The Plateau in Language Learning

Yesterday, I was reading Aaron G. Myers’ excellent book Activities and Strategies for Everyday Language Learners (I talked more about this book here but please note the book is no longer free) and one thing in particular stood out for me. On page 37, Aaron writes that the most common reason we reach a plateau in language learning is we get comfortable.

In more detail:

I believe there is a truism in language learning that you reach where you need to reach in the language. If you need to be at a low intermediate level of proficiency, you will get to that level and perhaps a bit past that level. But pushing forward toward the summit requires extra effort and that effort requires more than most of us want to give.

I needed to reach a certain level of Russian because I had to take an advanced conversation and grammar class at my university. Russian language & literature was one of my areas of study at university and I had to take a certain amount of classes and reach a certain level.

However, since graduation, I feel that I have stagnated a bit in my learning. For a little while I even felt like I had regressed in my knowledge, but now I just feel like I’ve hit a plateau. I can read just about any news article, I can have conversations, I can listen to radio programs and understand just about everything. But I feel like I haven’t learned any truly new vocabulary in a while. (To be honest, I know pretty much everything there is to know about Russian grammar, thanks to my dear professor M at my university.)

So my question is: what does one do when one hits a plateau? So far, Aaron hasn’t really touched on this in his book (though I have not finished reading it yet, so perhaps he does later). I have a few ideas for getting out this plateau.

  • Find some new books to read. More books means more reading, and more reading means more vocabulary acquisition.
  • Learn specialized vocabulary in a genre you’re interested in but don’t know. For example, I’m interested in business, economics, and finance, but I do not know the vocabulary related to these topics in Russian. As if asset-backed securities aren’t hard enough already – now I’m going to study them in Russian too!
  • Do a 1000-word challenge. I saw this on the internet – regrettably, I do not remember where – and it means learning 1000 new vocabulary words in a month (about thirty words a day).

Keep in mind I’ve never actually tried these tips before. I am looking for suggestions to get away from this plateau, so don’t hesitate to share your thoughts below!

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7 thoughts on “The Plateau in Language Learning

  1. This is so true in my experience. I did Spanish for all 6 years of high school, only getting as good at it as I needed to at the time. Then every summer holidays I’d stop all learning for two months and backtrack a bit before starting again the next year and reaching a slightly higher level – because I needed to to pass my tests. I didn’t have to be any better than that, though, so I didn’t try to be.

    1. I think the same thing happened to me, too, with Spanish. I also did it in middle and high school (grades 6-11; I took a foreign language break in grade 12). I learned a lot, but not as much as I could have. Today, I can read Spanish pretty well, but I can’t have a proper conversation or anything.

      Is your Spanish better now that you’re studying it at university?

  2. See, I’d start watching all the funny russian videos on the web and try to learn the slang – much more fun than asset backed securities.

    Here’s a good one – if you know about Dunya Kulakova, that is 🙂

    1. Yep, blogging in a foreign language is really, really hard but also really, really helpful. 🙂

      Also, regarding your comment, it makes more sense to say “Same thing happened with my English…” 😉

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