Reaching a Plateau in Language Learning – How to Get Out of It?

What to do if you've reached a plateau

There is probably nothing as frustrating as putting a hell of a lot of amount of work, and not feeling like you’re making any progress. Sadly, though, this situation happens to a lot of language learners, and it often becomes a dominant factor in people’s decision to stop learning a foreign language halfway through their goals. This is what we commonly call “reaching a plateau”. So why does it happen, and how can we avoid it, or at least, get out of it?

Routine, and Reaching the Autonomous Stage

Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, a Swedish psychologist and Professor at Florida State University, is widely recognized as one of the world’s leading theoretical and experimental researchers on expertise. According to him, hitting plateaus is a common occurrence in skill development (not only limited to language learning). Far from being a steady linear progression, mastery comes in bursts.

There are many causes of plateaus but a major one seems to be routine, according to many experts. Sticking to the same habits, whether it’s writing, typing, learning a language, or programming, often results in failing to progress, despite investing a lot of time.

In “Moonwalking With Einstein”, a book about memory and skill development, author Joshua Foer says that when people first learn to use a keyboard, they improve very quickly from sloppy single-finger pecking to careful two-handed typing, until eventually the fingers move so effortlessly across the keys that the whole process becomes unconscious and the fingers seem to take on a mind of their own.

The funny thing, however, is that at this point most people’s typing skills stop progressing. They reach a plateau. If you think about it, it’s a strange phenomenon. After all, we’ve always been told that practice makes perfect (it doesn’t; perfect practice does), and many people sit behind a keyboard for at least several hours a day in essence practicing their typing. Why don’t they just keep getting better and better?

In a nutshell, the reason for this is that after a lot of deliberate practice (consciously trying to get better at something and working on one’s evident flaws), we eventually reach a phase called the “autonomous stage,” when we figure that we’ve gotten as good as we need to get at the task and we’re basically running on autopilot. During that autonomous stage, we lose conscious control over what we’re doing. That’s what some call the “OK plateau,” the point at which we decide we’re OK with how good we are at something, turn on autopilot, and stop improving.

However, Dr. Ericsson says, what separates experts from the rest of us is that they tend to engage in a very directed, highly focused routine, something labeled, once again, “deliberate practice.” Experts and top achievers in various fields tend to follow the same general pattern of development. They develop strategies for consciously keeping out of the autonomous stage while they practice by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented, and getting constant and immediate feedback on their performance.

Joshua Foer says—and if you haven’t been paying attention so far you should really read this one carefully—that “when you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend. In fact, in every domain of expertise that’s been rigorously examined, from chess to violin to basketball, studies have found that the number of years one has been doing something correlates only weakly with level of performance.” [emphasis added]

Well that’s good news for all of us, because first of all this means that we can, in many instances, get out of a plateau by focusing on our technique, staying goal-oriented, and getting constant and immediate feedback on our performance (in language learning, this could mean recording and listening to yourself).

But here’s the thing: many language learners only reach the so-called “autonomous stage” when they have reached a fairly advanced level of studies. In other words, when they feel they don’t really need to improve that much anymore, this is when their language skills truly hit a plateau. For most of us, however, we tend to feel like we stop making progress around the intermediate phase. Why is that?

Marginal utility and language learning

Scott H. Young recently wrote a good post entitled “What Matters More: Your Network or Skills?” In the post, Scott introduces the concept of marginal benefit, also known as marginal utility.

“Marginal benefit is a very useful concept from economics,” he says. “The idea is that many activities have diminishing return. The 80/20 rule is essentially a more specific restatement of diminishing return, with the first twenty percent of opportunities generating eighty percent of the total results.”

The keyword here is diminishing returns, and this is an important concept in language learning that many people do not understand. The law of diminishing returns is actually taken from the field of economics, but when applied to language learning it means something like this: the more effort you put into learning a language over time, the smaller your increases in fluency become. The more time you invest, the smaller your returns on investment become.

If you have read my post about the number of words necessary to reach basic conversational fluency, you will know that, roughly, a vocabulary of just 3000 words provides coverage for around 95% of common texts (such as news items, blogs, etc.). The remaining 5% of the vocabulary you need to know to really fully understand common texts is in the magnitude of tens of thousands of words (the average active vocabulary of an adult English speaker is of around 20,000 words, with a passive one of around 40,000 words). Knowing 3000 words puts you in the intermediate stage of language learning, after which learning words doesn’t seem like it makes that big of a difference anymore.

So here’s the problem: people do not, technically, reach a plateau. They simply progress at a much slower pace. They feel like they have reached a plateau because of how they view language learning. If we were to draw a graph, this would be the imagined learning curve of a language learner:

Imagined linear learning curve

In the minds of many people who undertake the study of a foreign language, putting more study time should necessarily equal to gaining proportional increases in fluency. However, this is clearly not how things work.

Here is another graph, which shows something that might be slightly closer to the truth.

Actual learning curve in language learning

As you can see, in the beginning stage, there is a rapid increase in fluency over a rather short period of time. This is because, as stated earlier, a relatively few number of words keep showing up all the time (the “Reading Teachers Book of Lists” claims that the first 25 words are used in 33% of everyday writing), and so learning these words provides a huge return on investment. Not only that, because you started from a “blank slate,” so to speak (you had no knowledge of the foreign language before starting to learn it), you can clearly see and feel the progress you are making since it’s easy to compare your current level of fluency to what it was just a few weeks ago.

By changing the way you think, then, or in other words by changing the way you see how your learning curve really works, you will probably understand that in most cases, what you have reached is not a plateau, but simply an intermediate phase where it will take more and more time to get similar gains in fluency to what you got before.

John Pasden, who has been overseeing the development of lesson materials at ChinesePod since 2006 and who is the author of the popular blog Sinosplice, says the following in regards to reaching a plateau:

The frustrating thing about the plateau is that you don’t feel like you’re making progress when you really are. It didn’t feel like my Chinese was getting significantly better as I acquired the vocabulary and grammar to pass the HSK, or even as I got steadily better at writing essays in Chinese. It’s not until well after the fact that you can look back on that period of time and realize that your skills really have progressed a fair amount since then.

He adds that for him, the key to getting through that intermediate plateau period was having a sequence of reasonable, attainable goals.

The Balance Between Habits and Change

The last point I will cover in this post is the importance of getting into a routine, or developing certain habits, but also of knowing when to change methods and when to diversify your learning material.

In my interview with Luca Lampariello, an amazing language learner who speaks 12 languages, I asked him what he thought about reaching plateaus. His answer? “I’ve never really thought about that,” he told me, “because I don’t think I’ve ever really felt like I reached a plateau.” The reason Luca gave me for this surprising answer is that he varies the material he uses as soon as he reaches an intermediate stage. He says it’s important to be aware of which stage of language learning you are in (you can consult the “Common European Framework of Reference for Languages” for more on that). At the beginning stages, Luca only deals with one, or at most 2 to 3 resources to learn the language (mostly Assimil). After reaching an intermediate stage, however,  he really starts to vary the material he uses.

If you feel like you haven’t made much progress recently, perhaps consider looking into changing the material you’re using. If you’ve been using the same textbook or the same method for learning a foreign language and it just doesn’t seem to work anymore (different methods and study material work for different stages), think about adding some variety to your study tools.

As Scott H. Young has said in his post entitled “Are Habits the Enemy of Mastery?”, the fact that sticking to the same habits (or learning material) when learning something can bring about a plateau is an interesting paradox. “On the one hand, good habits are essential for building skill,” he says. “If you’re not regularly showing up, every day, how can you possibly hope to invest the thousands of hours of practice needed to get good? Yet those same habits also have the cost of potentially stalling your improvement.”

And as Benny Lewis explains in his quest to speak Mandarin after only three months’ practice in Taipei, completely changing your learning strategy can sometimes get you out of the rut you are stuck in. “One of the key factors of ensuring fast progress [in my mission to learn Mandarin] has been that I have changed my approach entirely every week,” Benny says.

What do You Think?

So, what are your thoughts on that? I would love to hear your stories, how you dealt with the feeling that you didn’t improve anymore, and how you kept yourself motivated and did not give up on your goals. Have you ever thought of language learning in terms of diminishing returns? Do you change the study material you deal with as you progress from a beginner to an intermediate and advanced stage?

If you’ve enjoyed this post, drop by my Facebook, Twitter pages to say hi! It means a lot to me~ And if you have any questions about any of the concepts I’ve talked about in this post, I’d be more than happy to answer them! Don’t hesitate to comment, it’s always much appreciated!

By Lingholic

  • www.lingholic.com is all about the art of learning languages. Learn how to learn and dramatically improve your foreign language acquisition ability.

  • Show Comments (26)

  • It had never occured to me before that routine and habit could be part of the problem. Perhaps this is why I’m fed up of classes and it’s time for a change to avoid stagnation. Great food for thought there!

    I think the learning curve is probably like the second graph, with a few bumps added in. I plateaued for a while when I had learnt enough to live day to day in Vietnam. I was comfortable getting around (an autonomous stage of sorts) but didn’t know enough to converse. I hope I can reach the intermediate plateau, and more importantly push through it!

    • Hello Ruth!

      Yes I too didn’t realize in the past that habits could be part of the problem. I think what many people fail to understand is that different stages of language learning call for different resources and at times drastically different methods.

      As far as the learning curve is concerned, I agree that a few bumps added in would be closer to reality, but for simplification purposes I left that detail out. Glad you enjoyed the post!

  • Red/

    In learning a language, but for other activities too, I stumbled upon lack of energy, of desire. I felt lack of ability to catch a glimpse of new ideas (awareness) that would allow me to see things in a different perspective and therefore to be able to deepen and proceed in a more fruitful fashion. But I never had the feeling to have reached a plateau, in fact, I have the opposite feeling: that the more I do to achieve a certain level, the more I realize that this is not enough for my purpose and as a result of this it seems to me like to chase my shadow.
    I have interest for others people customizations, “tips and tricks” allowing me to reinterpreting something and deal with into a different and more productive way. Or simply more appropriate to me. Also because there is not a unique meaning for better performance. It depends on what is important to me.
    For me the most disappointing thing is to do always the same thing without try to see what would happen changing something. Often I regain interest when I find something that allows me to have a different perspective. This gives me motivation. Probably keeps awake my conscious control.
    If I do not proceed as I would, then I try to change and not to insist on something that does not give me feedback I would like. Otherwise it does exist the risk to create and strengthen a “negative reinforcement.” That is a link between: unpleasant sensations, frustration and the stuff on which I am working on.
    For example, I had a period where I did not want, into available time, to read the usual stuff and look for translations of all those terms that I did not know and so I opted to do less, but I introduced the reading of some manga in a foreign language, that are located online in various mangareader (manga aggregators). So I continued to keep me in training, even over a long period of time marked by listlessness.
    One thing that has been teached to me in two different sports is that performances follow!
    Performances are the result of a series of good and personalized habits. Instead, decide in advance what have to happen (and how to train) is not productive to reach goals.
    When three years ago I started learning to touch typing with a freeware program, it took me four months to finish the training proposed by the program, with up to half an hour a day of activity. It is not been easy to get used to increasing speed and into my case it has increased slowly thereafter. And I am still far from some awesome typing speeds viewable on youtube. I realized that I do not need to try get used to type faster, but hope my speed will be a consequence which will be revealed when my brain will have acquired in deep this practice.
    Last thing: sometimes without notice it, even in an apparent quiet period, it may happen that part of our potential will eventually go to break free, even if maybe we had not been busy actively to achieve this progress.

    • I really agree Red! Sometimes, taking a different perspective on things allows oneself to regain interest and motivation and to keep going!

      That’s why I love learning languages so much. They give you a different perspective of the world!

  • I’m currently on day 11 of learning Korean. I’ve gone through the experience of feeling like I’m not learning anything, but I just forget about that and keeping moving forward.

    My Korean has improved by just studying and immersing myself in Korean as much as possible.

    I think I should focus on vocabulary in the future, because, like you mentioned in your article, they provide a huge return on investment.

    Great article Sam. Thank you.

    • Thanks for the kind words The Testee!

      11 days is still a very short period of time. Technically, most people really start to feel like they’ve hit a plateau when reaching the intermediate period, which can take a year or more to reach (this varies widely, of course), and the feeling of plateauing can sometimes last for several weeks/months.

      Which method/textbook are you using by the way? If you have any questions, feel free to ask; I have several years of experience dealing with Korean!

  • That’s a great post Sam. Covers a lot of the issues at work in separating those who manage to get off the plateau, not just one but time and time again. The interesting thing with kids is that they don’t seem to plateau when they learn the mother tongue. With adults, there are many affective factors at work to be sure and lot of the time that is the main thing stopping learners move forward.

    The issue of deliberate practice is a critical one but I think we can go a bit deeper by looking at the issue of engagement ( yet another affective factor!)
    It is when we are engaged that we will be deliberate. Being deliberate per se will not explain what keeps us deliberate. The issue of just what it takes for us to be continuously engaged not just sporadically is one of the key factors which separates infants from the rest of us.

    • Hello Andrew!

      Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. I think the issue of engagement, or motivation, is of course at the very root of success in language learning or pretty much any other learning endeavor.

      However, motivation and plateauing, as I view it, are two separate issues (although they are related). No matter how much a person is motivated, there is a real chance that at one time or another in their language learning journey they will somehow feel stuck in a rut and feel like they aren’t progressing.

      The issue at hand here is to realize that they are in fact making progress (providing they are putting the work, of course), but they simply reached a different area in their learning curve where increasingly more work will be needed to get similar increases in fluency as to what they experienced in the past. This realization will probably help on the motivation side.

      I wrote a post a while ago on motivation. You can check it out if you want, the link is http://www.lingholic.com/motivation-and-habits-when-learning-a-skill/.

      • Hi Sam!

        Motivation and engagement are most times considered synonymously however they can be quite different, depending upon how you understand engagement. Consider for the moment the addictive power of computer games for some people. That power comes from the level of engagement they are experiencing not really by the motivation to get top the end of the game. It is the same thing that enables infants to be the great language learners they are…they have the ability to stay engaged and to turn off when they are not ( not really motivation, is it?) I wrote more about this at http://www.strategiesinlanguagelearning.com/language-learning-games/ if you are interested to read more about what engagement is.

        • Great point Andrew! I read your post and I really liked the analogy you made with video games.

          The way I see it, though, there seems to be a fine line between motivation and engagement. In fact, I see both as overlapping in many ways, but as you pointed out, they do differ in some aspects.

          In any case, I think that even somebody who is strongly engaged in language learning (such as me, hence the name of the website “lingholic” and the motto “language learning is a journey, not a destination”) will likely reach a point in their learning where they feel they stagnate.

          I like the pieces of advice you’ve provided in your blog, such as using the language in different situations and contexts, and varying the kinds of problems (or methods) you deal with. Will be reading more of your stuff in the future!

          Sam

          • Interesting point Sam about the stagnating..

            I think that one reason that some learners stop learning is that they have not identified a challenge that they find personally “motivating”. Children are moved to learn by coming across new awarenesses, whilst adults don’t necessarily find the same energy by coming across something new. So they need to find what it is that moves them to keep at it.
            For example in the area of phonology, a child will keep at it till they have “nailed it”. Whereas many adults stop way before that point. To keep at it requires us to take the task on as a game….”Can the forces of darkness be beaten into submission by my impeccable Pron!” 🙂

  • William

    Juste un rapide message pour te dire que j’apprécie beaucoup tes articles et qu’ils m’apportent énormément. En plus ton blog est très clair, agréable à lire et à parcourir, bref : keep up the good work !

    • Salut William!

      Merci d’avoir pris le temps de laisser quelques petits mots! Je suis content que les articles sur ce blog t’aient apporté beaucoup. Si jamais tu as des questions, n’hésite pas à me le faire savoir! En passant, quelle(s) langue(s) apprend tu en ce moment?

      • William

        Hi !

        I have been “re-learning” English (I dropped it off for several years) and I’m planning on learning Swedish shortly.

  • Wang Xiang

    Hi Sam, it’s really a very thoughtful and insightful post. It’s given me a lot of food for thought. I am a native speaker of Mandarin. I began to learn English at the year of 11 and I majored in English when I did my Bachelor’s degree. Later, I went to Australia to pursue a Master degree in the area of TESOL. Now I am an English teacher. People generally consider me as an advanced-level learner of English. However, I am not satisfied with my current English proficiency level at all. I feel that my vocabulary is not large enough, the accuracy and fluency of my speaking still need to be improved, and the patterns of expressing ideas also need a lot of work. But how? After reading your article, I’ve got some new ideas about it. Deliberate practice, approachable goals, and constant & immediate feedback.- thank you for the advice. They do make sense to me!

    • Thanks for the nice feedback Wang! I’m super glad you’ve gotten something useful out of this post. Please let me know in a couple of weeks/months whether these techniques have yielded any kind of observable, positive results!

      Sam

  • Emily Osborne

    This was really helpful in how I have been viewing language learning (since I feel I have hit that frustrating plateau) and learning in general. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to learn how to learn, and I really like how this article lays out this idea that putting in the time but also varying how that time is spent could make your learning more effective. I have been trying to understand the concept of “study smarter not longer” and this gives some really helpful advice on that topic. Thank you.

  • Brilliant post. It definitely makes sense that we need to continue creating goals as we work on any skill to help us continue to reach the next level. I suppose I’ve always done this with music but I hadn’t quite made the same connection with language (in some ways, not all).

    Once you get to the point where you can communicate in a language, I think you really need to make an effort to continue to improve otherwise you start to think it’s “good enough” and remain where you’re at with the language. I agree that switching up the way you learn the language can be a great way to push past a plateau.

  • jean enviedapprendre

    Dès le début de mon apprentissage du français ( ma première langue étrangère ) je m’interressais aux matériaux authentiques, soit les sites web, soit des livres soit changer la langue d’un DVD favoris, n’importe quoi. J’ai eu deux raisons pour cette habitude : je ne pouvais pas me procurer beaucoup de matériaux didactiques, et l’objectif était d’utiliser la langue, et pas seulement l’examiner.

    J’ai voulu me servir de la langue authentique aussitôt que possible, par conséquence j’ai employé quasiment toutes ces techniques tout simplement parce que pour moi c’étaitent les seules trucs évidents à faire !

    • haha

      seuls trucs*

  • Enstein Widodo

    I always go back to this article to remind me of my hurdle since my korean hasn’t improve much for 5 years. But yeah I made a ‘mistake’ on the way I study my Korean. I did a lot of passive learning than active. Reading, watching, listening music… Happens the same with my last language, french, but it’s better than my korean since it’s easier. Really, I think I have to focus my strategy more on active phase.

  • I very much like your post but would argue that fluency does not progress as shown in either of the graphs, but rather through several plateaus as I described in http://www.gamesforlanguage.com/blog/post/2014-07-reaching-the-next-fluency-plateau. I would suggest for the second graph a couple of plateaus, which would still keep with the general idea that progress is fast in the beginning but then slows down….

  • Alfredo Rojano

    Hello Sam¡ I really enjoyed reading your post. I used to think that time, effort, practice and hardwork would always pay off in learning a language. However after reading this, I´ve begun to question myself. The idea of “diminishing returns” sounds brand new to me, spending time doing perfect practice sounds quite logical, in general you have provided me with a fresh view on how to approach english learning…thanks a lot!

  • Román Enrique

    The learning process might become something really complex if we are not creative enough to make it rich, I’ve always thought we never stop learning hence to be able to reach a good level of progress we should always take into account different refreshing practices to avoid hitting a Plateau.

  • Veronica Rico

    Many SS hit plateus accurance in all their skill development and the causes are that they stick to the same habits of simple structures and the result is in failing progress, despite investing a long time learning the language. the key point is how the SS spend their time practicing rather the amount of time theu spend. It´s important to encourages SS to use new vocabulary and expressions and not only simple structures that they routinarlyhave been using all this time. Veronica Rico Cervantes.

  • Karina

    Hi, I had never thought about the idea of reaching a stage like this but, thinking about it carefully, I can say that it really makes sense, I felt that I didn’t go on with my improvement because of a lack of practice maybe and not really due to something beyond. Nevertheless, I’ll certainly take this into consideration to continue improving my level of English, it was quite interesting!

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