Updated: Jan 6, 2020
What is the Intermediate Plateau?
So you've been learning a language for a while, and you've cleared all of the first hurdles. You didn't quit a few hours or days after you started (and isn't that the biggest hurdle of all?). You learned how to formulate simple sentences, and now you're able to communicate and get your point across in most situations. Yeah, you might have some issues with grammar or pronunciation and you might not feel like you can express yourself as well as you could in your native tongue, but you've still come so far! If you're anything like me, you probably gave yourself a pat on the back at this point before wondering .... what now?
Congratulations! You've left the beginner stage behind and you've made it to the intermediate plateau. This is a nearly unavoidable stage for every language learner, which inevitably leads to frustration. It can feel like no matter how much you slog through your textbooks or pour over your notes, you just aren't making the progress that you're used to at this point. So what can you do to move past this stage and finally reach an advanced level?
Something that happens when you finally leave that beginner stage in the dust is that you can actually USE the language that you've been working so diligently to learn. You can get by in most situations in shops, you can make small talk with the waiter, and you can even make friends. Something else that happens is you realize how much further you have to go and that can be a daunting experience. This is a critical point, it's when you have to decide what you are going to do with the language and how much further you have to go. Are you content with the basics of the tourist phrasebook or do you want to take a deeper dive into the language?
I recommend Kerstin Cable's method of making path goals and vision goals to keep you
motivated. Vision goals are the ones we generally have no problem making. Do you see yourself haggling in Turkish at a market in Istanbul? Ordering a latte at a Parisian cafe in perfect French? These are the things that we hope to accomplish long term with our language.
Path goals are short term goals that keep you on track and making day to day progress. An example of a path goal is to review your flashcards for 20 minutes a day or perhaps to have four lessons with a tutor in January. These are measurable and achievable (click here to see Kerstin's article on path and vision goals)
This may seem obvious, but learning new words is critical to moving beyond that intermediate level. There are tons of ways of accomplishing this, but one of the most popular is by using flashcards. Flashcards are a tried and tested way of learning vocabulary that has stood the test of time. There are a million apps and websites that use spaced repetition to ensure that you see your flashcards at the optimal time, but I would recommend Quizlet. Quizlet has a great interface, and the flashcards are really customizable. You can add pictures, audio files, and it even has a pronunciation feature in several languages.
Another great way to learn new vocabulary is by increasing your consumption of comprehensible input. The term comprehensible input was coined by Stephen Krashen, and it refers to reading and listening materials that are understandable to the learner. The good news is that there is no shortage of intermediate level material for many of the most commonly learned languages. Look for learner podcasts, graded readers (like the one to the right), or even native content for a challenge that doesn't feel insurmountable.
Chunking for the Win
Aside from vocabulary, learning set phrases and expressions can help you sound more advanced quickly. Learning these words together is called chunking, an idea that goes back to the 1940s, and it has been shown to help memory. Think of the way you remember phone numbers (or the way you used to before smartphones!). It's much easier to remember two sets of numbers than it is to remember nine individual digits. Something I like to do is take sentences I read during the week and place the entire sentence into a flashcard along with the specific word I'd like to focus on. This gives you vocabulary in context and also gives you access to passive study of the grammar.
Most Importantly ...
Finally, try to remember that learning a new language is a process, and hanging out in the intermediate plateau for an extended time is totally normal. I truly felt stuck in the intermediate plateau for about a year and a half with my German before I felt like I was making real progress again. Try these tips to break free of the plateau as soon as possible, but be gentle with yourself.
Krashen, S. D. (1999). The input hypothesis: issues and implications. Lincolnwood, IL: Laredo Publishing.