Are You Stuck in a Language-Learning Plateau – and Not Sure What to Do?

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the road to fluency

Ever felt like you’ve come to a standstill in your language learning?

It sucks, right?

Long gone are the early days of your language journey when learning was a breeze:

The prospect of speaking a new language excited you so much … and picking up new words and grammar rules was almost as easy as breathing out.

Now, however, all you seem to do is maintain what you already learned.

If that…

Sometimes it actually feels like you’re going backward!

It’s like you’ve arrived at a stage you can’t break out of.

Talk about frustration!

More than enough to demotivate you completely. It’s no surprise that amidst all this turmoil, many people throw in the towel.

Welcome to the dreaded language-learning plateau.

Such a plateau can occur at any stage of the learning process but mostly it will show up when you’re at the intermediate stage.

The good news is that — with a little tweaking of your learning routine — you can blast through a plateau rather quickly.

Even better news: it’s profound work, as the plateau holds the keys toward fluency in your target language.

Too much to read? Subscribe to Smart Language Learner(it’s free!) and download a summary that quickly walks you through the steps needed to break through a language plateau.

 

 Part 1: Have You Really Hit a Plateau?

First things first.

Before we discuss how to blast through a plateau, let’s back off a little bit.

Why?

Because although it may seem you’ve hit a plateau, it might actually be nothing more than your perception of the situation. Yep, it’s quite common to think you’re stuck when you’re actually not. In many cases, it’s just self-deception. It seems real but it isn’t.

I call it: the False Plateau trap. And if you haven’t experienced it before, it’s likely — and almost inevitable — that you fall into it.

If you’re 100% sure your learning plateau is real, then skip to Part 2: How to Blast Through a Plateau

 

You see, when you start to learn a new language, you have a few things going for you:

  • You’re extremely motivated.
  • The belief/hope that you make it to fluency is still there.
  • And you seem to learn fast.

But as time passes …. these same things tend to let you down. Until one day … you notice you’re not nearly learning as much as you were in the beginning.

And it’s true. You’re learning slower now!

No, you’re not getting dumber.  It’s the circumstances

And it’s not necessarily something to worry about.

You see, in language learning — and probably in any learning — the learning curve over time isn’t linear.

In the beginning you always learn a lot because you know almost nothing of the language. Everything you see and hear is new! You spend most of your learning time on new things.

But then, gradually, progress slows down because you have to use what you’ve already learned to learn new stuff. That is: you spend less and less time on new things.

To make a language stick, you have to see, hear or speak it again on a regular basis.  This obviously takes up time. Time you were using almost exclusively for learning new stuff when you had just embarked on your language journey.

It’s not an obstacle in and of itself. It’s how the language-learning process works.  The real problem is that you expect to maintain the same learning pace. This is why you fall in the False Plateau trap.

Take a look at the following graph that displays the learning curve inexperienced language learners expect:

expected-learning-curve

I’m sorry to say but such a linear learning curve like the one above is a fantasy. It just doesn’t happen that way.

Really, the progress you should expect — and this is important — is displayed in the next graph:

actual-learning-curve

Now, you may have seen these graphs on a dozen or so other learning sites but here’s something they tend to overlook:

You have good and bad days.

And they color your perception of progress.

Your experience of progress will probably look more like this:

experienced-learning-curve

I think you understand now why it’s not easy to determine whether you’ve hit a plateau or if it’s actually just in your head.

You’ll probably keep you head cool if you’ve already successfully passed through a situation like this. But if not, the lack of experience could hurt you here. It could make you do crazy stuff like abandon your still-functioning language-learning plan, or worse, give up on your new language altogether.

Fortunately, there are ways to determine whether you’ve really hit a plateau or not:

How to Know if You’ve Hit a Plateau

To sidestep the False Plateau trap, you need a way to estimate your real learning state:

You need one or more methods to measure your progress.

Ideally, you’ll want to record as much small improvements as possible, but that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. There’s always the danger that you spend more time measuring improvements than actually learning your new language.

Fortunately, even little things can give you the information you need to discover ‘where’ you are in your language-learning journey.

Detailed strategies go beyond the scope of this article — click here for more measuring methods — but the most important thing you can do is this:

Do not ever judge your progress based on a single day!

When in a slump, low on motivation, you tend to lose grasp on the big picture. It’s hard to see anything positive. And it’s not just you. Your brain is wired that way.

So before changing everything around —or worse —quitting your language learning based on just your daily fickle feelings, wait a few days and the world may look completely different.

A superior way is to judge your perception of your language level over a period of at least a week, preferably two.

You can use a journal and rate your level each day of the week(s).

I like to rate from 1 to 10. The rating is completely subjective but it helps you see the big picture. If you rate your progress a Three on Monday but a Nine on all other days, you’ll start to understand why I stress you don’t judge how you’re doing with your new language based on a single day.

Rating your progress prevents you from thinking something’s wrong with your learning when really everything’s fine and normal.

Don’t worry, you won’t need to write much. Just a rating, and maybe a sentence or two describing how you feel about your progress on that particular day.

If after a week or two, you only see low ratings and you still feel you’re not progressing, then it might be safe to say that you’ve hit a plateau.

rating-progress

Now, to make the story complete:

As with any rule, there are exceptions to the “never judge your progress based on a single day” rule.

But to make use of these exceptions you need to have some measuring mechanisms already working for you. That is: you should set them up before you reach a plateau.

In other words: they are longer-term solutions. But it’s worth setting up one or two of them because they’re more effective than the rating method.

So how do you set them up?

Let me give you a few examples:

  • Read a short story or text and mark the words and sentences you understand. Don’t try to learn the content afterward. Next, leave the story alone for a while. Pick it up again once you feel you’ve hit a plateau. Do you understand much more than the last time you read this? You’re probably OK. If not, you’ve likely hit a plateau.
  • Listen to a song or album in your target language. Pick music you like. Get familiar with it. Once that’s done, leave it alone for a while. Don’t deliberately try to learn the lyrics. Pick it up again once you feel you’ve hit a plateau. Do you now understand much more of the lyrics than last time? Yes: You have progressed. If not, you could be at a plateau.

Of course, it’s hard to ever exactly measure your progress but I hope to have given you some tools to determine whether or not you’re at a plateau.

If you are, then read on as it’s time to discuss methods that help you leave the plateau behind.

Part 2: How to Blast Through a PlateauBlast

Learning a language is like working out:

In the beginning, progress comes quickly. It’s right in your face and you’re more inspired than ever.

But if you keep doing the same workout, progress slows down and so does the motivation.

In order to get past a plateau you have to change your workout.

You Will Not Blast Through a Plateau if You Don’t Challenge Yourself

Doing your language-learning activities for the sake of being busy or just to have that warm and fuzzy feeling of having done your “work”, isn’t going to cut it.

It’s important that you understand that.

If you get too comfortable, then it’s time to try something new.

Again, this is something you shouldn’t judge based on a single day. With any learning material or method, some days — or parts of learning materials — are easier for you than others.

But if you’ve noticed lately that you’re not feeling as challenged as before, then it’s time to look for new challenges.

You don’t have to drop your current methods entirely but you should make room in your schedule for harder stuff.

Nowadays, you hear and read a lot that you should get out of your comfort zone and start speaking sooner rather than later. And yes, conversing is very important, but now might not be the right time for you to focus on it.

What you should focus on, though, is getting out of your comfort zone.

That is: spending a healthy amount of time on language-learning activities that challenge you. And although that could very well mean that you should converse more, what’s really important is not getting too comfortable. And that can be achieved in many different ways.

“Get too comfortable, and you stop learning”

Tweet:

 

Now, you don’t want to do only challenging activities. That would quickly burn you out.

The trick is to strike a balance. Add a healthy amount of challenging stuff to your language learning and you’ll be fine. Aim to use at least 25% of your time for this.

And talking about a challenge, let’s move on and talk about what many people find really challenging: learning foreign grammar.

Grammar is Important

Yup, that monster.

High school horror, I know.

But it’s important that you can make at least somewhat correct sentences if you want to move through a plateau.

Don’t worry, learning foreign grammar isn’t as bad as you think. The trick is to learn grammar bit-by-bit and only when you need it.

If a course has you learning grammar that’s relevant to the material you’re trying to get your head around now, then that’s great. If it’s just learning grammar for the sake of learning grammar, then you should avoid it like the plague. It’s not an efficient way of spending your learning time.

Just remember to never learn grammar if it doesn’t have anything to do with what you’re learning now.

If you do that, you’ll find that it’s actually enjoyable and interesting to decipher foreign grammar!

Imagine that!

Slowly Tip the Scales in Favor of Native Sources

The arrival of a plateau shouldn’t frustrate you.

It’s good news!

The plateau is the gateway from the language of learning materials, to the real version of your target language.

Most language courses, programs and methods only teach you a general, formal version of the language.

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s often best to start with this version because it can offer a good framework to take your language learning to the next level.

The problem is the course authors never tell you about that. They prefer to say their course is enough to have you speaking fluently in a matter of weeks. And if they don’t say that … many times they imply it!

That course you bought you thought was the complete solution? Well, now you know: It’s only the start!

To bridge this gap, the trick is to slowly change the more traditional learning materials and methods for learning more through native sources.

When you start out learning a language, it might be a waste of time to use these sources too much. But slowly, as your level changes, so should your tactics.

To make the transition from the general language to the real version, you need to start incorporating more native sources into your learning.

You shouldn’t throw away your course, textbooks or any other basic method just yet, but start to speak, listen, read and write in your target language as well.

It will help you cross the bridge!

The Analyze and Conquer Methodanalyze-and-conquer-method

Next, I want to share with you with a method that has proved itself highly effective to me.

It’s about analyzing your weaknesses in your target language and then work on them by using Mini Goals.

It should be common sense, really, but almost no-one does this. It’s a shame because if you want to use your learning time efficiently, this method is the one.

The funny thing is: it’s a lousy method when you’re a beginner learner of your target language, since all you have is weaknesses! In the intermediate stage, however, the method becomes almost essential as it helps you fill the gaps and improve on your weaknesses.

So how do you find those gaps in your knowledge and ability?

Here are some examples:

  • You want to say or write something but you can’t express yourself as good as you’d like to.
  • You keep hearing or reading something you don’t understand.
  • A certain grammar construction pops up again and again, but you don’t understand it.
  • You can’t quite nail the pronunciation of a difficult sound.
  • And basically everything else that keeps bothering you.

That last point is important.

I can’t stress enough that unless you’re at an advanced level, you won’t want to work on every unknown word or grammar structure you come across. This would probably only slow you down and cancel out the power of the method.

You need to catch only those repeating things because they are what’s important now.

You may not even need a language course any longer: your next steps will become clear if you pay attention to your interaction with the language.

Then, when you encounter a weakness, it’s time to devise a strategy to eliminate it.

Use Mini Goals to Strengthen Your Weaknesses

Nothing motivates more than seeing progress.

Unfortunately, sometimes language-learning progress hides itself from you.

Thus, you need to keep progress in your sights.

Mini Goals coupled with the Analyze and Conquer method will help you with that.

The Mini Goals keep you focused on short-term gains and keep those gains visible to you, which is exactly what you need when battling a language-learning plateau.

What Mini Goals you should set, depends on your situation: 

  • If you’re low on vocab, learning 100 new words within the next two weeks is a good mini goal. And one you could repeat several times. Make sure you set a deadline and use Flashcards, not necessarily to learn the words but to test if you’ve achieved the goal.
  • If a grammar structure has your head spinning, you can spend one hour online finding information and exercises that help you get your head around it. Don’t forget to set a timer.
  • If listening is your Achilles heel, a good goal might to be listen to 10 Podcasts in your target language this week. Make sure you pick something that interests you.
  • If you feel you’ve learned enough of your target language but you’re not using it, then having at least 5 conversations in the following two weeks is a fine goal.

You get the point…

It’s all about identifying weaknesses and then using Mini Goals to strengthen them. It’s an excellent way to help you improve your ability in your target language.

Write Your Way Through the Plateau

Another good and underrated vehicle to move you beyond the plateau is writing.

It won’t directly help your listening and speaking skills but it can help detect errors in your language.

Not only can you have your writing corrected by a native speaker and/or through sites like Lang-8 and LingQ, but writing also allows you to correct mistakes you know you’ve just made.

With writing, there’s more time to reflect on what you’ve expressed than in speaking. You’re more likely to correct yourself. Not only does that help — to a certain extent —in detecting and strengthening weaknesses, but if you make enough corrections, they will spill over to your speaking.

Writing and speaking are connected. They are both forms of expression. By writing you can improve your speaking and vice versa.

Don’t underestimate the power of writing. It’s easy to dismiss as a time waster, but it’s a good tool that — with a little help of the other methods in this article — can take you out of a plateau.

Time for Action!

This article is closing in on the 3000 words mark, but if there’s just one thing I want you to take away from this post, it’s that a language-learning plateau isn’t the end of the world.

In fact, it’s a milestone!

If you use the methods in this article combined with your own intelligence, it could be the start of reaching an unprecedented level in your target language.

So, go ahead:

Use the methods.

Experiment with them.

Or change them to see if you can improve them further.

Then … let me know how it’s all going for you!

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Comments

  1. Hi Noel,
    It has been very long since I last wrote a comment on your blog.
    Basically, what you said above is true.
    I was very excited when I started learning English about three years ago. My language learning process went on very well and everything sounds great. But almost suddenly, I started feeling as if something with my English learning were breaking in pieces. I couldn’t figure out, and still now to a certain extent, what to do and how to put it back on the right track.
    Maybe you hit the nail on the head by saying that at beginning it is easier to study a new language (especially English, I guess) because everything is new, you have a plan, a grammar book that shows your progress clearly. But when I got to what one would call “intermediate” level, I didn’t know how to bring my level of English to the next step. I still continue reading and listening English materials, but I know that I should do more.
    Although I read a lot (I like reading), it seems to me that I still write in Basic English using pretty much the same basic patterns I used when I started my “English learning journey” yeasr ago. It is kind of frustrating.
    I hope your article might come in handy and help me boost my study.
    Thank you, Noel.

    • Noel van Vliet says:

      Hi Luke,

      Great to see you here again!

      I think your “problem” is that reading is input and you need more output. Output is speaking and writing.

      You shouldn’t stop reading, of course, but a bit of deliberate practice to break those basic patterns would probably make all the difference.

      Use writing or speaking(to yourself), and express yourself in different ways than you normally would. If you don’t know how, use google. When you’ve found something, use it in your writing/speaking in different contexts. Make sure you repeat this exercise several times over the space of a month and chances are that you’ll start using this particular form of expressing yourself automatically.

      If you think it’s a lot of work: it isn’t! I’m talking about coming up with a little story or something about yourself in which you use the expression a few times. You then note in your agenda when you’ll have to repeat the exercise. Just make sure you use a different story each time.

      Noel

  2. Jan Cornelis says:

    Dear Noel,

    With very great interest, I have read your text on the language learning plateau.

    Being a lecturer in English in an Antwerp college of Business and Trade (Karel de Grote-Hogeschool), I had to tackle some rather harsh remarks of my second-year students with the start of their second year training period. They fiercely complained about me and the training I had given them in their first year. “We have learned nothing” is what they kept saying. No need to tell you that these remarks cut sharply into my professional pride!

    For you information: my first year training involves:
    – listening to and summarizing current BBC news podcasts,
    – listening and re-telling an English office soap in the form of a presentation (http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/learningenglish/general/englishatwork),
    – listening, summarizing and presenting parts of a BBC website of news vocabulary (http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/learningenglish/webcast/tae_insight_archive.shtml),

    In all their writing activities, they are provided with a selection of 10 words which they have to use in their writing (200 – 250 words) in order to make these words sink in. The reality is, however, that, while listening, they “wait” for these words to pop up, they “copy” the sentences in which these words appear and they think they have done a good job. In fact, they are turning themselves into self-declared “robots” which they do not like at all, but which, in my opinion, they only have themselves to blame for.

    The same phenomenon is also noticeable in many presentations which, despite my efforts to have them work as visually as possible, often remain carefully prepared “paper language”, supported by the largely over-used PowerPoint bullet points.

    Anyway, writing is a very essential part of my training because “writing”, if treated in the correct way, is, to my knowledge, a synonym of “thinking”.

    Now, I would like to return to my starting point, the start of my second year training. The structure of the training remains. Only, the contents will be very different:
    – Current podcasts
    (e.g. http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/countingthecost) will keep track of “hot” business news,
    – Management vocabulary will be trained on another website (https://www.mindtools.com) by doing quizzes, discussing outcomes and introducing management skills by presentations and discussions,
    – looking for a suitable job opening in order to write a C.V. as well as a tailor-made covering letter resulting in a job interview,
    – a final speech on their personal opinion about their English training.

    Finally, I hope you have been given a clear picture of my activities and your personal opinion about my approach would be most welcome.

    Best of regards,
    Jan Cornelis
    English Business Communication Lecturer
    Karel de Grote-Hogeschool
    Antwerp

    • Noel van Vliet says:

      Hi Jan,

      Thanks for your elaborated comment.

      It looks good, although depending on their level you might want add some conversation practice to the mix.

      I agree with you that writing is like thinking. Or, as I discuss in the article, like speaking, but slower and more deliberate. I think writing is a very underrated language-learning vehicle.

      Thanks,
      Noel

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