Small Personal Victories in Language Acquisition

Inspiration pt3 by Stephen Poff

Tae Kim recently had a great blog post titled Memorable Moments in Language Acquisition. It’s a great idea, both examining the various emotional victories that are part of the language acquisition process, and also celebrating them for their great personal worth to the individual learner.

I’ve taken the idea and added to it. It’s similar in some ways to the The 5 Stages to Learning Chinese I wrote here on Sinosplice years ago, but it’s the personal nature of each “memorable moment” that really resonates.

Tae’s original list had 8 items; I’ve removed 3 and added 13 of my own. I’ve tried to present them in the order they would be most likely to occur for an individual learner. Here they are:

18 Small Personal Victories

1. You dream in the target language. [Tae]

2. You send an email, SMS, or IM in your target language for the first time, and are understood.

3. You make a joke in the target language, and it gets a laugh.

4. You befriend someone entirely in the target language.

5. You start using the body language of the target language culture unconsciously. [Tae]

6. You learn something new in your target language.

7. You understand why certain words just don’t translate from the target language into English.

8. You hear someone talking about you in the target language and understand it. (Chances are, it wasn’t malicious, either.)

9. You make a phone call in your target language for a specific purpose and accomplish it.

10. You use a web service in your target language.

11. You no longer remember what the target language sounded like to you when you couldn’t understand it. [Tae]

12. You read a book in your target language.

13. You talk to yourself in the target language (and it doesn’t feel weird).

14. You feel that onomatopoeia in the target language start to sound like the sounds they’re supposed to represent. [Tae]

15. You watch a movie in your target language and realize you didn’t really need the English subtitles.

16. You watch a movie in your target language without subtitles and you have no real problems.

17. You make a phone call in your target language and the person on the other end doesn’t realize you’re not a native speaker.

18. You can’t remember what language a conversation was in. [Tae]

Do you have any to add?


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Fun list John…

    You call something by its name in another language beore realizing the other person had no idea what you meant 😉

  2. Cool concept and a nice list. Some possible additions:

    You remind a native speaker how to write a Chinese character that they have forgotten. (Maybe this happens more often if you live outside of China.)

    You teach native speaker friends from older generations new Chinese vocabulary that they don’t know. More often it is internet or computer related vocabulary, sometimes it is new slang.

  3. I think this may count as one:

    You read something you wrote or an MSN conversation you had years ago in the target language and feel embarrassed.

  4. I’d add:

    “You understand the words to a song in the language the first time you hear it.”

    That’s so much freaking harder than watching a movie/TV… there are still plenty of songs I listen to several times and still don’t have a clue what they’re about.

  5. I think the list differs a bit for Chinese given the increased difficulty of literacy – it’s a lot easier to send an email/sms or use a web site as a learner of Spanish than Chinese. (I’m working on my Chinese every day, but viewing a Chinese web site still gives me an instant headache.)

    In my experience, #1 is the last thing to happen – you have to be really immersed in a language and culture for quite a while before your brain switches gears and thinks so pervasively in the new language that you think in it even while asleep.

    Sadly, 17 is far from inevitable, accents being what they are.

    Can I suggest #19: you start struggling to remember common words in your native language…

  6. Cool. Reminds me of how much (or little) progress I’ve actually made. I haven’t experienced many of these yet, but 7 came fairly on for me, whereas 3 happened only recently.

    And I can definitely relate to coljac on the Chinese website thing. From a design/layout perspective, it seems the Chinese are more eager than the rest of the world to cram as much as possible onto a single page. I think if they start adding a little white space to their pages, they won’t be nearly as intimidating.

  7. I think the dreaming one is more of a thrill than an actual accomplishment. I dream that I can fly sometimes or that I have telekinetic powers; if my brain can trick me into believing that situation, it can trick me in to thinking I speak Chinese, even though I’m far from fluent.

    A milestone for me was when I yelled at a cab driver for pretending not to be able to go to a destination without a cross street.

  8. @coljac: Actually, i’ve had several chinese dreams even though i’m not really fluent and have lots of trouble watching movies. Usually in my chinese dreams, i end up criticizing my own speech somehow, or someone else’s.

    I think sometimes that dreaming in another language is an extension of the normal “chatter” that happens in your head when you’ve listened to that language a lot during the day. Lately i’m watching a lot of german TV and listening to german audiobooks, so when i’m doing something else i get random german phrases running through my head automatically. Dreaming is probably something similar.

  9. You have a conversation with someone and afterwards you don’t remember in which language it was.
    You watch a movie in the target language and afterwards don’t remember whether it had subtitles, and in what language.

    The first time someone mistook me for Chinese on the phone I was very happy, but later I’ve some to realize that it says more about the person on the other end (China has many dialects, a foreigner can’t possibly learn actual Chinese) than it says about my Chinese skills.

  10. The dreaming thing results not from fluency but rather the complete absence of one’s native language. I remember being in Italy at 17 and dreaming in Italian because there was literally no one to speak to in English so all I heard, all day, was Italian. At the time, I could hardly speak a word.

    Four years later, I lived in Italy again and became reasonably fluent, but never dreamt in the language again because I used English every day, whether talking to English-speakers or reading the news online.

    So that’s my theory anyway 🙂

  11. Was talking about something similar with a friend the other week. He suggested “you explain the US electoral college in your target language,” which I liked; I countered with “you can talk to a young child in the target language for more than two minutes without it getting really awkward.”

  12. As a basic learner (one year of university study back home, three weeks so far in BJ), I’ve got #1 (haltingly, more like a bad dream of being in my only-chinese class at Beida), #2, #3, #8 (though it was a simple comment), #13 (but only if 那个 counts ;D).

    Great list. I can relate it to my experience with English, and the process it took to get attain total fluency.

    Chinese is proving to be much harder.

  13. This is awesome! I’m about half way through the list I guess. I think before #16 somewhere should be recognizing a translation mistake in the subtitles of a movie. When that happened to me the first time I thought it was awesome.

  14. I am not sure if it is a milestone, but I amuse myself when I try to talk to all non-english speakers in chinese. Saying 我想要… and 谢谢 at mexican restaurants doesn’t work so great.

  15. The first time you register for a web forum for native speakers.

  16. Sometimes, I forget my second language and things just come out in my third language, which I find annoying. It must mean something for my progress in my third language, though. I’ve also dreamed in Mandarin before I felt really comfortable with speaking. I think it’s when you can actually understand the foreign language while you’re dreaming and remember it in the morning that it really counts.

    I agree with John B with the song thing, especially rapping and traditional forms of singing. The rapping is often either too fast or too slurred, or both (e.g. Jay Chou’s “双截棍”) and the traditional forms are hard to understand because of the way the syllables are stretched out, at least for me. I still refer to the written lyrics a lot.

  17. Here’s another one for the list:

    You switch to the target language because it is easier than using your native language, even though the other person is a good speaker of your native language.

  18. I was thrilled the first time or two I unconsciously found myself lip-reading in the target language: once while watching people talking on the street while I was on the bus, and another time it was tv with the sound off.

  19. Another one:

    It felt like something of a personal victory the first time I found myself knowing how to write some characters that I had never consciously studied, simply by already being familiar with their components and having seen the characters frequently enough during reading.

  20. […] of weeks ago Tae Kim wrote a great post called Memorable Moments in Language Acquisition, which John Pasden riffed on afterwards. Both the posts as well as the comments following them are full of ideas to get you […]

  21. […] when describing milestones of self-improvement in some area. I first stumbled upon it in the post about learning […]

  22. Good list.

    @Alaric, that is a good and satisfying one. To me that happens rarely, only when writing.

    @Brendan, talking to kids is quite difficult. They lose interest quickly.

    Here are some other ones:

    • Unconsciously using in the target language when talking to people who do not even learn the languate.

    • Picking new words on the fly (while listening/reading), without having to look them up somewhere. This resembles JohnB’s about songs.

    Commenting your items:

    11 is hard. Getting rid of that think-you-know-better feel (and keep your mouth shut) is more a question of character than language acquisition. 🙂

    What is really awkward is when you are expected to explain something, and you are both undecided how to say it (opinion- or topic-wise) and unsure as to the vocabulary concerned. A bit of an ‘interactive race condition‘: that you are confused makes it really difficult to express what you would say.

  23. hehe, very interesting, I have been living in Germany for 5.5 Years and I am in Level 12. But I think I will remain in this level.

  24. Here is another one: in a country of which you aim to speak the language, being talked to in the target language, with an introductory sentence like “how many years do you live in (China|Taiwan)?” 😀

  25. yet another milestone:
    When you go back on vacation to your homeland, you switch from “In China, they…” to “In China, we…”; it doesnt feel strange to you or your interlocutor.

  26. @lu “a foreigner can’t possibly learn actual Chinese”

    challenge accept!

    A interesting shift is when you listen to a gaijin speaking and answer 「上手ですね~ 」 and then you realize you become “one of them”

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