The Dreaded Language Learning Plateau: How to Rise Above It

Have you ever found yourself on the dreaded language learning plateau?

Yep, your language education was moving along smoothly, and then it suddenly seemed to halt or slow down drastically, right?

“Moving Beyond the Intermediate EFL Learning Plateau” by Qing Xu points out that this plateau is unavoidable but can be overcome.

So it’s time to understand what exactly that is and get past what’s keeping you from fluency.

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What’s a Language Learning Plateau?

A language learning plateau occurs when you stop learning as much as quickly. It’s easy to make quick progress early on, but as you learn more, you naturally slow down. Because of this, a language learning plateau frequently occurs when learners reach an intermediate level of language proficiency.

Why Do Language Learning Plateaus Occur?

There are a few reasons why you may be experiencing a language learning plateau.

  • You’ve met your goals. A lot of learners set goals that are reached by the time they reach an intermediate level. For instance, you might want to be able to hold a basic conversation or be able to read a newspaper or book in your target language. If you’ve met all your learning goals, your learning will naturally pause.
  • You don’t have goals. Whether you never had any goals to begin with or you just haven’t set new ones since you achieved your previous objectives, not having goals can halt language learning progress. Without a clear idea of what you hope to achieve, you don’t have a clear direction for focused study.
  • You’re stuck on a loop, doing the same thing all the time. If you keep doing the same thing, you’re likely to keep getting the same results. However, once you’ve milked one particular method for all it’s worth, you’ll see your learning plateau.
  • You lack confidence. As an intermediate learner, you’ve come a long way, but you also know enough to realize there’s a lot you don’t know. This can diminish confidence and make you feel like you can’t possibly become fluent or communicate as clearly as you’d like.
  • There’s a natural slowdown. Even if you do everything right, language learning plateaus can naturally occur. It’s not a fun truth, but at the same time, at least you aren’t solely responsible for your current rut!

8 Ways to Get Unstuck from the Plateau and Back in the Game

1. Set clear goals.

Once you’ve plateaued, not knowing what to do next can be a big part of the problem. If you don’t know what to do next, your studying will be less focused, so your learning will slow down.

Clear goals will alleviate this by providing you with the focus you need to surge ahead. It’s important to base these goals on your current language level and make them realistic. Setting a specific timeline for your goal is also a good way to keep yourself on the right track.

Overly ambitious goals, like becoming fluent in a week, can demotivate you by setting you up for failure. Set realistic goals that are somewhat challenging but that you know you can achieve.

For instance, you might resolve to learn a new set of vocabulary words or memorize irregular verb conjugations in the next week.

Regardless of what your goals are, having these clear benchmarks will help keep you moving in the right direction.

2. Use authentic material.

Most students will have focused on resources for learners up until they plateau. While this is a helpful way to understand the underlying structure and rules of a language, you’ll need to start consuming more authentic material to make your push towards fluency.

This can include real stories in your target language, news articles and even movies and TV shows. While these can be fantastic language learning tools, they can be a little daunting, especially when you come across new words and grammatical structures that you haven’t learned yet.

Authentic learning material is essential, though, and the feeling of being tossed into the deep end can be overcome. There are many language learning programs that harness the power of real-world language usage but help learners manage the overwhelming feelings of “in the wild” language usage.

For example, FluentU uses bite-sized authentic videos featuring native speakers to help you learn a language in context. Each clip’s interactive subtitles comprehensively explain the vocabulary used, and you can review material with personalized multimedia flashcards and quizzes. 

Authentic content can make your language studies more engaging and dynamic, providing fantastic learning and review opportunities that can propel you out of your plateau.

3. Try new methods.

Since your language learning has slowed down, now is the perfect opportunity to change up whatever you’ve been doing. It’s possible that you’re just stuck in a rut with that method. Trying something new could reinvigorate your language education.

Trying creative language learning methods is a fun way to approach this new phase in your learning process. But regardless of what approach you take, the main goal is to do something different.

One method you may not have tried is double translation. In double translation, you translate a text from one language to another and then back again. Conventionally, you use a dictionary for all of this. However, since you already have language skills, you can skip this with the exception of any words you don’t know. This is a helpful way to build vocabulary and practice your reading and writing skills.

Other approaches may vary based on how you’ve studied in the past. For instance, if you’ve been taking a class or studying a textbook, you might try immersion, language learning software or language learning apps.

Or, you could even continue by taking a course. But instead of taking a course about your target language, you could take a course in your target language. Here are some platforms that can help you with that:

  • Coursera offers courses on a variety of subjects, and in addition to courses taught in English, you can find some taught in French, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese and other languages. Finding what you’re looking for is easy. Just type a subject that interests you in the search box (like “art,” “math,” etc.), and then filter using “Course Languages” on the left-hand side of the screen.
  • Udemy offers self-paced courses accessible on any device that cover many topics. Once again, you can just search by subject and use a drop-down menu to browse courses for a particular language.
  • If you want to try the challenge of taking a real university-level course in your target language, edX has courses from schools like Harvard and MIT. Search for what you’re looking for and then scroll down to the bottom of the page. On the left-hand side, you’ll see the courses broken down by language.

If you’ve relied on immersion, on the other hand, now would be a good time to crack a textbook to get a more thorough understanding of underlying grammar rules.

Regardless of what you’ve been doing, changing things up is an easy way to get out of your rut and see the language from a new angle.

4. Focus on problem areas.

At the plateau level, bad habits or mistakes start to become more ingrained, so it’s time to correct them.

Taking proficiency tests and assessing your own skills will help you determine what areas you need to work on. Dialang is a particularly useful free online proficiency test because you can test multiple skills individually to see what skills are your weakest.

Another way to assess your own skill without a proficiency test is to think through what you’re most comfortable with. If you had to communicate with a native speaker, would you feel more comfortable doing it through speaking or writing? Would you feel more comfortable hearing or reading a native speaker’s response? Chances are that the skill you prefer is your stronger skill, so focus on the skill you didn’t choose.

While you may be at an intermediate level overall, chances are that you have some areas that are stronger and some areas that are weaker. Once you find these areas, all you have left to do is work on improving your weak points!

For instance, if you struggle with listening, do more listening exercises. Sure, it may seem obvious, but taking the obvious steps that you may have previously overlooked is important at this point in the process.

Similarly, if you struggle with speaking, find opportunities to speak. You might even start a public speaking club in your target language!

Additionally, if you struggle with a particular grammar rule, you can dedicate more time and effort to finally nailing it down.

Not only will putting time and effort into improving your problem areas improve your language skills, it will also make your confidence skyrocket.

5. Learn more vocabulary.

Limited vocabulary is one of the main hurdles that keeps intermediate learners stuck in the plateau phase.

Fluency in a language requires words—a lot of words. While an intermediate learner usually knows the most common words, the depth and breadth of their vocabulary is usually lacking.

To push away from the plateau, learning vocabulary is essential.

You can choose vocabulary sets by considering what words your vocabulary lacks. For instance, many intermediate learners don’t have as many verbs as would be desirable, so this is a good place to start. You might also be lacking more academic language, so words related to your academic interests could also be beneficial.

Quizlet is a helpful place to find and study thematic vocabulary sets. All you have to do is type in key words (for instance, “academic Spanish”) and you’ll find plenty of user-created lists. You can print off the lists to study, you can play games on the site or you can use flashcards on the site.

VTrain.net is a free software you can use to create and review your own flashcards, allowing you to choose the vocabulary that you find most important. Flashcard apps like Cram (available for iOS and Android) are also useful learning tools that allow you to build your vocabulary in whatever minutes you have to spare.

Building your vocabulary won’t only help you keep your learning on track, it will also help you communicate more clearly and concisely.

6. Interact with native speakers.

Most language students focus on a generic form of their target language early in their educations. Once you’ve plateaued, the next logical step is to learn to speak more like a native. Interacting with native speakers is terrific for speaking practice, listening practice, vocabulary building and pronunciation improvement.

It can definitely be intimidating to try to speak your target language with a native speaker. Luckily, conversation exchange is an awesome tool for this. Conversation exchange is when you partner with a speaker of your target language. You get practice in your target language, and you give your partner practice in your native language. This is ideal because there’s a strong chance that your partner has also encountered a language learning plateau that they’re trying to escape from.

If you can’t find a native speaker near you, there are plenty of online solutions. Skype language exchange is a popular way to connect with native speakers all over the world. Finding a language exchange partner doesn’t even need to be difficult since there are a wide variety of online resources that will help. Plus, many conversation exchange sites even offer estimated skill levels for participants. If you find someone at an intermediate skill level in your native language, they, too, are probably around the language learning plateau stage.

For instance, Conversation Exchange can help you find a native speaker near you or arrange a penpal correspondence. TalkAbroad can also help you schedule online video conversations with a native speaker.

Once you start speaking your target language with native speakers, your skill and confidence will propel you past the plateau.

7. Build confidence with other learners.

We’ve mentioned confidence a few times before, but it really is that important.

Working on your skills in general will help improve your confidence, but the best way to improve your confidence is to use your target language and use it often.

If you don’t speak, listen to, read and write in your target language often, you won’t have the time to build the confidence you need to continue forward towards fluency. When you’re learning, native-level skills seem impossible. This is why it’s important to use your skills in a supportive context. Get together with or make friends who are at a similar stage in their learning progress. If you’re not sure how to do this, check out some language learning communities.

Together, you can commiserate about the difficulties you’re facing and get some valuable practice in. Even if you make friends with someone learning a different language, there’s nothing to stop you from speaking to them in your target language (and it might even be less daunting this way)! Similarly, if you’re reading or writing alongside a friend, there’s someone there to push you forward if you ever feel like quitting.

As long as you use the language more often, your confidence will grow until full fluency is within reach.

8. Nip discouragement in the bud.

Once your learning slows down, it can be easy to become discouraged. You may even stop trying to improve your language skills. But don’t let discouragement weigh you down! Learning a language is like a marathon. When you start, it’s easy to move quickly. However, the farther you go, the more your pace is likely to slow. When things seem impossible, it’s important to remember that you’ve come a long way.

Sure, it was more fun to move faster, but quitting now that the finish line of fluency is in sight is a mistake you may regret. You’ve already put this much work in. Don’t let discouragement stop you from finishing the race!

 

The road to language fluency may not be a continual rise.

There will definitely be some flat ground along the way.

But if you follow these tips, you can overcome your language learning plateau and continue along your way to fluency with confidence!

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