Ah, the joy of learning a new language… Couldn’t it always be as exciting as those first weeks and months when you’re full of motivation?
At some point, your progress seems to come to a halt and you feel a bit lost and you struggle to know what to focus on next.
Welcome to the ‘Intermediate Plateau’. You can get by, but don’t feel like you’ve ‘mastered’ the language yet.
You won’t get stuck there, I’ll show you how to overcome it and reignite your language learning fire!
‘Vocab Expert Mindset’
To get back on track after the intermediate plateau, you need to shift your mindset:
Firstly: Get rid of that paralysing thought that you need to know EVERYTHING about EVERYTHING to become fluent. Instead, aim for “serial fluency“.
Secondly: Stop thinking like a language hacker. Aim to be an ‘elegant speaker’ instead.
In the early stages, your textbook holds you by the hand, teaches you the basics, and shows you what to learn next. But once you’ve finished it, you might feel like you’re on your own… even though there’s so much more to learn!
Don’t feel paralysed. Remember: you don’t need to know EVERYTHING in a language to be fluent.
You only need to be able to communicate in the situations that you’ll be in. Just like in your mother tongue!
I, for one, don’t know anything about aerospace engineering. I don’t just mean the theory and concepts behind it; I mean that I don’t know the right words and expressions to talk about it.
But does that mean that I’m not fluent in my mother tongue? Of course not!
I am fluent in the situations that I find myself in every day. Since I’m not responsible for launching rockets in my daily life (sorry to disappoint, 7-year-old me…), my lack of aerospace vocab doesn’t hinder me that much.
Many people forget this when it comes to the language they’re learning. They think they’re only fluent when they can talk about every topic under the sun.
But to make progress in the short term, you need to narrow down your definition of fluency.
So how do you do that?
Make a list of scenarios in which you want to be able to communicate. Then work on these until you can have fluent conversations about them.
This is the ‘serial fluency’ method, which I discovered while training to be an interpreter.
Firstly, I’d visualise the conversation and anticipate the kind of vocabulary that would come up.
Then I’d watch videos, read articles, listen to podcasts and make a glossary of key words and expressions.
Like this, I became an expert in the vocabulary needed to talk about them.
Time for elegance!
You reach a point in your language learning journey when learning more vocabulary will only get you so far.
To get to an advanced level, it’s not enough just to make yourself understood. You need to be more precise, more elegant, and more like a native speaker.
In the early stages you improvise, use words you know to describe ones you don’t and some body language. You get good at ‘getting by’. So good, that you can get stuck there forever.
Breaking through this plateau is not necessarily about learning more grammar or complex sentences. It’s really about learning to speak like native speakers do.
For example: after seven months living in Italy, I can get by in Italian. Recently, I went to a shop to buy some shoes. I pointed at a pair I liked and said:
“Voglio compare le scarpe” (I want to buy shoes).
“Le mie scarpe – misura 42.” (My shoes – size 42).
And: “Ha più piccolo?” (Do you have smaller?)
I walked out with the right shoes in the right size, but felt clumsy.
A few weeks later I went back to the store, and listened to an Italian guy buying shoes instead.
Here’s what I learned:
- Boy, if I ever want to become a real Italian, I’ll need to become MUCH more passionate about buying shoes!
- Ok, on to the relevant stuff. They say ‘un paio di scarpe’ (a pair of shoes).
- The shop assistant asked “Che numero porta?” (literally: which number do you wear), and he answered “Il 42.” (THE 42).
- Instead of “Ha più piccolo?”. The Italian guy asked ‘Ha un numero in meno?” (Do you have one size smaller?).
See the difference?
These small phrases transform you from a clumsy ‘language hacker’ into a fluent, elegant speaker.
They give you confidence that you’re mastering the language, and not just getting by.
To escape the intermediate plateau, start looking for expressions and phrases in books, interviews, podcasts, everywhere. Look for nice phrases that you understand, but wouldn’t use yourself.
If you find yourself thinking “So that’s how you say that in this language!”, write it down and start using it.
THIS, together with striving to become ‘serially fluent’ in topics that matter to you, is how you take your target language to the next level.
Your Vocab Expert Game plan
- Think of every situation in which you can imagine yourself using your target language (holidays, restaurants, business meetings, etc.) Be specific, and make a list of 5-10 scenarios.
- Imagine yourself in each scenario one by one. Which words or expressions come up?
- Look up the vocabulary you identified in the previous step, and check some materials. Can you find a textbook, podcast, or blog post that will help you? (Tip: Reading Wikipedia will give you lots of valuable vocabulary!)
- Look for words, and especially particular ways of saying things that you understand but that have never used yourself.
- Learn this vocabulary (maybe with Memrise? ☺)
- Put what you’ve learned into practice! E.g. Write down a dialogue using the vocabulary you’ve learned or practise with your tandem partner or teacher.
- Once you feel that you’ve mastered the topic, move on to the next one.
- Whenever you’re using your target language and you come across a situation/topic that you didn’t prepare for, add it to the list and become a vocab expert in it!
Like that, you’ll crush the intermediate plateau…
Lukas van Vyve is a translator and language coach from Belgium, currently living in Italy. With actionable strategies and productivity hacks, he helps people around the world integrate language learning into their lifestyle so that they can get fluent as quickly as possible. Lukas started learning French at the age of 10 and was hooked ever since. He now speaks Dutch, English, German, French, Italian, Spanish and recently started learning Russian. When he’s not learning languages, he enjoys travelling, playing volleyball and the guitar.