How to overcome the intermediate plateau
Do you ever feel like you’ve arrived at a dead end with your language learning?
As much as you try and try to improve, you seem to be going in circles?
Most of us experience this feeling or something like it once we reach the intermediate levels of the language we’re learning.
If you feel like your progress has slowed and you’re struggling to push past an intermediate level, this post is for you.
Does the ‘intermediate plateau’ really exist?
So much is made of the dreaded ‘intermediate plateau’ by language learners and teachers the world over.
But amid all the hysteria, it’s worth asking: “Does the ‘intermediate plateau’ really even exist after all?”
The answer, as you might imagine isn’t black and white. Here are some of the main reasons why …
The new things you learn become less useful
When you first start a new language, you dive into it and start to learn new words and phrases. And the results are incredibly rewarding!
You can spend a couple of hours learning basic vocabulary and soon you’re able to introduce yourself and have your first very basic conversations.
The effort is minimal and the results are enormous!
That’s because the first words you learn are generally the most common and most useful words in your target language.
We’re talking about words like ‘I’ and ‘you’ or verbs like ‘to want’, ‘to like’ and ‘to go’.
We use these words quite a lot!
As you continue to improve, you learn more and more of the keywords that form the foundations of the language.
But by the time you reach an intermediate level, the words you’re learning are not so useful. That’s not to say they’re not important, but they’re less frequently used.
This often leads to the perception that you’re not progressing anymore. You learn new words and phrases but the opportunities to try out these new tools is less frequent and so you feel like you’re stuck.
In that sense, you haven’t really hit a plateau at all. You’re learning just as much as you were at the very beginning. It’s just that each new thing now represents a very small part of a much bigger picture, whereas when you first started your new language every word was a significant addition to your vocabulary.
You Lose Your Motivation
Another common reason why learners start to feel like they’ve plateaued is that they lose motivation.
Of course, in the beginning, you’re full of motivation. Starting to learn a new language is an exciting experience! Every new word you learn and every successful conversation is exhilarating.
But soon the novelty fades away, just as with anything in life.
When you’ve been working hard at your target language for a long time it can be hard to find the motivation to keep going.
As I already mentioned, each new thing you learn has a less direct impact than those first few hundred words did and soon you feel like you’re not making much progress. And that perceived lack of progress also drains your motivation!
Pretty soon, this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy! You begin to lose a little motivation so you practice a little bit less. And the less you practice, the slower your progress and so your motivation falls even lower.
You can pretty easily get into a tailspin.
How can you overcome the ‘intermediate plateau’?
So what can you do to overcome the intermediate plateau and avoid this tailspin? Is slower progress inevitable or can you do something about it?
The first and most important part of beating this perceived ‘plateau’ is to continue practising consistently.
It may not always feel like it but each and every day you’re making a little progress and over time that consistent effort adds up in a big way.
As a child, every time I had a big or difficult task to do my parents would say to me: “How would you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”
More than almost any other undertaking, learning languages has reminded me of the wisdom of this phrase.
Of course, practising consistently every day is not easy and that’s why it’s important to build language learning habits that you can rely on. But if you can manage to practice regularly, each of the little things you learn will start to have a visible impact on your fluency in the longer term.
Learn to practice with focus
Practising consistently is, in my opinion, the most important part of beating a ‘plateau’ but it’s just the first step.
Just because you’re putting in lots of time learning your target language doesn’t mean you’re doing so effectively or efficiently.
You should always be trying to maximise the time you spend on your language so that you can learn as much as possible for every hour you invest.
One of the best ways to learn more effectively and make sure you can see how much progress you’re making is to set short-term goals.
If you don’t set goals for yourself, then as an intermediate learner you’re going to feel lost. As a beginner, you can make a lot of progress blindly because there’s simply so much you need to learn!But at the intermediate level, it really pays to focus on your weaknesses and resolve them one by one.
But at the intermediate level, it really pays to focus on your weaknesses and resolve them one by one.
Use real language
As a beginner, there’s a value to using textbooks or listening to slowed-down audio.
Textbooks guide you through the first steps of learning a new language and teach you the basic structures you’ll need in all of your conversations.
But once you reach an intermediate level, these kinds of resources become less and less useful.
Because in real life, nobody speaks like the characters in your textbook dialogues. They speak much faster and use local colloquial slang.
That’s why it’s so important to start using real life materials once you reach the intermediate level.
How I learned this the hard way
Let me tell you about an experience I had which taught me about the importance of practising with real language.
Before I came to Argentina, I thought my Spanish was pretty good. I’d been learning for a few months and was very comfortable reading Spanish and expressing most of the main things I wanted to say.
I’d spent a lot of time listening to the dialogues in the resources I’d been using and although I was far from fluent, I figured I had more than enough Spanish to get by.
Well, I was in for a bit of a surprise!
I arrived in Buenos Aires and the speed and structure of real, spoken Spanish hit me like a freight train.
Even buying a bus ticket or going to the bakery was so much harder than I’d ever expected.
But over the course of the following weeks and months, I adjusted to the speed of real spoken language by focusing on the conversations and interactions that were most important to me and rehearsing them time and again in my head.
Every time I left the house, I’d replay the interactions I was likely to have in mind and figure out what I needed to say and what kinds of things people were most likely to ask me.
Little by little, I built up my confidence and my knowledge by using this process. When somebody asked me something unexpected, I made a mental note of it and reviewed in my mind as I walked home.
Use immersion to break the intermediate plateau
As a beginner, you’re learning the structures of the language and its pronunciation. For the first time, you’re seeing how it all fits together and how it’s used.
Once you reach an intermediate level, exposure to the language becomes even more important and that’s what helps you make the leap from basic understanding to becoming an accomplished speaker.
If the beginner levels are your introduction to the language, the intermediate level is the repetition you need to cement it firmly in your brain. You need to hear words and phrases over and over and over again. You need to try saying them, make mistakes and correct yourself.
Students often ask me: “How can I improve my speaking or writing at the intermediate level?” In many cases, they’re hoping for a simple method that they can apply for guaranteed fast results.
Well, the truth is that the only guaranteed method is a lot of regular exposure to the language.
Obviously, a great way to do this is to travel to a country where your language is spoken and spend a few months there. But that’s not always an option. And while it certainly has its benefits, there are some downsides too.
Nowadays, you can easily create a full immersion environment at home using the internet. You can access radio, video, text and even social media in practically any language you might want to learn.
And this is exactly the kind of real-life material that you need as an intermediate learner.
Use materials that challenge you
The best way to push yourself forward is to work with material that is ever so slightly too difficult for you.
The reason for this it that it forces you out of your comfort zone. You have no choice but find a way to keep up and most of the time, that’s exactly what will happen. If you work with materials that are too easy, you settle into your comfort zone and never push yourself to get better.
Obviously, there’s no point in working with materials that are way too complicated for you. But by pushing yourself to work with something that’s just a bit harder than your current level, you push yourself to reach that standard.
That’s why immersion is so valuable at the intermediate level. If you can surround yourself in real language you’ll slowly adapt to that level.
The simple solution? Just keep going!
The perceived slow progress you encounter as an intermediate learner can be frustrating but it doesn’t mean you’re not getting better.
The key to overcoming the intermediate plateau (if it exists at all) is to maintain your motivation and continue to practice consistently.
At this level, you need lots and lots of exposure to the language and you need to do this as often as possible.
Whether you travel to a country where the language is spoken or immerse yourself from home, surrounding yourself in the target language and making it a part of your everyday life is even more essential at the intermediate level than it is for a beginner.
In many ways, overcoming the intermediate plateau – just like any roadblock – simply requires perseverance.
Are you ready to set some new goals on push on past the intermediate plateau? Don’t forget to grab your free goal setting worksheet to get started!