There is a general progression most people go through when learning a language by way of emersion. Language learning is difficult, but I really enjoy it. It feels good for my brain.
Here are the stages I have mastered in Japanese
1. Getting the feel for the language
(ア) When you are first immersed in a foreign language your brain has to first recognize the basic sounds of the language, prior to this stage, the language is really just white noise and chatter
2. Recognizing the Melody
(ア) Every language has its own eb and flow. Some languages lift at the end of the sentence to indicate a question (English) some lower at the end (Russian). Some languages put stress within words by lengthening the syllable (Most western languages) others stress syllables by pitch (Japanese/Chinese) (video)
3. Sound units
(ア) Before you start to pick up words, you pick up sound units, Japanese is actually really easy in this respect because it has a very limited set of sound units. For example the word Happiness would be broken into Ha Pi Ness.
These first three stages really only take about a week, but they are very important for learning to speak a language. Even if you have studied a language prior to coming to the country, if you have only done so in an academic setting you will go through this stage. It is absolutely crucial for developing organic speech patterns.
4. Recognizing words
(ア) After understanding sound units, you will start to notice sound unit groups. These are words (or phrses). You will also start parroting (either in your head or out loud)
(イ) This stage will continue for the entire duration of you language abilities. I come home to Ben nearly every day with a word (or phrase) stuck in my head, and even though I have no idea what it means, I can say it perfectly
Up till now, language really follows a singular track, your mind develops in this order, but once you have gotten to the point of being able to recognize words your mind becomes amazingly capable of absorbing the language, many things start happening simultaneously in what I like to refer to as the “Early language comprehension explosion”
This stage is amazing and highly satisfying, I would say that it usually happens between the 1st or 2nd week, till about 1 to 5 months in. There are many facets to this stage.
Here is an outstanding film of what a foreign language sounds like at this stage (warning there is some swearing) How American English sounds to Foreigners
5. Early language comprehension explosion
(ア) Overall: there will be an explosion in how much you can understand. But you will not be able to respond. It takes a lot longer to be able to recall words to respond to people
① You will develop the ability to repeat words and phrases back to people, (with or without understanding the meaning). It will be just like a baby, You will be proficient at babbling back at people.
(ウ) Word meaning
① You will start to learn the meaning of many of the words you recognize. You will understand them when they are said to you, but it will be very difficult to respond.
② You will be able to say a few words that have stuck in your mind, but you will have no semblance of grammar.
(エ) Grammar parts
① You will start being able to recognize that certain sounds are grammer indicators. Some examples in English would be sounds like ing, ly, the, s. These are the sounds that you hear frequently, but are attached to other words you recognize. In Japanese the ones you start to notice off the bat are masu, desu, o, wa. Your mind ends up categorizing them into a folder in your mind that tells you that these will be useful to recognize and use later in your language development, but for now your mind will just gloss over them.
(オ) Verb, noun, or adjective
① Without actually retaining any form of grammar recognition your mind will start to categorize different words into verb, noun, or adjective. You will hear so many words every day, your mind has an amazing ability to retain what kind of word something is (but only if it is one of those 3 types other word types tend to thrown out in your mind as filler sounds that are too difficult to deal with now).
(カ) Daily phrase mastery
① You will master the phrases and dialogs that occur every day. These are things like in English Hello, how are you? Good, how are you? Good….
At the end of this stage you will get the gist of most conversations. You will not however understand specifics or be able to produce any language in the new language You will nearly always be able to answer the question “What are they talking about?”
For a little while you will ride high on your own satisfaction in language development. It feels great. It feels great in your mind, and you feel like a genius. Then you’ll hit a slump, where you start realize, you have nothing to show for it. During this phase you will be remarkably in-communicative. People will ask you questions in the new language, and you will only be able to respond in either your native language, or with gestures. Basic language skills will utterly elude you.
This will kick start what I would refer to as the grind, a horrible stage in language development that is bewilderingly frustrating. During this phase, it never feels like you are developing any skills, it is only once you have moved onto the stage after the grind that you can recognize how much you have learned.
6. The grind
(ア) Knowing words
① You will start to actually learn words, you will be able to produce them in the new language, recognize them in a slew of other words, and you will understand them.
① You will start to really understand what people are saying, and will be able to follow commands. You will be able to explain in your own language the general opinion of the topic you are listening to.
The grind is all about learning words, it is the most frustrating, least satisfying, and tedious phase to be in.
At some point you will realize you are in the phase after the grind, I would refer to this as the Language butchering phase. This is the phase I am in right now, and it is a lot more satisfying.
7. Language butchering
(ア) At this point you know a lot of words, and your mind has generously sorted them into noun, adjective, and verb. You have not however retained any grammar. You will now be able to respond to people by rattling off combinations of noun adjectives and verbs.
(イ) Grammar recognition
① You will start to get an idea of how grammar works, Just like how you started learning words by fist learning sounds, then units, then meaning. You will start by recognizing modifiers, word order, then sentence structure. You will not however be able to produce any grammar
(ウ) Pseudo conversations
① You will sort of be able to have conversations with people at this point. You will be able to respond to people by saying words to them, but they will have to be very creative in order to understand what you have said. I can have conversations with people who are patient and creative enough to bridge the gaps of my language skills. A sample dialog would be:
Native: Did you go anywhere this weekend?
Me: Mt. Fuji, drive, pretty red trees.
I have a long way to go before I can speak the language, but I am learning, and I am getting better. Japanese is harder for me than other languages because of the writing system. I rely only on developing language from listening to people here, kanji is far too difficult. In other countries I was able to develop language skills by reading and writing, which accelerated my learning. I think that by April, (The likely end of my stay in Japan) I will have developed enough skills to have basic conversations, and be able to define words in Japanese using Japanese.
Yesterday I understood, and laughed at my first Joke in Japanese. It was a land mark moment for me because I would not have been able to understand even just a few months ago. It really showed me how far I have come in Japanese. It won’t translate well but here it is
Santa wa nan sai desu ka? (translation How old is Santa?)
San( )to san wa Roku (Santa is 6/ 3+3 is 6)
Explanation: San means 3, to means and, or Santo-san sounds like Santa-san which means (Mr.) Santa, wa roku means is 6.