Moving Beyond the Language Learning Plateau

January 16, 2019

When you start learning a new language, you have so many things going for you:

  • you’re motivated
  • you learn quickly and acquiring a new skill is exciting
  • you anticipate a time when you are cheerfully having fluent conversations.

But after a while, you notice you’re not learning as much as you were at the beginning. In language learning – in fact any learning, the learning curve isn’t linear.

In the beginning, you are acquiring new vocabulary and grammar concepts, improvement is noticeable giving a sense of achievement and then over time progress gradually slows. This plateau or feeling of “being stuck” occurs when your progress is no longer obvious to you. The problem is that you probably expect to maintain the same learning pace. You may even feel like giving up and there’s no point studying anymore.

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This feeling is perfectly normal and happens at the intermediate-advanced stage, in part because learners can now understand around 60%-80% of their new language. They are good enough to get by but not yet fluent. Learners still have limited vocabulary and they are not able to use complex grammar. So before quitting your language learning, based on this slump in your motivation, let’s offer some tips to help you overcome this plateau.

The first step is to use mini-goals to keep you focused. Consider the gaps in your knowledge and ability and write them down. For example, it might be “I want to write something but I can’t express myself properly; I keep hearing something I don’t understand; I can’t nail a certain grammar construction…”. Now focus on some practical steps to overcome these gaps.

Here are a few strategies for you to consider:

Get out of your comfort zone! No, we’re not advocating dropping your current methods entirely but try getting out of your comfort zone. Spend some time on learning activities that really challenge you. Add a healthy amount of challenging topics to your language learning (no more than 25%). For example, practice more complex grammar topics. It’s easy to become complacent so try forming longer sentences and using new conjugations.

Set vocabulary goals. If you learn 5 new words a day, 5 days a week, you’ll be learning 25 new words a week or a minimum of 100 words a month! Flashcards can help vocabulary to stick in your mind but only if you keep using them consistently. The best way to remember words and phrases is to look at them frequently. Use flashcards every day – even if just for a few minutes. You’re more likely to remember new words when they’re grouped with similar concepts. Arrange your flashcards in logical themes, such as objects in the home, verbs related to sports, and vocabulary for the workplace. Making flashcards is easy – there are websites that will generate printable flashcards for you.

Talk with a native speaker. Search out a native speaker in your own company and arrange a regular time each week to chat over coffee. This can really help you build your confidence with a sympathetic colleague. Once you realise your native-speaking colleague understands you, you’ll feel much better about your progress.

If you don’t know someone that speaks the language you are learning, look for a Meetup group or conversation exchange programme. At a Meetup group, you may meet individuals who are more skilled than you, but teaching them some new words or phrases you’ve memorised can help get you acquainted. In a conversation exchange, you’ll Skype someone who speaks the language you’re trying to learn and, instead of paying them, you’ll spend some time conversing with them in the language you know.

Review your progress by reading the news online. Even as an intermediate learner, you can work out the gist of an article (particularly if you know the story already). By reading newspapers, you’ll learn a lot about the culture and people of the language you’re learning. As you continue to progress, challenge yourself to try more difficult texts. You may be surprised how quickly you’ll advance using this technique.

Remember learning a new language takes time, effort and patience. By just choosing one of these small habits and building it into your daily routine, it will make a big difference and can take you out of a plateau. And don’t forget, to stay motivated, make sure you celebrate every time you reach your mini-goal.


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