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Understanding and Overcoming the intermediate plateau in language learning
The early days of language learning are a whirl of motivation and action. New words are everywhere. We can pick up a menu and learn ten new words. The supermarket becomes a language class. Any page of any book is a fountain of new vocabulary. Progress feels electric. Therefore, the beginner levels of a new language can feel like a sprint. A lightening quick haze of colors, numbers and useful expressions. So why is it, that 3 or 4 years into learning a language, my progress has slowed down? Why is my motivation disintegrating?
The ”intermediate plateau”, is a common phenomenon in language learning. It is when a student feels they are not progressing over a prolonged period. This can lead to students losing motivation, in some cases giving up altogether. The fact is, however, that the juiciest benefits of learning the language are yet to come. The fluent conversations that come with confidence in your speaking. The newfound ease of watching TV in your second language. Finally understanding the lyrics of your favorite album. Let me try to coax you back into your language journey with some suggestions to overcome that pesky plateau.
Why do I feel like this?
Firstly, we must understand why we feel like our progress has slowed. You are not alone. This is a common feeling among students of all languages. One reason is how much easier it is to retain some of the language we learn at the beginning. We learn the most commonly used words and expressions first. The contents of these beginner levels are so memorable. This makes sense, right?
So, it stands to reason that this content is therefore visible in many places. You will see the numbers you have learned. You will use and hear the basic expressions regularly. Everything you learn can be useful right away. As the contents of the classes grow more complex however, we start to learn less common language. This is important, we must be able to speak in a variety of situations, but it can feel less relevant. Less easy to slip into a conversation with a stranger on the train.
Secondly, it is a fact that moving from one level to the next becomes more difficult the further along the language learning journey you move. Cambridge University even had a stab at estimating the progress needed to advance between levels. Let’s assume the highly generalized graphic below has value as a rough guide. Let’s face it, no one knows learning English like Cambridge do!
They estimate that moving from being a beginner at A1 to pre-intermediate takes around 90-100 hours. Contrast that with the 300-400 hours they estimate it takes to move from C1 to C2, and the source of a student’s frustration becomes clear. It doesn’t feel like you’re progressing more slowly, you are! The language is more complex. It can take more time to truly internalize the vocabulary and new grammatical structures. Also, there are more of them to learn than before. It needs more time, and accepting that can help us appreciate our progress is still there, it’s just slower.
Another, related, reason for the feeling of having plateaued is the student’s own expectations. I have met many students over the years who set themselves the goal of, for example, passing the FCE exam this year, when I can see from level assessment that they are likely at least 2-3 years away from that goal. This can be very demotivating. Goal setting can be a great source of personal motivation. And having an official exam as a goal is a great idea. However, the goal must be realistic, try aiming for a goal a teacher recommends. The original goal can remain, but put a more realistic time frame in place, and set other goals along the way to give yourself the opportunity to celebrate your progress.
Escaping the plateau
Now that we understand some of the reasons behind the so-called intermediate plateau, we can relax. The pressure is off, it’s not your fault! However, the problem remains, I want to improve faster! So, what solutions can we consider?
Fun is the solution
After 3-5 years of learning a language, it’s time to loosen the reins a bit. It’s time to have fun! Classrooms are full of explicit and implicit learning. Explicit learning includes the language presentations, the practice activities. Explicit learning is what we are being taught and told to practice. We also have implicit learning throughout the class. Implicit learning is listening to the teacher’s natural speech. It is reading articles in textbooks, discussing topics with our peers. Implicit language learning is what we can find most easily in the world, and it is more enjoyable than explicit learning in 99% of cases.
Not many native English speakers could explain grammar rules to non-native speakers. They may have perfect English, but they probably can’t tell you why. Implicit learning is how young children learn languages, by exposure and repetition. We can use these same techniques and enjoy doing so. Start with a favorite TV program, rewatch it, but change the language this time. Watch it in the language you want to learn. Switch the language of your mobile phone. Download a news app in your new language. Spend as much time with that language as you can but doing things you enjoy. This increased number of hours interacting with the language will become more useful that the explicit learning taking place in the classroom over time.
Now, let’s return to my introduction of this article. Let’s look for new words in menus. Let’s enjoy finding the language we are learning wherever we can. We might know more now, less of what we see is new and immediately useful. It doesn’t matter. Consume content wherever you find it with an eye on things you haven’t heard before, new contexts, interesting expressions, and you will find your vocabulary growing again. The progress may never feel as explosive as it once did, but it is there just the same. Give yourself kudos for how far you’ve come. Let yourself be relaxed about how far there still is to go.