Linguistics

Surviving the Language Learning Plateau

I remember the first time I fell in love. I was 15 and the world suddenly seemed to open up.  I hung on every beautiful word, felt my adrenaline race with each new experience, and discovered in myself someone that I hadn’t met before. It wasn’t a boy I fell in love with, or a girl. It was Japanese. I had signed up for an evening community class. It was me, an assortment of middle-aged businessmen, and a few aspiring Japanophiles. A few days in and I was smitten.

As languages go, Japanese was a sweet first crush, introducing me to a whole new culture. But in time, like many first loves, she slipped away, leaving me only fragments of kanji and hiragana to remember her by.

Language learning can feel a lot like a relationship. The first few weeks and months you feel exhilarated. Every night you stay up talking, learning things about your language, connecting to a new alphabet, a new culture, a new way of thinking.  You begin to picture yourself years in the future, sitting in a cafe somewhere in the world, laughing and talking with your new language. You’ll be together forever.

But then one day, the magic begins to fade. The words don’t sound as beautiful, (and it seems that there are always more of them you don’t know)! The same old issues begin to nag at you – a conjugation that you just can’t get right in conversation, a noun that is spelled too similarly to another one.  Even the fun grammar quirks of the language don’t seem so cute any more. “Why would anyone invent a language so complicated?” you yell into the void.

The good news is, this is exactly how things are supposed to feel. As you move from a beginner to an intermediate language learner, the path begins to level out. It’s known as The Language Learning Plateau. You are working just as hard, spending just as much time, but instead of moving forward, you appear to be stuck in one place.   This is a pivotal moment in the relationship with your language. Is it just a summer fling or are you committed for the long-haul? Making a commitment at this stage can take you forward toward fluency. And once you reach fluency, that language will never leave you (even if you run off with another one).

There are many explanations for the Language Learning Plateau. When you first start learning a language you often set goals for yourself, like having a conversation, reading a newspaper, or watching a film in your target language.  When you reach these initial goals, the feeling of accomplishment can often drift toward complacency. Textbook exercises that once seemed fun begin to feel monotonous. A new job leaves you too exhausted to watch a foreign language show. You have moved countries and now find yourself devoid of all opportunities to use your target language.

If these sound like excuses, rest assured there are more technical, pedagogical reasons too.

It is a well supported fact that learners rarely progress at an even pace.

During the initial stage of language learning, learners take in vocabulary and grammar rapidly, propelling them up a steep, adrenaline-fueled curve. As they reach the first peak, the rate of improvement begins to slow, creating a plateau.  It requires a great deal of time and effort to integrate vocabulary and grammar and extend it into true fluency. What may appear flat and immobilized (and feel completely debilitating) is really a vital re-fueling stage.

It is often at this stage of our language relationship that we begin to determine the gaps.  We can read and write decently but falter in spontaneous conversations. We are excellent at asking questions but can’t understand the responses.  In many cases, when we reach the intermediate stage of language learning we are content simply to speak and to be understood, often relying on more basic vocabulary and grammatical constructions. This can be particularly true in an immersive setting.

After living in Poland for several years I often found myself relying on my tried and true expressions instead of attempting more complex ones. While my Polish lessons advanced, my speaking habits did not.  I lived within my comfort zone, expressing myself and understanding others just well enough to get by. But on the days when I stepped beyond my usual routine – to the car repair place for instance, or a government office – the gap widened. My confidence fluctuated from day to day, from place to place, sometimes even from moment to moment. Not only did I find gaps in my vocabulary and grammar, I also found myself making the same mistakes repeatedly.

These hardened mistakes, referred to as Fossilized Language Errors, begin to show up around the intermediate stage of language learning. So not only are you slogging across a plateau, you are also dragging a bunch of undesirable baggage with you.  Suddenly the relationship with your language begins to feel more formidable than fun.

So how do you survive the Language Learning Plateau?  

  1. Remember why you started learning your language in the first place.  If you’ve already met your initial goals, make new ones. The key is to start small. Commit to watching a new television series in your target language or talking to a native speaker a few times a week. Make an effort to use complex grammar constructions that you know but don’t normally use. Write an email to a friend in your new language and read the reply without translation.  If you’re interested in cars, or fitness equipment, or computer software, learn the words you need to know and find an excuse to use them. You don’t need a giant, top-of-the-mountain wedding proposal to rekindle the fire, just start with some challenging but achievable goals.
  2. Change up your learning. If you haven’t used flashcards before, give them a try (we can recommend a great app)! Take a refresher lesson with a teacher or engage in conversation with a native speaker.  If you’re tired of grammar exercises in your textbook, find a new way to learn them. (Look in children’s books to find grammar constructions you know and ones that you don’t, or listen to podcasts on topics you are interested in – it’s amazing how much more fun learning can be when the topic isn’t “Things to buy at the store.”)
  3. Find the gaps.  The best way to improve your language skills is to identify your areas of weakness.  While it may be tempting to practice the things you are good at over and over again, it doesn’t lead to mastery. Record yourself speaking, or write a quick few paragraphs about a movie you watched.  Listening to and reading your own work constructively can help you to figure out where to invest your time moving forward. You can also submit your work and recordings to a tutor to help verify grammar or make your accent or writing more authentic. Lastly, if you’ve already been using the classic Fluent Forever method for your studies, you may find that this alternate route through Fluent Forever is a much faster way to locate the gaps in your knowledge and fill them. That route should feel substantially faster than the classic method, and it may help you re-capture the adrenaline rush of your first months of learning and improving.

Most importantly, remember that a plateau is a chance to catch your breath, and an opportunity to look back at all you have achieved in your learning.  It is the point at which the hopeful sparks of infatuation begin to develop into something more sustainable.

It’s ok to love more than one language in your lifetime; it’s even ok to stay friends with your ex when you move on. But when you’re right in the middle of the good stuff, teetering on the edge of the plateau, don’t give up.  In the end, fluency is much more satisfying than a quick fling (even if you are tempted by one of those sexy romance languages).

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