My approach to overcoming the Intermediate Plateau

A well-known concept in language learning in the intermediate plateau. When you start learning a language, you make fast progress in the beginning. How fast exactly will depend on the distance between your target language and your own language. But as time goes own, you find that it takes longer and longer to become better. Language learning looks very much like an exponential function: the incline (meaning the difficulty) becomes steeper over time.

Because further gains are harder to come by, progress seems to be stalling and we feel like we’ve hit a ceiling. This is what is commonly described as the intermediate plateau. You reach fluency (B2) and are ably to communicate with relative ease but are lacking the variety of a proficient speaker (C1). To describe what this means in practical terms, I borrowed the excellent descriptions from Luca Lampariello’s post about the intermediate plateau:

Reading:

Fluent: A fluent reader will likely understand any basic short text without a lot of specialized vocabulary, but would be lost when attempting to read a book or newspaper, especially ones that discuss a single topic in-depth.

Proficient: A proficient reader has all the literacy of an educated native speaker. He or she can understand complex texts meant for a general audience—like books and newspapers—but also is capable of digesting specialized texts in a few key areas of interest.

My opinion: I’m probably the closest to proficiency in this area because I’m much closer to the latter description. I’d add that a proficient reader can understand even more complex topic-specific texts (i.e. contracts) and is able to pick nuances in tone like irony. Literature is a different beast in my opinion because, depending on the book, this can be very challenging even for proficient speakers.

Listening:

Fluent: A fluent listener understands most of what he hears, but often has to piece together the meaning of more complex utterances by relying on individual keywords.

Proficient: A proficient listener has a near-automatic understanding of anything he hears. There is no mental backtracking or inference needed to parse difficult utterances. Proficient listeners can understand many of the most difficult media for listening, including music, movies, comedy, and news broadcasts.

My opinion: spot-on description. I’m noticing the difference between these two at the moment pretty hard. I can follow the plot of a TV series without subtitles but many things, including important information, pass me by because words get abbreviated, there’s too much going on or I simply don’t know the vocabulary.

Speaking:

Fluent: Fluent speakers are able to get their points across with a general smoothness, and can navigate expression of unknown or unfamiliar words or topics through circumlocution.

Proficient: Proficient speakers are able to speak across a variety of registers. In a lower register, the proficient speaker is comfortable using the slang or jargon of the times. In a higher register, the proficient speaker can communicate with an elegance and style typically reserved for well-educated native speakers. Proficient speakers are also able to “play” with meaning, imbuing their speech with tone and intent solely based upon word choice, body language, and intonation.

My opinion: this is also a very accurate description. I find myself often “reaching” for words, having to pause or talk more slowly than I usually would, and taking detours via different words where I’d like to communicate a more nuanced point. I can also tell and hear the difference between different registers but I’m probably limited to speak in a neutral to higher register (since that’s what you learn from books).

Writing:

Fluent: Fluent writers stick to short, direct sentences and messages. At the fluent level, writing is almost entirely devoid of subtext or overtones—what is written is usually what is meant, and nothing more.

Proficient: Proficient writers are inherently flexible, with many ways of writing the same thing. They can write plain, direct sentences, but they can also infuse a text with hidden meaning, wordplay, innuendo, and humor, among other devices. Like proficient speakers, proficient writers have full control of the various written registers of the language, and can alter a text to suit its intended audience.

My opinion: though writing isn’t that important anymore these days, I find that it’s pretty much a function of your writing skill as such and the range of your vocabulary. If you know how to write in your own language, you’ll know in the foreign language as well. If your vocabulary is big enough, you’ll be able to write in any tone and convey any type of meaning.


What to do then to overcome the intermediate plateau?

I’m personally pursuing the following strategies at the moment:

1. Expose yourself to more challenging content

Luca explains in his post that you probably need to change things up as you make progress. What has worked for lower levels might not work anymore.

I’ve found this to be true. For example flashcards don’t work for me anymore. I stopped using them entirely after passing B2 because they became a nuisance and didn’t feel effective anymore. But I think it mostly comes down to one point:

Are you still challenging yourself enough?

Thing is that by reaching B2, you’ve reached fluency. You’re at a level where you can interact and function in that language perfectly fine. It’s completely natural to slack off at this point because your monkey brain considers the work done.

So while you might want to progress, your brain shuts down. It tells you to get lost with reading those loan contracts that you’ll never need in your life. And your brain is right about that, but putting in that work is the barrier of entry to proficiency.

Therefore, you must expose yourself to more challenging content. This is even more true for listening because this is the skill that’s more relevant for daily communication. Reading at C1 level revolves mostly around newspapers and current affairs. The language you pick up from there will allow you to speak more cohesively and in a higher register. But unless you want the full cultural experience, it’s not necessary to read fiction or topic-specific content like contracts, cookbooks and the likes.

Listening at C1 level though involves being able to understand (pretty much) everything. That’s why immersion , i.e. being in the country, is so effective: it forces you to hear the language all day long and different types of it as well. You hear announcements, promotions, conversations, interviews, requests, and much, much more.

I found the best way to replicate this is through TV series. That’s the closest you come to witnessing real humans interacting with each other under real circumstances. You hear people from different backgrounds speaking with different accents under different circumstances at different rates of speaking. Movies are almost as good, however, the action in them is compressed since the plot plays out over a much shorter timeframe. Whereas in a series the plot has more time to develop and sometimes there’s also filler material that doesn’t advance it at all. That’s good for the language learner though because he gets exposed to language he wouldn’t normally hear.

But I would not start watching series too early.

I know there’s a popular approach of switching to all input asap. I don’t subscribe to that though, for two reasons:

First, the content you consume needs to be comprehensible. When you’re still at B1 level, following a series with a regular plot will be hard to do. You could do something easier like cartoons for children. If you pick something that’s too difficult, you’ll find that you simply lack too much vocabulary to follow the plot. Some can be deduced over time, but at some point you’ll have to look up words because you’ll start feeling like you’re missing something.

Second, when your range of vocabulary is too limited, it’ll become a start-stop process. I started watching TV series now (with subtitles) and I don’t pause the video more than a few times every episode. Only when something strikes me as important or interesting or comes up repeatedly, I pause the video and look up the expression. If you have to do that too often, it takes the fun out of watching.

One last comment about subtitles. In my opinion, there’s no right and wrong approach when it comes to watching with or without. If you feel like you need them, turn them on and read along. When you start noticing you understand most of what’s being said and it starts feeling too easy, you should turn them off. Find the right balance between challenging yourself and keeping it fun.

2. Produce more challenging content

Input is the mother of all production. If you don’t hear the language of the gutter, you won’t be able to talk like you’re from the hood. However, you also have to try and raise the bar in terms of production.

Again, immersion makes this process easy. There are many more things you are forced to do in a foreign language when you’re in the country. That can’t be simulated in lessons. But you can try doing different types of speaking exercises that take it further than just a regular conversation:

  • Expressing emotions
  • Storytelling
  • Describing an experience
  • Presenting
  • Debating
  • Negotiating
  • Persuading

Probably many more that I can’t think of now. Especially the first three are very common in our daily interactions and can be practiced reasonably well with a teacher. As a rule of thumb: any time emotions have to be communicated, either your own or someone else’s, that’s excellent practice. Often enough, it’s “hard to put it into words” in your own language. So when you do it in a foreign language, you’re challenging yourself.

3. Simulate immersion conditions

This is pretty much impossible to do but you can still try. You can’t simulate buying a coffee, hearing announcements and conversations on public transportation and the likes. But you can watch TV series, geospoof your Tinder, read something in the language and maximize your dead time spending time with the language. Forget nonsense like turning your phone settings to Spanish. No one gives a fuck about that because that’s not meaningful contact with the language. Instead, try to consume as much meaningful and interesting content as possible to make of for the lack of useless content that you’d usually be exposed to.

You still have to practice, both with and without immersion. The notion that people just “pick up” languages is complete bullshit. Children learn to speak like native speakers because they have to go to school. Meaning they do stuff they don’t like and is difficult for them, learning the language in the process. If you never do any deliberate practice, I guarantee you won’t get past a B2 level on input alone, at least not in a language that isn’t similar to your own.

Conclusion

One final piece of advice I would give is don’t try to get to C1 if you’re not in that country. I am finding it to be wildly inefficient at the moment and I definitely won’t be doing it again. Even if you’re passionate about the language, you can shorten the process so much more by simply going there. No point in trying to make it too hard for yourself.

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