How To Get Past Your Language-Learning Plateau

Does it seem like you’re making no progress in learning a language? You’re definitely not alone.
October 11, 2017
How To Get Past Your Language-Learning Plateau

Once you’ve been learning a language for a while, you might hit into a brick wall known as the language-learning plateau. When you first start learning a language, everything is fantastic. You’re picking up new vocab, learning the tenses and comprehending a bunch of new stuff. You can finally understand what la vida loca is, and how you can live it.

Then, all of a sudden, it stops being fun. You seemed to improve so quickly before, and now you’re just spending weeks struggling with irregular forms of the pluperfect. Congratulations! You’ve hit the language-learning plateau. I’m sure it doesn’t make you feel any better that a ton of other people have been in your shoes. This is the point where a lot of people give up. They throw away their bilingual dictionaries and decide they’ll take up the piano instead. But the joke’s on them, because the learning plateau can (and likely will) happen with any skill.

Today, I tell you to not give up! That’s easier said than done, I know, which is why we’re here to help. Here are a few ways you can try to get past your plateau, so you can keep climbing your language mountain.

Tips For Getting Over A Language-Learning Plateau

Don’t See It As A Plateau

An important thing to know about the language-learning plateau is that, usually, it only seems like you’ve stopped learning. When you’re first learning a language, every word learned is a massive leap forward. A few minutes ago you didn’t speak a lick of a language, and now you can say hello and introduce yourself!

When you’re an intermediate learner, the acquisition of a new sentence might stop feeling quite as special. Not only that, but the sentences are getting more complex, which makes mistakes all the more frustrating. But through all of this, you are still making progress. So instead of looking at the “plateau” as a flat line where nothing is happening, see it as a particularly difficult stretch on your road toward language mastery.

Remind Yourself Of Your Motivations

Everyone has a different motivation for learning a language. Maybe you wanted to impress someone who doesn’t speak English? Or maybe you have a fun vacation coming up? In any case, I’m certain that you did have a reason, and now’s the time to remind yourself of that.

When you first start learning, you should write down your motivation somewhere prominent so you always have something to look back on when you need a boost. Research has shown that visualizing your goals — thinking about how happy you’ll be when you can easily form a sentence in your new language, for example — is a great way to keep yourself motivated.

Make Language Learning A Part Of Your Regular Schedule

Making language learning a part of your daily routine can help you get past the language-learning plateau. If learning is just something you do whenever you have a spare moment, you might start finding less spare time when you hit an obstacle. You might make it a week of learning “cheat days” before you realize you’ve entirely stopped.

There’s a reason why “grit” has become such an important concept in education. The ability to power through and keep learning is invaluable. Nobody is naturally better at learning languages than anyone else; the key is to just keep practicing.

Don’t Try To Do Everything In A Few Days

When you take on a new language, it can be tempting to want to learn it all as fast as you can. Unfortunately, this is impossible. Your brain is just not built to do that. This can in part be explained by the spacing effect, which shows why it’s better to practice a language for half an hour a day for six months than it is to practice a language for six hours a day for half a month.

As an adult, there are lots of tricks to learning certain parts of a language quickly. Focusing only on the vocab you’ll need, for example. But if you want to truly master a language, you can’t really take shortcuts. It took you years to learn your native language. Why would it only take you a few weeks to learn your second?

Try Something New For Your Learning

There are countless resources out there for learning a new language, especially with the entirety of the internet at your fingertips. Maybe it’s time to branch out from whatever methods for learning you’ve been doing so far. The tools you’re using as a beginning learner likely should evolve when you’re an intermediate learner.

Fortunately, this is also a chance to make your new language a little more fun. You can find movies, TV shows and music to add to your language-learning regimen. It’s still important to have some structured studying time to focus on new vocab and grammatical structures, but branching out into other ways of learning is a great way to jumpstart your excitement for the new language.

Go Out To Eat To Celebrate Your Achievements

Alright, this one is a bit self-indulgent, but rewarding yourself when you hit milestones can be a great motivational tool. Not every reward needs to be huge, but it’s important to consciously recognize the progress you’ve made. If you only focus on your mistakes and never on your achievements, your language-learning plateau will feel far more negative than it needs to be.

Not sure what to get yourself? There’s some useful gift-giving advice in this tip: it’s better to give a gift that is experiential, like a meal or a vacation. Whenever you’re stuck on a plateau, just think about how the next time you master a verb tense, you’ll have a delicious meal waiting for you.

Get past the plateau.
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Author Headshot
Thomas Moore Devlin
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.

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