Dealing with Plateaus as an Intermediate Learner


Or are they plateaux? Hmm.

Whatever spelling you use, a lot language learners stumble when they reach the intermediate stage. There is a wealth of resources made for beginners– tons of fun, colorful flashcards, textbooks, and other courses. And beginners tend to be excited about this new project they picked up. It’s easy to tell how much you’re learning when you’ve just started. Advanced learners have advantages as well– they generally feel a sense of accomplishment that they’ve made it this far, and they can, to a great extent, read/watch/enjoy mainstream media like novels, TV, and radio.

But when you’re in the middle of your language learning adventure, you can definitely feel lost, like nothing’s working anymore. You can feel bored and frustrated with the tools you’re using. You might even feel a little burned-out.

Ah, the learning plateau.

But don’t fret! I honestly think every language learner experiences one or more plateaus during their studies.

I believe there are two explanations for learning plateaus:

1. The novelty of your language has worn off. This is pretty obvious. When you first start, you’re probably enamored with what you’re studying, and, for me at least, the dullest book or textbook is endlessly entertaining because I can’t wait to decode the language. After three or four months, though, this isn’t quite the case anymore.

2. The law of “diminishing” returns. Basically, when you’re first learning vocabulary and grammar, it’s easy to feel yourself improving. You can double the number of words you know in a couple of days! But when you know several hundred or a thousand words, each subsequent addition to your arsenal doesn’t feel quite as exciting. That being said, I’m not too crazy about this explanation, since your intermediate learning isn’t actually worth less than your beginner level studies. It’s just that it feels like you’re not getting as much out of it anymore.

So, what do both of these explanations have in common? Feelings! Specifically, boredom and impatience. For the boredom half, I’m obviously a huge advocate of switching things up– buy new materials and get new stuff going. However, just as often, we can feel “meh” about our languages, even though we still want to achieve a high level.

Darn human emotions– they always get in the way of our lofty goals 🙂

I think a great solution to this is to change mindsets so that our minigoals (the daily work you do to maintain or improve your target language) aren’t based so much on accomplishment and progress. Make sure your schedule is made up of definable and achievable tasks.

Achievable tasks can either be a bound by numbers (100 SRS reps today, 1 textbook lesson, 1 episode of target language cartoon) or by the amount of time involved. I’m in love with timers, and when I’m not feeling like listening to a language I set a very brief amount of time to devote to it. For example, even though I cut back on the Dutch, I still want to keep it up in some measure, but I’m having a hard time getting around to it each day. In fact, on my to-do lists for the last couple of days, I’ve written only “listen to Dutch radio” without any time period, and I’ll check it off when I’ve listened, even if it’s only a couple minutes.

The point is to feel good about achieving something while ensuring that I keep making contact with the language. As long as I check off the task on my list, I allow myself to feel accomplished and to feel like I’m learning something. I’m separating the fun and motivation from the actual progress in the language, and attaching them to something I can better control. It’s much easier and more efficient to concern myself with reading for 10 minutes or listening for 5 minutes than it is to keep track of my vocabulary and grammar prowess. There’s a time and place for that, too, of course, but when you’re feeling a little bored and burned-out, switching the focus to achievable goals works really well!

Learning a language is so big, and it takes so long, that insisting on constant levels of interest or progress is unrealistic and not so efficient. Take the negative emotion out of learning, especially if you can see that worrying about improving– or not– isn’t very helpful. Habits, momentum, and achievable daily goals get you through the grind of intermediate learning.

And while learning might be constant, during the intermediate stage it comes in leaps and bounds. One minute you’re fretting that something isn’t working, and the next you realize you can understand a cartoon or read a news article. Little by little, those daily tasks build a true skill, something you can be proud of!


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