you’re interested in learning whether you should use Busuu or Duolingo check out this article where I compare them and show which one is best for you.

Thanks for stopping by Acquire The Language, have a wonderful day!



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