Tips and Advice

Why We Reach a Plateau in
Learning a Language


Do you see that huge piece of flat land coming up from the ground in the distance of this picture? That is called a "plateau". Why is this in a language learning blog and not a geography blog? Just like when you're driving across the desert, a plateau may be right there up ahead and eventually you will meet up with it. In the physical world, there's usually a road built around the obstacle so you can continue on your way. Not so with learning a language.

When you start learning a new language, you're going to start off strong. Your initial progress will come along rapidly for the first couple of months, which will fire you up for more. As you continue with your learning, however, you may see that it isn't going as smoothly as it was in the beginning. You may experience spurts of progress and slow-downs. That's fine, no big deal. When you go from the beginner stage to the intermediate stage, everything you've learned before will have to be brought together into a more comprehensive way of communicating. No more parroting back pre-built sentences and phrases. Now you will have to start creating your own sentences and phrases - kind of like taking the training wheels off a bike.

Here's where you need to be alert.

It is during the intermediate stages that you may find things gradually leveling out and slowing down quite a bit. Sometimes it may feel like your progress has almost come to a complete stop. Maybe you're not feeling as much interest in the learning, or you're getting frustrated with a particular aspect of the language, such as speaking, reading, vocabulary, or grammar. When your motivation to complete the texts and exercises goes down, there is your plateau. The key thing is, don't panic or get discouraged just yet. A plateau is temporary and you can get past it. I can't say how long it will take, because it varies for different individuals, but you will know when you have gotten past that slump when you start moving towards further progress and learning gets easier again.

Is there any way to get past it?

In a nutshell, the intermediate stages of language learning is where you strengthen your knowledge and gain confidence in your skills. This phase helps you become more autonomous as language users. Once you can make yourself understood, you grasp the basics, and you feel comfortable. So, how do you keep advancing in a language?

To get back that wonderful rush of daily improvement, stop studying. That's right, don't look at your lessons for a few days or however long you may need. Give your brain time to relax. But that doesn't mean you should give up the language altogether. No, just start using the knowledge you already have. Here are some tips to help you get past that plateau and get your learning back up to speed:

1. Go back to the basics - While learning, you've been taking notes and downloading audio files to your MP3 player and other files that are sitting on your computer's hard-drive. The knowledge is there, but you can't expect to continue to improve if you don't look back. Do a quick review of your past lessons and notes along with a few hours of practice to get your focus back on track.

2. Dig out the flash cards - I know, maybe you think flash cards are not for you. Some people think they're embarrassing or a waste of time. But taking just five minutes a day to practice vocabulary keeps everything fresh in your mind, and flash cards can be taken anywhere so you can review at anytime. A great computer software program for flash card type learning is Transparent Language's Byki (Before You Know It). It keeps track of how easy or difficult each card was for you and spaces them out accordingly, giving you the most language learning with a minimal time commitment. It's also available for your iPhone, iPad, or Android device.

3. Read, read, read - Reading in your foreign language is perfect for building new vocabulary, reinforcing grammar and immersing yourself in the culture. Diving into daily newspapers or glossy magazines is good for keeping up with current events and pop culture. You can also go online and choose from thousands of websites in your new language.

4. Flirt with another language - Learning an additional language may help you see the patterns and logic of the first language you're learning more clearly. It can sharpen youracquisition skills and makes things interesting enough to keep you engaged in the process. If you experiment with learning another language that is related to the first (e.g. Spanish and Portuguese), you will be able to compare and contrast the two similar languages and reinforce your knowledge of both.

5. Keep those free teachers honest - Now that you can communicate just fine, go find a native speaker of the language. It doesn't cost anything to just talk. If the native speaker switches to English, remind them nicely that you don't just want to be understood, you want to be fluent. Hopefully they won't mind you speaking their language, even though they might want to practice their English with you.

Language learning can be a long process, yet it is possible to get past the bumps. Just remember to take a break if you have to. There are no set rules, no deadlines to meet. And once you come to that plateau, step back and see where you've been, then find a way around it to keep going forward.