Phase 5 & Phase 6

Brief Introduction to Phases 5 & 6
By Greg Thomson (Aug2007 version). Copyright September 2004, all rights reserved. Informal copying and distribution freely allowed. Please obtain permission for formal publication.


In 1993, I wrote a sixty-page essay called, “Language Learning in the Real World for Non-Beginners”. Through its distribution in Lingua Links Library, via the website, and via hand-to-hand sharing of floppy disks and photocopies, that essay has made its way to a variety of Non-Beginner language learners in a variety of countries. Parts of it have even been translated, or so I have been told, into three or four languages. This is an update to the portion on Phase 5.

In our current idealized language learning program, there are six phases. The first five are the phases of the “full-time language learning” period, during which times spent purposefully with host language friends are vital. The sixth phase goes on indefinitely. Within the five “full-time” phases, the first three, which constitute 33% of the sessions with a language helper, are the Beginner phases. The second 33% is Phase 4—Deep Life Sharing.  This paper is about the last structured phase—another 33%.

In general, planning good language learning activities seems to me to get easier as I progress through the phases. When it is so easy to enjoy and interact in many creative and productive ways with host language friends, it seems a great loss that learners often appear to end up struggling more and succeeding less than they could. Hopefully, these few pages can help many more language learners to better enjoy learning more language, becoming more truly people able to share deeply in the ebb and flow of life in a new speech community.

New Concepts: Acquiring or Participating?

Since 1993 there has been an evolution in my understanding of language learning that is feeling more and more like a paradigm shift. I have been affected by a movement in the study of second language acquisition that is called socio-culturalism (see Lantolf, ed. 2001). Socio-culturalists replace the idea of acquiring a language with the idea of participating in social relationships in increasingly rich ways.

Most readers, when they read of learning a language normally think of the idea of learners acquiring a language inside their heads. We are realizing that the process of learning a language involves taking on certain identities in certain relationships, identities that are largely built out of and expressed in communicative interaction as it grows increasingly more complex.

Since for most people, the idea of learning as acquisition has held a monopoly in their understanding, I want to switch the emphasis to learning as growing participation. Often in recent years, writers have referred to language learners as language acquirers. I will go in the other direction and, in this paper, frequently use the term “growing participation” instead of “language learning”, and thus use “growing participator” as an alternative term for “language learner”.

Understanding the Non-Beginner Phases

Importance Of The Beginner Phases

The activities a beginning learner undertakes are important — the outcome for them in later phases might be strongly influenced by the approach they have chosen during their earlier phases. In my experience, many Beginner programs may not lay a supportive foundation for the Non-Beginner phases.

Since it is considerably more complicated to design a powerful, communicative language learning program for Beginners than a powerful program for Non-Beginners, we have taken great care to explain the importance of some core principles and relevant learning activities for these first phases in other documents. We have even developed a set of detailed, hour-by-hour descriptions of activities for the first 100 hours spent with a language helper, while discussing principles that underlie the activities.[1]

In this essay, I want to clearly explain principles and methods for the final ‘one-third’, Phase 5, the phase that might occupy a significant part of the weeks and months that are especially devoted to language learning.

Characterizing the Non-Beginner

When is someone a Non-Beginner? The end of these great Non-Beginner phases can be reached after 500 hours of sessions with a language helper, during which the learner has been using powerful communicative, Beginner-level language learning activities. In a language learning program designed to incorporate 1,500 hours with a language helper that leaves 1,000 hours for Non-Beginner language learning activities such as the ones that will be described in this essay.

What does a Non-Beginner sound like? A Non-Beginner can sit around and interact with people, perhaps with much difficulty for both the Non-Beginner and for the people, perhaps with relative ease. Unlike the case of the Beginner, for the Non-Beginner, this interaction does not depend mainly on things that they have said on previous occasions.

What do you notice in the cartoon strip below?

Communication in a new language involves a large amount of what is called negotiation of meaning. That is, during a conversation, in order to get her point across, the growing participator will often need a lot of help from the host language speaker with whom she is conversing. Also at times she will need similar help in order to grasp the native speaker’s point when she doesn’t understand it immediately.

What can Non-Beginners talk about? They can talk about most of the basic, common features of life experience in the host community. This assumes some familiarity with, hopefully, 4000-plus vocabulary items, and the ability to use a certain amount of the basic grammatical forms, for example the ability to use “person and number forms” (I go, we go, she goes…) and other features that are essential for making simple statements.

Suppose a low-end Non-Beginner was to be shown a picture she had never seen before and asked to talk about it. She might at least make statements such as “This man looks happy. He is eating ice cream. I think it is hot there and he likes this ice cream. This ice cream is cold. It is sweet. He is sitting on the sidewalk at a café. There are not many people in the café. He says, ‘Waiter. Please bring my check.’ ”

What kind of speech do Non-Beginners understand? In terms of the growing participator’s listening comprehension ability, she is able to follow stories with familiar content or stories with unfamiliar content if there is much negotiation of meaning. She is also able to follow simple explanations. In the final weeks of the Non-Beginner phases, she might easily understand two native speakers talking about a topic that is specific to the host culture.

Two Phases For Non-Beginners

The two Non-Beginner phases include the Deep Life Sharing Phase and the Native-to-Native Discourses Phase.

The Goal of Non-Beginner Activities: Broad Familiarity And Ease In Communication

Understanding Native-To-Native Interactions

Many second language users tell me that, after several years of language learning, they can express almost anything they want to say in their new language. Also, as long as people are talking to them directly, especially people who know them already, they can understand most of what they hear. However, they say that when two natives ignore them, and converse animatedly with each other, they have some difficulty understanding what is being said. Why is that?

Developing ‘Native-Like’ Speech

Also, what about their speaking ability? How similar is their speech to the speech going on around them in the community? How can they know, if much of the speech going on around them is unintelligible to them?

Becoming Fluent in Discussing Less Familiar Topics

They do find that they are quite capable of talking about themes that they have frequently talked about before, which is a great blessing. Wonderful! However, they also find that they have less fluency when talking about the host of common topics that they have rarely or never discussed before.

What Blocks this Fluency?

I am now convinced that there is a solution to reaching this level of fluency. It is simple on the surface: become familiar with the language. Become familiar with how people talk about the whole range of normal life experiences. Become familiar enough that often, when someone gets two-thirds of the way through a sentence, we can finish it for them. That’s simple enough, isn’t it?

Defining The Challenge

What is it that keeps us from becoming familiar with the language? Three aspects of the challenge come to mind:

1. The Processing Aspect: Speech goes by too fast for us to keep up (understanding speech requires the operation of complex, rapid, unconscious mental processes).

2. The Vocabulary Aspect: We don’t know a lot of the words.

3. The Cultural Knowledge Aspect: People are talking about aspects of their experience and beliefs that are unfamiliar to us.

Brief Review Of Underlying Principles

Become Familiar And Fluent, Through Listening And Understanding A Lot

If we want to become familiar with a language, we’re going to need to hear it for hundreds, ultimately thousands of hours in a way that we can understand. As we do this, our mental processing of the language becomes faster and faster, our vocabulary constantly grows and is constantly being strengthened in various crucial ways, and hopefully, we come to know about most of what the host people all know about — how they interpret people’s actions, values they take for granted, and so forth.

We would like, by the end of two years of full-time language learning, to be able to understand most of what we hear, and then keep on hearing a lot. As we pile up those thousands of hours of hearing and understanding, the language becomes familiar to us.

Become Familiar And Fluent, Through Speaking A Lot

At the same time, we must be speaking a lot if our speech is to become more native-like. How growing participators’ speech becomes more native-like is certainly too complex an issue to go into here. However, talking a lot — talking repeatedly about particular topics — then talking repeatedly about more topics, and more topics — always interacting heavily with native speakers, will play an important role. For someone who is highly familiar with a language, on a practical level, learning to talk well is primarily a matter of simply talking a lot. A lot!

How Much Accuracy In Grammar Do We Need?

Growing participators can get distracted by the issue of grammar. In fact, rather than grammatical details, it may be that pronunciation, precision in vocabulary choice, phraseology, idioms and general ease of communication are more important in making growing participators sound native-like.

What do you notice in the example below?

The second speaker gets her grammar right and makes the same point that the first speaker makes. The first speaker appears to be familiar with how North Americans actually talk. She does get some grammatical details wrong, though.

Which one sounds more native-like? Which one would fit in more smoothly in the speech community?

Of course, many of us would love our grammar to always sound native-like. Unfortunately, we can become so preoccupied with this that we don’t learn much of the language other than the grammar, and then still can’t get it right! Let’s keep our field of vision wide. If we emphasize being extremely familiar with the language, and talking a lot, we can also devote a little attention to making our grammar sound more native-like, for example, by paying a lot of attention to corrections, by using the “Record for Feedback” technique I discussed ten years ago[2], and by having native speakers point out places where our grammar is non-nativelike. In advanced stages, writing compositions which native speakers correct can also help.

How does one gain more skill in pronunciation, precision of vocabulary choice, phraseology, idioms and general ease of communication? It won’t happen in a small room on one’s own — all these qualities come with depth and breadth of interaction in the real life language community.

Three Aspects To Developing Fluency

As we move into the language learning activities of the three Non-Beginner phases, let’s keep in mind the processing, vocabulary and cultural knowledge aspects.

The Shared Stories Phase mainly addresses the first two of these aspects. It brings Non-Beginners to the point where they have the building blocks they need to seriously tackle the third aspect, which they do during the Deep Life Sharing Phase. By the second Non-Beginner phase, they have made huge progress with regard to all three aspects and are rapidly filling in gaps in their language ability.

Process Smaller Bits, Then Longer Bits

Regarding the processing aspect, a key principle is that as it gets easier to mentally process smaller bits of language—words, phrases and simple sentences—it becomes possible to start developing the ability to process longer bits: longer sentences, complex sentences, and sequences of sentences that form paragraphs, stories or logical arguments.

Keep Up The Speed Of Increasing Vocabulary

Regarding the vocabulary aspect, I feel this should be taken extremely seriously at all points during the language learning pilgrimage. If one has followed something similar to our Beginner phase activities[3], s/he will be entering the Non-Beginner phase with reasonable familiarity with 4000-plus words related to the most common building blocks of life experience.

During the Non-Beginner phases, the pace of word learning must not slow down. The growing participator should aim to average from five to ten new words per hour of language session. By the end of the second Non-Beginner phase she should hope to have made acquaintance with 10,000 vocabulary items.

Develop Cultural Understanding Through Deep Involvement In Culture

Regarding the cultural knowledge aspect, I will discuss an organized way to deal with this on a sizeable scale. However, as with all aspects of language learning, the ultimate level of learning will be heavily affected by the extent with which our lives are intimately intertwined with those of local people.

If one had to choose between the most powerful language learning activities possible and a life intimately intertwined with local lives, one would probably be better off making the latter choice. That person may not have nearly so positive an outcome, however, as someone who can do both. And if opportunities for intertwining life are (temporarily) limited, and a language helper is available, it really is amazing how far good language learning activities can take a learner.

Phase 5: Dealing With Native-To-Native Speech

Growing participators will have been, in fact, confronted with native-to-native speech from the beginning of language learning. However, it has been a big tangled mess, with no way to break into it. For that reason, dedicated language sessions have been extremely valuable in providing speech that you could process.

In keeping with their role in the process of growing participation, we often call language sessions “Supercharged Participation Sessions.” They are intended to be similar to the participation that goes on in the flow of life in the host community, but optimized to facilitate growth for the newcomer. The course of all of this participation, in and outside of the Supercharged Participation Sessions, some essential language processes were allowed to develop in the language acquirer’s brain during each earlier phase of learning that are then foundational to new processes that need to develop in subsequent phases.

After, say, 1000 hours of fruitful growing participation activities (including the Beginner level activities), one finally arrives, in fine shape, at this Native-to-Native Discourses Phase, that is, the phase when the language sessions are largely based around native-to-native speech. Hopefully, native-to-native speech is no longer a big tangled mess, although it is still challenging, reflecting the need for still more progress in relation to the processing aspect, the vocabulary aspect and the cultural knowledge aspect.

Working With Native-To-Native Discourses

Understanding Ability High, Massaging Brings Great Fruit

Now the growing participator can understand huge amounts of what she hears in native-to-native conversations, speeches, movies, and even some novels that she might read, especially those geared to teens or older children. Working with a nurturer, she can massage such native-to-native materials quickly enough to make it worthwhile, rapidly gleaning a lot of benefit from them.

As with ethnographic interviewing, I am recommending five hundred hours of language sessions during which the growing participator uses native-to-native materials. The process of massaging the materials continues as before. As always, it generates a lot of conversation between growing participators and their language helpers (or, if you prefer, their nurturers), which may range far and wide. The language helper’s explanations will continue to be rich in ethnographic content, since often the cause of non-comprehension on our part will be our lack of cultural knowledge.


At this phase, growing participators should have the sensation that they are finding holes in their language ability and filling them in. It is good for them to keep a list of topics that prove difficult for them to talk about, and to try talking about some of those topics with several different people.

It is important to deliberately include a variety of language styles–from highly colloquial, to formal spoken, to popular written, to academic written language—among the native-to-native texts (audio, video or printed) around which you centre your language sessions.

Resources To Gather

The following are typical examples of native-to-native materials around which language sessions might be based:

 Anything written or broadcast for small children (books, magazines, TV, commercial recorded stories—these latter were easy to find in Urdu and Russian).

 Live recorded speech addressed to small children (for example, stories)

 Textbooks for any school subject from the early grades

 Actual live, recorded school lessons

 A wide range of live recorded conversations

 Novels, short stories, magazines for older children and young teens

 In some developing countries there are books geared to newly literate readers on adult themes such as health or farming.

 Textbooks for middle and higher grades

 Documentary and educational films on many topics (in the case of Russian, my films included films for Russian children on school subjects, including Russian language, and films on topics from clay modelling to sewing to cooking to origami to dog care to car care to baby care and much more). These can often at least be recorded from television, if they can’t be purchased.

 Feature-length dramatic films. These can represent many genres, from those in which people speak in “literary” language to those in which they use normal “slang” language.

 Adult literature: newspapers, news magazines, women’s magazines, novels, poetry, etc.

 Other practical genres of written language that native speakers regularly deal with such as the language in forms that must be filled out, legal documents, diagrams, product instructions, and so on.

Every language learning resource centre should be collecting a huge set of such materials – particularly the kinds that are hard to collect, or those that take some time to collect, such as live conversations, or weekly fifteen-minute television broadcasts on practical topics.

Ranking Helps With Self Assessment Of Progress

As with materials for the shared story phase, these materials can be ranked according to their difficulty levels, based on the testimonies of those who have used them. Thus, not only do the three Non-Beginner phases themselves reflect the changing ability levels of the growing participators, but also, within the levels, the rankings of materials can provide another reflection of changing ability levels.

A resource that is too difficult to be of much value today may prove highly useful two month’s from now.

Changes in the specific activities in which a growing participator can profitably engage at any particular time thus reflect the growing participator’s progress without any need to subject the growing participators to language tests.

Producing Resources

In the case of minority languages, there often is not such a range of materials readily available. The language learning resource centre should consider it a sacred duty to make a practice of developing and collecting some of the better materials that growing participators have appreciated over the years.

Often, native-to-native materials for minority languages can be collected by having native speakers talk to one other. The growing participator, or the language learning resource centre, could hire and train a native to arrange and record such informal conversations between other native speakers.

They might be asked to talk (in the absence of foreigners) about some controversial topic. They might tell one another exciting stories from their own lives. A native who is a specialist in some field (say, herbal remedies) might explain her specialty to other natives who are not specialists in that area. Or natives might be asked simply to discuss a wide range of topics, from the afterlife, to family life, to cooking, but only with other natives, and without any foreigners present.

There may also be minority community contexts in which public speeches are made, sermons are preached, or stories are told, and permission might be obtained to record them. For some minority languages there may be some short-wave radio broadcasts that can readily be recorded, or printed materials for new literates as mentioned above.

What Else Is Going On During this Final Non-Beginner Phase Of Full-Time Language Learning?

Developing Social Network

This is an even greater time for intensive immersion than the ethnographic interview phase. The growing participators’ social network should grow as their lives become more and more intertwined with the lives of host people.

Reading, Writing, Grammar

At this point, growing participators should get extremely serious about developing reading fluency if they haven’t yet (assuming there is a written form of the particular language). It is also important to start writing regularly. Besides writing being an important part of human relationships, and often a necessary job skill, it is one of the best ways (if not the best way) to get feedback on non-native-like grammatical features.

Choose To Talk About Difficult Topics

As noted, growing participators can choose topics that are difficult for them to talk about, and talk about them repeatedly with different people. It is surprising how much easier it gets to discuss a topic after a few tries, as well as how much improvement there is, as a result of simply repeating a discussion of a topic or the retelling of a story.

Develop Work Role

They should also, if they haven’t already, begin getting their feet wet in their future intended work role in the host community. For example, if someone is going to work as a nurse or doctor, they might work one shift per week in a nursing context that requires them to use the language. If they are going to be an instructor, they might prepare a few lectures and deliver them at least to their language helper, who can critique them. They might well even deliver some for real.

In fact, such work-related learning activities might even begin during the ethnographic interview phase. Besides providing opportunities to improve one’s communication abilities in settings that are important for you, this would give you valuable opportunities for reflective participant observation and an increased number of growing relationships.

Those Three Aspects

By the end of the second Non-Beginner phase, how might growing participators be doing with respect to the processing aspect, the vocabulary aspect, and the cultural knowledge aspect of the process of understanding?

With regard to the processing aspect, if they concentrate intensely, they may display a surprising ability to understand much rapid speech between native speakers. They can listen relatively easily to slower speech, such as that common on TV talk shows, with relatively full understanding, easily remembering many new words long enough to look them up, learning the meaning of large numbers of new words simply from hearing them in context, and piling on hundreds, later thousands of hours of experience hearing people talk about a huge range of situations and topics. That will make you familiar with how host people speak their language!

Planning Can Become Easy

Planning good language learning activities seems to me to get easier as I progress through the phases.

 It is clearly the most difficult to plan effective communicative learning activities during the first fifty or one hundred hours of learning.

 In the second part of the Beginner phase, planning a fruitful activity for a language session is as simple as picking out a picture story (and hopefully, any language learning resource centre has a host of them) or choosing topic for a role play and grabbing some props for it.

 In the third beginner phase (the shared story phase), preparing for a language session (or a long stretch of them) is a matter of picking a shared story (again, hoping that a language learning resource centre can help) or an action cartoon video.

 For the first Non-Beginner phase (the ethnographic interviewing phase), The growing participator mainly needs a few talkative informants, and some very simple skills, and then she can watch the world unfold before her eyes for hundreds of pleasant hours.

 For the second Non-Beginner phase (the native-to-native discourses phase) it is as simple as recording a TV show and going over it with the language helper.

When it is so easy to do so much, it seems a little sad that growing participators often appear to end up doing so much less. Hopefully, these few pages can help you to have more fun learning more language, becoming more truly a person who shares totally in the ebb and flow of life in a different speech community.

Meanwhile, however far in this direction you have managed to come, be thankful for it. Hundreds of millions of people miss out on the experience of carrying on relationships in a second language. You are blessed. Be a blessing in your new community, among those with whom you are co-experiencing life.


Phase Six: Self-Sustaining Growth in Community or Language Learning After “Language Learning”

Thus you bring your full-time language learning to a close, with a twinge of sorrow. In a lot of ways though, it could be that the biggest part of the language learning is yet ahead. Only, it doesn’t require the same level of special attention.

If things have gone O.K. through the three Beginner phases (not discussed here) and the two Non-Beginner phases, the growing participators will now have some familiarity with up to 10,000 vocabulary items, without having memorized them. Some word or other which an individual as yet know only weakly, will be getting strengthened practically every time he/she hears a native open his/her mouth, or turns on the television.[4]

The ‘Who Cares?!’ Mindset

Even after these phases, there will continue to be many situations in which the growing participators are not yet familiar enough with the language to be sure of how to express many ideas. For example, recently I wanted to say, “Someone was on the party line, and so I couldn’t phone you”. I didn’t know how a native speaker might say that (though I knew some of necessary individual words). Unless you have heard people talk about some particular situation (such as having someone using the party line) a few times, how would you know what they would say?

I often meet growing participators who respond to my mention of such aspects by saying, “Who cares, as long as you can get the point across.” Well, if that is a person’s goal, then that person could probably have stopped her language learning after about three months, provided she continued to interact with people extensively after that. She may never understand most of what she hears natives saying. Her language learning strategy might have been to learn a few hundred words, learn a lot of survival expressions, learn some “grammar rules” and then talk a lot.

Getting to the point where one can express most things one wants to express is much easier than becoming a full-blown participant in the host speech community. It seems that a lot of people end up not becoming full-blown participants in the host speech community who would like to have, and surely could have, if they had had a viable strategy for becoming highly familiar with the host language. Perhaps this essay will help some growing participators to find such a strategy.

Lifestyle Choices, COP’s

What is a growing participator growingly participating in? There are different kinds of social relationships that can facilitate growth. One of the most powerful has been called a community of practice (Wenger, 1998). A COP is a group of people who have a strong ongoing connection with one another, where members have a history of shared experiences. Outsiders can recognize a community of practice by the fact that these people often all seem to know what one another is talking about when the outsider can’t really tell what they are talking about.

To become an insider, there is a process of interacting with members of the COP, at first being a clear non-belonger, then becoming recognized as a legitimate participant, but only as a peripheral one, and then gradually continuing to learn the “rules” and knowledge shared by the COP until one is a full-blown, total member.

COPs include: groups of workers with a common purpose in the same office, a group of regulars and workers at a pub, a sports team, a class, a knitting club, an elementary school class and so on. They are important for growing participators in that few other contexts allow the richness of relational growth—both the opportunity to interact with others richly, and the exposure to how others interact with one another—that is necessary to reach a high level of participation ability. Much of what an expatriate growing participator will be learning in a COP will apply to relationships in the larger community, even while it is not possible for them to participate so richly in a larger community.

A local family can certainly be a COP. It is hard to become a full member of a family apart from being born into it or adopted as a child, and yet a learner can sometimes go very deep into participation in a host family if they set their mind to such matters as learning the family’s myriad “rules” and common “insider” knowledge.

Other relationships include deep friendships, neighbourly relationships, regular relationships with service providers like shopkeepers, and one-time relationships with taxi-drivers. Taking time to cultivate any relationships is greatly superior to cultivating no relationships in terms of the opportunities that are then available to participate in host people’s lives and thus to grow in communication and understanding skills.

Making Helpful Lifestyle Choices

Unfortunately, we often make unnecessary lifestyle choices that decrease our participation in local life and lives. We may make our workplace a COP within our expatriate culture, even though there are plenty of host people working there. With a little effort, we might find a small church congregation or a special interest club. We may walk to work or ride a packed bus in silence. We might very affordably be interacting at least with taxi drivers. In terms of friendships, we might be able to be able to make new contacts through old ones until we find the right friends, especially if communication has become easy enough that we enjoy using a lot of our leisure time for friendships. We often have a desperate need to wake up and rearrange our lives if we are serious about not just learning language, but becoming yet more active participators in the community.

We can often find so many opportunities to continue participating and growing, or we can make choices that let us die on the vine in “Phase 6”, the phase after “full-time language learning” when most of the language learning still lies in a future filled with ongoing participation and growth, if there is in fact to be much of a future. Much hinges on our making various positive life choices that will help to steadily move us higher and higher, making a noticeable difference in our language ability will be noticeable from year to year.

 For your social life, you can hang out with locals.

 For recreation, you can join local clubs.

 For enlightenment, you can take local night courses.

 For edification, you can attend religious activities.

 For transportation, if you can afford it, you can always take a taxi rather than a bus, and talk non-stop to the driver.

 For housework, if you can afford it, you can hire a domestic helper, and talk to her all the while she is doing the housework.

 For employment, you can rent desk space in a place where you are surrounded by host nationals.

 For relaxation you can watch TV, watch videos, listen to the radio or read in your new language. (Growing participators at lower levels of ability sometimes laugh at the idea of relaxing by watching TV in the host language. Well, that can change.)

 For entertainment, you can go to movies or plays. All of this in your new language.

No one person will adopt all of these life choices, but the more any growing participator adopts, the more you are likely to grow steadily, at least, provided you has the sort of foundation I have described.


I wish I could claim that there is something sacred about these phases that I have described here, but I can’t. I just happen to believe that there are sensible reasons why, if you do a lot of activities of the sort appropriate to each phase discussed, your language ability will readily develop until you are able to adequately engage in the activities belonging to the next phase. This will continue until you reach the point where you can understand almost everything you hear. Increasingly, your ability to speak will be grounded in your growing familiarity with the language. This assumes that you are also using the language and being exposed to it in life situations outside of your language sessions. (When such opportunities are limited, but language sessions are possible, growing participators can go surprisingly far riding on the back of well-designed language sessions.)

Nevertheless, millions of people learn languages to high levels of ability in very different ways. For example, some growing participators might go straight to native-to-native activities from day one, and keep at them for a long time, and also end up able to understand most everything they hear. The idea of spending so much time with shared stories may seem odd to some readers. Much of the same benefit might be derived from other techniques for providing simplified texts that take your current language processing abilities into account at each point along the way. However, preparing such materials is complicated, to say the least.

With regard to the phases and corresponding activities discussed here, readers who adopt the general ideas may differ with regard to how much time they allot to each phase and what additional learning activities they may engage in during each phase. In any case, I do firmly believe that the sequence described in this essay can make Non-Beginner language learning more rewarding and satisfying for a lot of growing participators and assuredly bring the Non-Beginner to a relatively positive outcome.

Appendix A: Bibliography, Further Reading

About the Six-Phase Idealized Program

Thomson, Greg (2003).  “An Idealized Program to Guide a Language Learner into Deep Involvement Within a Community.”

Thomson, Greg (2004). “The First Hundred Hours, Language Sessions for Phase 1: Interacting about the ‘Here-and-Now’, At-A-Glance Session Plans and Resource Packet”

Thomson, Greg (2004). “The Story-Building Phase, Phase 2: Practical Guidelines and Resources”

Thomson, Greg (2005).  “The Next 150 Hours: Getting Underway with Story Building, Sessions at a Glance.” (Phase 2)

Thomson, Greg (2007).  “Getting Going in Phase 3: 250 Hours of Shared Story Activities.”

Thomson, Greg (2007).  “Getting Going in Phase 4”

About Mental Processes:

Thomson, Greg (2004). “There is an Iceberg of Words in Your Brain“

Appendix B: Record for Feedback

Recording for Correction is an activity during which you, the growing participator, record yourself for the purposes of detecting ‘holes’ in your ability to communicate in a native-like way, so that you can plan activities in which your language helper can aid you in moving forward.

This can be more helpful than general diagnostic tests commonly used to identify weaknesses in language ability, because you take responsibility for identifying your own weaknesses and seeking correction, rather than leaving it to the Advisor or Agency to make you do this.

Steps for Use in Self-Assessment

Step 1. With the recorder recording, you, the learner, talk freely, for example, telling of an interesting incident in your life, telling of a time a problem arose while you were in this new country, etc. It will be more easy to detect progress if you settle on three stories or topics, and tell the same story once every three months, cycling through the three repeatedly.

Step 2. The recording is then rewound and played to your language helper, pausing after every sentence.

Step 3. The language helper has to ask him/herself, “Could I have said it that way?” If the answer is no, then the language helper tells how s/he might have expressed the idea.

Step 4. Divide a piece of paper into two columns (add the third later). Wherever the language helper makes a suggestion, write in the first column what it was that you yourself said, and in the second column what the language helper’s corrected version was.

Don’t try to get the language helper to explain the grammatical points in question. If s/he wants to offer an explanation, it should be brief and to the point, not a lecture at the board on everything related to the topic.

The reason you don’t want to ask for explanations is that it may put the language helper under pressure to give an explanation of something s/he doesn’t really understand (there are tons of things in any language that even trained language teachers with university degrees can’t really explain). If s/he offers to explain something, it probably means either that it is a clear, concrete issue, or that there is a well known conventional explanation (that may not be really right).

Step 5. Afterwards, reflect on where you see gaps in your understanding (was it cultural information you misunderstood?), gaps in vocabulary (do you need to focus on this topic and be exposed to relevant words and phrases?), gaps in ability to express an idea (do you need a grammar-focused learning activity, or to role-play the situation?). Jot down your ideas, and plan your next language sessions to address these ‘holes’.

Step 6. Save this record in your learning portfolio, to be able to discuss with your language facilitator when you assess your progress.

[1]                                                  See Appendix A for references to these documents.

[2]                                                  See Appendix B for “Record for Feedback”

[3]                                                  See Appendix A for references detailing Beginner Phase activities.

[4]                                                  See Appendix for “There is an Iceberg of Words in Your Brain” explaining this principle.

The original document can be found here —  Phase 5 & 6 Introduction


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