How to Break Through a Language Learning Plateau
My name is Shannon Kennedy and I'm the language lover,…
Well, I’ve done it.
The worst point of my Spanish learning project is here. I knew this was inevitable, but I still dreaded the moment it would arrive. Getting started and reinforcing a daily study habit was nothing compared to the stage I’m at now. And it’s probably the most frustrating part of learning any skill.
I’ve hit a plateau.
What are Language Learning Plateaus?
A plateau is where your rate of improvement or growth stagnates. And we all hit various plateaus when learning any skill – a new language, writing, composing, an instrument, a sport, etc. – and they can be initiated by any number of causes.
In his article on the 10,000 hour rule, Scott Young, author of “Learn More, Study Less” argues that plateaus occur due to either comfort, practice not being separated from performance, or lack of feedback. Personally, I think mine may be a combination of the first and third, so it’s a matter of stepping out of my comfort zone, really pushing myself (and then, of course, asking for feedback). I haven’t really forced myself to regularly practice speaking and listening to native speakers and it’s starting to affect my progress.
When you are first learning a language, it’s difficult. Everything is new, so no matter what you do, you’re making huge strides. For a little investment, you get a big return.
The problem is, that once you hit pass the beginner stage and arrive at the intermediate stage, you start to be able to do most of the things you need to do (speak, understand, read, write) in the language at a decent level and your motivation to keep pushing declines. You also need to invest way more time and energy to see even a fraction of the growth you were seeing before.
So you settle into a language comfort zone, and overall, you’re not feeling as driven to improve.
At a few months into my Spanish learning project, despite diligently following my study plan, I’ve arrived at a wall and I’m gathering the tools to climb it. Because I’m not going to let it keep me out forever.
Overcoming Your Language Learning Plateau
Here are a few things that I’ll be doing to get through my language learning plateau:
1. Change things up – I’ve developed a system of studying that I’m quite comfortable with (Scott’s first reason for plateauing). It initially worked quite well for me, but I think it’s time for me to push out of my comfort zone.
I’m going to mix up the types of things that I’ve been studying. For example, instead of doing grammar exercises and Duolingo, I’ll increase the points I want to earn for learning new vocabulary on Memrise and start arranging language exchanges on Skype. Some things that I’ve been doing wrong may stand out to me through a different medium (or with native speaker feedback).
Other things you could change: if you’re reading in your target language, work on your listening comprehension instead; if you normally study with an app, study with a book instead; read out loud; writer a journal entry in your target language; etc.
2. Take a break – This one isn’t for me at this point, but I’m sure I’ll take a short break once I get to a B2 level in the language. Sometimes you just need to recharge your batteries. And a break can even motivate you to want to get back to it even more. As they say, “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” If you take a long enough break, you may find yourself itching to study.
But also, I really just want to get back to Russian.
3. Push through it – don’t give up! This isn’t my first plateau (and probably isn’t yours either). But one thing is certain, it won’t be my last. Plateaus are a normal part of improvement, so persevere!
4. Study with people that are better than you – you’ll definitely notice a few things you need to work on and the environment will also push you to extend yourself a bit more than you’d normally be comfortable doing. This is why study buddies are the best and language exchange partners are pretty awesome too!
5. Take a lesson – feedback is critical. Someone else might notice things that you’re doing wrong, or maybe they have suggestions as to things you can do to improve. I haven’t yet taken any Spanish lessons on iTalki, but I did have a tutor I liked on Rype, so I might get back in touch with her.
6. If there is one thing in particular that has you stumped, work on something else completely different before trying again. This is somewhat similar to #1, but sometimes you don’t hit a plateau in all areas of your learning. If you’re having trouble with a certain grammar point, pronunciation, or listening comprehension, do something else for a day or even a week before going back to the thing that troubles you.
7. Focus on the minute aspects of your language abilities – okay, so you can hack your way through a 15 to 20-minute conversation in the language. You’re understood and you understand just enough to get by, but is there anything that you can do better than just ‘getting by’? Is there something that constantly comes up in your studies that you finally need to sit down and work out?
8. Learn something new – if there is something you haven’t worked on yet, now is the time to do it. Know your way through introductions perfectly but you get stuck when people ask you for your opinion on something? Maybe you can work on a few popular conversation topics by using scripts, focusing on that vocabulary, or watching videos in your target language on the topic. Take the time you need to add them to your skillset.
9. Keep a learning journal – it helps you remain accountable (if you don’t want to do it publicly). If you notice something is causing problems for you, take note of it and focus on working it out. Keeping a study journal is a great way to track your progress and keep your current goals visible in the future. I use mine to keep track of what I’ve been working on and I write down things I’d like to accomplish in future learning sessions. If I ever feel stuck, I can glance back and see if there’s anything I haven’t done yet or questions I haven’t asked my tutors.
10. Go watch videos of other language learners – sometimes watching what they do will trigger something that helps you overcome the plateau you’re facing. But don’t watch language advice videos. Actually watch videos of other learners converse in their target languages.
11. Read a book about your target language, about language learning, or about general learning theory – do something other than studying the language itself that keeps you motivated yet involved with the language.
12. Break your goals into smaller steps – most skills have smaller steps that can be taken to achieve them. Narrow things down into smaller steps that you have a better sense of accomplishment at the end of your study session. For example: Your goal is to master the dative case. You can break that down into understanding the different word ends, the exceptions to the rule, the situations in which that case is used, if it changes adjectives as well as nouns, etc.
13. Set a specific time to study every day – study can be a habit just like brushing your teeth. You brush your teeth (hopefully) every morning when you wake up and every night before you go to bed. If you miss doing that, it can throw you off. If you set aside a specific time to learn, you feel like you’re missing something when you skip it. Shoot for a specific amount of time too (15 minutes, 45 minutes, 1 hour).
14. Record yourself – and listen back to it. It’s painful, but it keeps you honest. If you already do this, switch it up and record video if you normally record just audio or record only audio if you usually record video. It’s pretty intense what adding or removing visual cues can do to the way you listen back.
15. Make sure that you’re practicing and not just playing in the language – practicing is taking something that you’re bad at and working on it. Playing is doing something you already know how to do. Know the difference and make sure that when you’re “practicing,” you’re actually practicing.
Remember to be patient with the whole process. It’s natural to experience plateaus, so don’t be angry at yourself (or anyone else) over it. Just because your progress has slowed, doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong.
Anything worth doing takes time.
What about you?
What do you do to push through a plateau?
I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!
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My name is Shannon Kennedy and I'm the language lover, traveler, and foodie behind Eurolinguiste. I'm also the Resident Polyglot at Drops and the Head Coach of the Fluent in 3 Months Challenge.