What is the language learning plateau? And how do we overcome it?
The beginning of your language learning journey is fun and exciting. Every study session, you encounter a new grammar concept or a new group of vocabulary to learn. It’s marked by fast progress as you move through all these lessons, because there is a clear structure to learning the beginning material of a language.
However, just as quickly, the high of this stage dies off, and it feels like you’re making double the effort for none of the progress!
The language learning plateau occurs after you’ve learned all the low hanging fruit of a language. This typically consists of the basic grammar and vocabulary of any given language.
When you are no longer a complete beginner, you start to realize just how much there is to learn to reach your goals! Moreover, there is a lack of structure because there’s so many topics you can try to learn, and it seems like there’s no straightforward path to learning all of them.
It can be especially difficult to set new goals when there’s so many different things to learn!
Fortunately, everyone experiences the frustration of the language learning plateau in their journey. You are not alone. When people reach a more intermediate level of proficency, it is extremely common to be frustrated with the process of learning.
There are many ways to overcome the language learning plateau.
Set clear goals. It can be difficult to know what to learn next as there’s an overwhelming amount of things to learn. It’s important to stay motivated by setting clear goals in a language.
After getting past the beginner stage, you will be more familiar with the grammar, vocabulary, and structure of a language. Therefore, you will also have a better idea of what you know and don’t know. It’s a good idea to set clear goals to review what you do know and learn what you don’t know.
Don’t lose motivation. Everyone encounters the language learning plateau at some point along their journey. You are not alone. It’s important to stay motivated and focused in this period even if it feels bad, because there is so much that awaits you after you push through this intermediate phase.
Like any meaningful endeavor, there are things that you will enjoy and not enjoy. It’s worth looking at the big picture, and recognizing that this language learning plateau is a just small blip in the big picture of your language learning journey.
Learn more vocabulary. A common hurdle in the intermediate phase is the lack of vocabulary. After learning the basics of a language, you’ll understand how sentences are formed, and even in a sentence with a lot of unknown words, you’ll understand which word is the subject, which words are the adjectives, nouns, etc. However, you might not know what these words actually mean!
Being fluent in a language requires knowing a lot of words. Fortunately, the most frequent words in a language occur much more frequently than the less frequent words. Depending on the language, the 1,000 most frequently used words comprise ~85% of all text and speech, and the top 5,000 most frequently used words comprise ~95% of all text and speech.
Not every language has the same distribution of frequent words, but generally the numbers will be pretty similar. If you can identify vocabulary as your biggest hurdle, then this is a neat statistic. All you need to do is study the most frequently used words to increase your comprehension significantly.
Fill in the gaps in your grammar knowledge. At the beginner level, it can be fine to skip some grammar concepts, because diving too deep into grammar might just result in more confusion.
It is completely ok to skip these grammar explanations when there are more exciting things to learn. However, if you repeatly encounter a grammar structure, and have no idea how it works, it might be a good idea to pop open a textbook or search online for a detailed explanation.
Try a different method. If the method that you’ve been using to study has slowed down or stopped working for you, it might to time to switch to a different method.
For example, many phone apps for language learning are geared towards beginners, and they tend to teach new concepts at a very slow pace. After some initial exposure to the language and after gaining confidence in your abilities to understand the basics of a language, it can be useful to switch to a textbook to solidify your knowledge.
Do what you enjoy. At the end of the day, the most effective method is the method that you enjoy and come back to. One of your friends might swear by reading children’s books, and another one of your friends might swear by grinding flashcards. Maybe, what works for you is watching videos and listening to music. It’s important to do what you enjoy to keep learning fun and interesting.
Remember how far you’ve come. Language learning is a long journey full of many hills and valleys. Even though many people on the internet claim to reach fluency in a few weeks or months, this rarely is the case. Only exceptionally talented linguists or polyglots can achieve this. For most people, it will take years of consistent study and practice to be able to confidently converse and interact with content in that language.
Many people underestimate how long it really takes to achieve fluency. It is important to take stock of how far you’ve come in the process. For example, if you’re learning Russian, simply learning the Cyrillic alphabet is a big leap!
Sometimes, when we only look at all the obstacles in the road ahead, we forget about all the amazing progress that we’ve already made.
The language learning plateau occurs after the beginning stage of learning a language after realizing that the progress you’re making is slowly down. As you advance into the intermediate stage, you start to realize just how much there is to learn, and it can be overwhelming. Moreover, it can be difficult to figure out what to learn next, and you might think that you’re the only one facing this problem.
Fortunately, everyone goes through this stage at some point in their language learning journey. There are many ways of overcoming this, like trying new methods, learning more vocabulary, honing in on grammar concepts, or simply doing what you enjoy the most. It’s important to recognize that you are not alone, and that with any meaningful endeavor like language learning, there is a long yet rewarding road ahead.