Language Learning Terms, in Plain Language

Are you trying to learn a new language, but are overwhelmed by the terminology? Feeling lost when people toss around linguistic terms in language-learning forums?

Well, you’re in luck! Here are 25 language learning terms and their definitions, presented in an easy-to-understand way.

By Georges Garen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Georges Garen [Public domain], Image Source

(Disclaimer: This is all in good fun. Don’t use this info in your school reports. Go to a more reputable source, like Wikipedia, for that.)

Here we go…


Bilingual – Being able to use two languages competently, according to some people; being able to pass off as a native speaker in two languages, according to other, harder-to-please people

Communicative Method – Learning a language by talking to people

Comprehensible Input – Stuff you hear or read that you can understand–for the most part, anyway

Descriptive Grammar – How people actually speak (see Prescriptive Grammar)

Fluency – That thing where you can speak fluidly enough so that your speaking partner doesn’t have to wait politely for you to spit out your idea

Fossilization – Making progress in a language and then not making any for months or even years

Glottal Stop – The sound between “uh” and “oh” in “uh-oh”

Graduated Interval Recall – See “Spaced Repetition”

Image Recall – That thing Rosetta Stone does where you learn vocab words with photos

Immersion – Moving to a country before you know the language and not understanding anyone for months, until at some point you start to understand people a little, right when it’s time to move back home

Interference – That thing where you’re trying to say, “I am embarrassed” in Spanish, but instead say, “Estoy embarazada” (I am pregnant)

Keyword method – That thing where you remember the German phrase “bis bald” (see you soon) by imagining a bald guy waving goodbye, leaving, and then coming back soon

Language Acquisition Methods – Learning a language by listening and reading

Language Exchange – Having a conversation

Language Journal – A notebook

Linguist – Someone who studies the science of language and, upon hearing that a double negative forms a positive, but a double positive does not form a negative, responds with, “Yeah right.”

Linguistic Register – The difference between “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” and “We all come out nekkid and cryin’.”

Morpheme – One word, multiple words that function as one word, and stuff you add to words to change the meaning.

Phoneme – A language sound

Polyglot – Someone who speaks multiple languages, blogs, attends conferences, and has a presence on YouTube

Prescriptive Grammar – How people “should” speak (see Descriptive Grammar)

Proficiency – How well you use a language

Spaced Repetition – See “Graduated Interval Recall”

Task-Based Language Learning – Learning a language by role playing

Vocabulary – Words

…there you have it! Hope that clears things up.

  • Roman Shinkarenko

    I see polyglottery is a very specialized activity which not everyone can do.
    Image Recall – the thing where Rosetta Stone teaches you that your target language is spoken only by healthy, normal, glamour and wealthy models with shiny hardware without any rust or dust.
    Bilingual – being able to say just one word in both languages, according to my definition.

    • Ron G.

      LOL…”Hola! See, I’m bilingual Spanish and English.” …and I agree that language learning definitely needs some rust and dust to make the language come alive.

  • Shannon Kennedy

    This is a great list! “Fossilization” is new to me and sounds like a great word for my German/Italian.

    • Ron G.

      Thanks! I first read about fossilization in my wife’s Teaching ESL textbook (haha@me reading her textbook). There’s obviously a lot more to it, but that’s the gist of it. The authors were implying that it was irreversible, but I really doubt that.