You’ve reached a cool point in your language journey: you’ve achieved a level where it’s possible to talk about almost any topic, despite making a fair amount of mistakes. Most original content has become available, such as movies, shows, videos, and even books. Yes, not all things are understandable, but it’s no longer a problem to get the gist of things, which is great. If we drop the complicated letter-number system, this level is called “Intermediate”.
However, here comes the problem: it’s often referred to as the intermediate “plateau.”
For many, it feels like no matter how much time they spend learning, they make no progress. The number of mistakes they’re making is exactly the same as it was months ago, and no new words are being remembered. Interest is lost quicker than a reasonable way of overcoming this struggle can be found.
Today we’ll take a look at where this issue comes from and how to tackle it so that learning becomes enjoyable again. Let’s get started!
Why the intermediate plateau exists
Beginners don’t realize how little they know
The first reason why this occurs is psychological. The initial progress of early stages is a lot easier to feel and understand than progress at more advanced levels. In other words, the pace you take in learning may not change, but the way you perceive it does. The first thousand words learned takes a learner from being clueless to recognizing nearly 80% of words encountered in non-technical texts. However, going from 5k to 6k vocabulary units is a lot less exciting: for the same amount of effort, you gain less than 1% of additional text coverage
Beginners normally know very little to no about the language. When familiarizing themselves with grammar and vocabulary, they feel like they’re just a touch before proficiency. Learning when all the basics are already mastered feels like a waste of time, since all the progress is now in quality, and not in quantity. You rarely learn how to express new ideas anymore, but are rather learning ever more nuanced or efficient ways to express old ones.
Intermediate learners must retain old information
Efforts taken at an intermediate level are also aimed at not losing previously-acquired knowledge, which is easier said than done. After all, it is impossible to forget when you know nothing, but very simple once you know some things. There is a reason why I characterized the intermediate level as an ability to hold a simple conversation, albeit with a significant amount of mistakes: the next level implies that few (if any) mistakes are made at all.
The gaps between levels grow exponentially
Another reason for the intermediate plateau’s existence is that the amount of knowledge required for the next level changes from level to level: A1 learners can't really use the language at all, while A2 students are able to hold a simple conversation. B1 learners know more grammar and a lot more vocabulary than their lower-leveled counterparts. Reaching the B2 level means that you’re never lost for words, save for technical ones that aren’t relevant to how you personally use the language. It is no longer enough to merely be able to discuss simple work or leisure-related topics. One is expected to be able to communicate spontaneously on a large amount of topics, including professional ones. Handling emergency situations in a foreign language is also easier at this level.
There’s a difference between theory and practice
Finally, it is possible to reach the intermediate level without ever leaving the classroom. Levels above that, however, must be mastered “in field:” by using the language in real-life scenarios, preferably with native speakers. In other words, one had better adjust their lifestyle to include this new language.
The classroom is a very limited and controlled environment. Once you leave it, you’ll begin encountering all sorts of new situations that you haven’t explicitly prepared for. It takes time to become comfortable adapting to these situations, especially when you’re at an intermediate level — you’re likely lacking some of the “tools” necessary for the job at hand, meaning you must improvise.
Overcoming the intermediate plateau
The simple answer is to keep going, as all troubles will eventually be overcome. In fact, this is basically the only solution. All of my other recommendations are aimed at dealing with certain problems inherent to the intermediate plateau, but they boil down to the idea of “shut up and work.”
Try to come to terms with the idea that making progress will now take a little more time, and that there is nothing wrong with that. Losing interest and giving up is the easiest thing to do, and this is not what you want — as such, at this level, it’s especially important to find enjoyable ways to spend time with your target language. Thankfully, unlike a beginner, you're now well equipped to begin exploring your interests and generally entertaining yourself in this new language.
Polish your knowledge
Take a few hours each week to better familiarize yourself with grammar rules, especially those little details that you may previously have thought of as being unimportant. You never know what little details you may have missed, and those little details will be easier to pick up now that you already have a grasp on the particular grammar point at hand.
Taking the time to really master these basics will make you significantly more comfortable using your target language, and this increasing familiarity will become a new source for your long-lost feeling of progress. (As an added benefit, the more automatic the basics become, the more mental bandwidth you’ll be able to devote to the things you’re really struggling with.)
Use the language more
As stated above, during the early stages of language learning, progress can only really be made in a class, under the guidance and supervision of a teacher. However, now that you’re at an intermediate level, you can (and should) be using your language outside of class, too. As young native speakers talk to their parents, watch cartoons, and play with their peers, you can start watching movies, reading books and articles, and talking to people. This will greatly improve your fluency and your overall “feeling” for how the language should be used. More than that, you’ll start learning more words and grammatical structures which might have been overlooked in the classroom.
In other words, when you seek opportunities to make constructive use of your language in real life, you’ll begin acquiring the specific skills that you need to accomplish what you want in the language. Psychologically, you’ll feel better about being able to confidently use the language “in the wild.” This, in turn, will reduce that feeling of not making progress until it disappears completely.
Pay extra attention
One of the main elements of the plateau is the “fossilization” of mistakes, when a learner seemingly fails to grasp a particular topic and makes the same mistake(s) over and over again. Fossilization is very difficult to avoid, but it it is not impossible to deal with. The best way to do so is to analyze the sentences in which a particular mistake is being made. Most of the time there is a direct pattern to be found, and working on it will eliminate the mistake. Reviewing the rule(s) and doing exercises is also crucial.
While much of the intermediate stage involves individual work — taking the initiative to read books, have conversations, and so forth — this particular issue is better resolved with the help of a tutor, as they can help you find and work through weak spots.
Learning a language is difficult. No matter how straightforward it can be made to sound, the overall process is and always will be complicated. The intermediate plateau is an integral part of that process. Some people go through it quicker, while others struggle with it for more time — which is also totally fine. No matter how much time you may take, the advice in this article may come in handy. Ideally, you should find a way to enjoy the journey.
There is nothing wrong with feeling that you’ve stopped growing: it’s natural, and part of the process. Getting through it is as crucial as learning the basics. Overcoming it is tough, yes, but not impossible. Much like in sports, exercising and practicing is important. The more you iron out your routine, the sooner you leave this unpleasant stage behind.
As of now, that’s it for today, folks. Have a nice day, and see you later!
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