What is the Intermediate Plateau Effect?
It’s the phenomenon by which a language learner starts out by making steady progress in the language but seems to stall out around the intermediate proficiency level. There are several ways it can manifest. Maybe your vocabulary knowledge isn’t growing at the rate it used to or your grammar starts to feel stunted. Perhaps you’re tired of having conversations about the weather but don’t know how to make the leap to talking about complex feelings. All of these are instantiations of the Intermediate Plateau. But they don’t all have the same underlying causes. In order to figure out how to overcome your particular case of the Intermediate Plateau Effect, I’m going to walk you through 6 of the most common reasons that language learners experience an Intermediate Plateau, followed by tips for how to address each one. They are:
1. You’re using your go-to grammar as a crutch.
2. You’re using too much shallow processing.
3. Your input doesn’t contain enough variation.
4. Your input doesn’t contain enough variation.
5. You’re not getting enough corrective feedback.
6. You’ve lost some motivation.
It’s likely that at least one of those is contributing to your current fluency frustrations. So, let’s dig into the solutions!
#1 Grammar crutches
The problem: You’re using your go-to grammar as a crutch when speaking.
The solution:Write your way to more complex grammar through daily journaling.
Oftentimes, by the time we’ve reached intermediate proficiency, we build a kind of muscle memory for our favorite grammar structures – the ones that make us sound good in the target language. They make us feel good, so we keep using them. That, on its own, isn’t a bad thing. But if you rely too heavily on your go-to grammatical constructions, you aren’t leaving room to identify your learning gaps or learn more complex sentence structures. Writing can be a great way to address this. Why? Because in spoken interactions, we often feel a pressure to get our message across quickly to the other person, so it’s really easy to get stuck in a rut of opting for simple sentence structures. Writing allows you to bypass that social pressure. Try this – take just 5 minutes every day to free-write. This can be gratitude journaling, a personal diary, your to-do list…etc.. As you write – you’ll find yourself thinking “Hmm – I don’t know how to say this.” Rather than motoring ahead with the simplest approximation, take the time to look up how to say it and write it out as a full sentence. These little opportunities for learning are where the magic happens and progress is made. After each session, go back and reread a journal entry from the week before to reinforce the new grammar structures you’ve been using.
#2 Shallow processing
The problem: You’re using too much shallow processing when listening.
The solution: Start paying attention to details by keeping a language notebook.
Shallow processing means you’re listening just to catch familiar words, not to absorb new grammar patterns. Typically, this means you’re talking with someone in the target language and you’re listening with the intention of just “catching the gist” of what they’re saying so that you can find a logical way to respond when it’s your turn to speak. This can be an effective listening strategy for beginners. But if you want to break through the Intermediate Plateau, you’ll need to start paying attention to the details. You’ll need to become a more active listener. Did they use a different word order than you’re used to? How exactly did their tongue move when they pronounced that word? In other words, don’t just listen for what they say – but how they say it. This might mean that sometimes you miss the gist of conversation – but that’s okay. It happens! One way to become a more active listener is to keep a language journal (physical or digital) to store all your observations, questions & curiosities about the language.
#3 Overly simple input
The problem: Your input doesn’t contain enough variation.
The solution: Seek out authentic input from a variety of different sources.
Consistency sounds comforting, but it can become a hindrance to your growth as a language learner. For example, if you’re learning exclusively from one textbook or one teacher, you’re only getting one person’s version, accent, dialect, and speech style. While that consistency can be comforting as a beginner, it’s not how language works at scale in the real world. The answer is to get authentic input from a variety of different speakers, authors, and content creators. And the input should ideally be comprehensible — yet challenging for you. Inevitably this variation of input source will expose you to more new grammar and vocabulary that’ll help get you to the next level. Plus, research from cognitive psychology has shown that variation in input actually enhances (not inhibits) learning. One quick-and-easy way to get that variation in authentic input is through media you already know you enjoy consuming: action movies, self-help podcasts, YouTube comedy sketches…etc. The point is to strategically consume content from different people. Psst – did you know that the Mango app offers two different voices for each language to help with this?
#4 Error fossilization
The problem: You’re not getting enough corrective feedback.
The solution: Let others know you want to be corrected.
You’re practicing a lot – but it’s into a void, a language learning abyss. So your errors are getting fossilized. What you need is corrective feedback. One of the simplest ways to do this is to tell the people you speak with that you want to be corrected. Lots of people are, by nature, correction-adverse, which means they might need your explicit invitation to feel comfortable correcting your speech. If you want more ideas for how to seek corrective feedback, check out this video! If you want to see corrective feedback in action, check out the Mango app! The Mango app has been designed so that you get the corrective feedback you need to break through the Intermediate Plateau. The app uses an error-based learning methodology by which learners are intentionally led to make and discover errors that are common in the target language. The app follows errors up with a reassuring grammar note and a simple explanation for how to fix them.
#5 Receptive focus
The problem: You’re focusing too much on receptive skills (reading & listening).
The solution: Make time to practice your production skills (speaking & writing).
A lot of intermediate learners feel proficient when they’re reading or listening, but say they feel instantly inadequate when it comes to writing and especially speaking. This issue can be exacerbated by the way you study. For example, if you spend all (or even most) of your language learning time on reading and listening activities, then of course you’re going to fall short when you try to speak on your own. You need to practice producing. The best way to overcome this is to find someone else to practice speaking with. If that’s not possible for you, simply talk out loud to yourself! For more tips on how to integrate speaking activities into your learning practice, check out this video about something called the Fluency Illusion video.
#6 Mehh motivation
The problem: You’ve lost sight of your motivation for learning your language.
The solution: Reconnect with it by reflecting on your goals
Here’s the deal – if you aren’t clear on your why, you probably won’t even get to the how. Now, there are many possible motivations for learning a language. It might be for school, for career advancement, to connect with a particular person in your life…etc. Whatever it is for you, you need to be able to define your why, because as it turns out, clarity in motivation is tied to positive learning outcomes in the target language. And you may be surprised to find that your motivations for learning the language have changed! If you’d like a worksheet to guide you in pinpointing your primary motivators, then check out our (FREE) Setting Good Goals worksheet! You can access it by clicking here.
Oh - one more thing! (don’t skip)
Keep in mind that it’s quite possible you’ve made more progress than you realize — or give yourself credit for. When it comes to language learning, it’s not uncommon to experience a disparity between perceived competence and actual competence. Think back to what you couldn’t do when you first started out. Enjoying the progress you’ve made so far will help fuel you forward. Keep in mind – even if you identified with several of the points we covered in this article, you don’t need to address them all at once. In fact, we’d recommend tackling just one point at a time. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither was anyone’s L2 proficiency ever. You’ll get there.
Want to explore more of the research behind the Intermediate Plateau?
Check out this great read:
Richards, J. C. (2008). Moving beyond the plateau. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Wondering what languages were used in this article?
- English | Primary language of the article
- Spanish | Buenos días and nos vemos are expressions for ‘hello/good day’ and ‘goodbye/we’ll see each other’
- Chaldean Aramaic | ܫܠܵܡܵܐ ܥܸܠܘܼܟܼ (shlama ilookh) and ܦܘܿܫ ܒܸܫܠܵܡܵܐ (posh bishlama) are ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye/stay in peace’
- Mandarin Chinese | 废话不多说 (fèihuà bù duō shuō) means ‘without further ado’ (literally translates as ‘don’t talk nonsense’)
- Interested in learning these or one of the other 70+ languages that the Mango app offers? Click here to learn more!
Thanks for reading!
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