The Mezzofanti Guild Language Learning Made Simple

How To Easily Get Beyond Language Learning Plateaus



You’ve no doubt heard of and probably had writer’s block at some point in your life.

This is a term writers use for when they’re unable to put pen to paper.

Even if the thoughts and ideas are up there in your head – you know what you want to write about – it can be hard converting those thoughts into ink.

Well with language learning, we also reach plateau points that you could just as easily call language learner’s block.

These are times where we just feel like we’re not improving or perhaps we just don’t know where to go from here.

Like writer’s block, we have a general idea of the goal we want but it’s hard to put it into action.

“I know there’s still a lot for me to learn but I have no idea where to start.”

Here’s a hypothetical:

You’ve worked through Duolingo or a course book on Italian, completed all the exercises and reached the very end.

Do you start another Italian course book? Where to now?

This is actually a common thread I see on the ‘languagelearning‘ group on Reddit as well as email questions I receive from readers – people finish a linear course or book and then have no idea what to do afterwards.

For people who prefer this kind of linear progression I can understand how tough it would be.

Some people just like to be told“Ok, here’s the next step.”

But like anything, there comes a point where the linear, step-by-step learning comes to an end and the rest of your progression really depends on how creative you are.

Keep reading and I’ll explain how to easily overcome language plateaus and continue striding forward in your learning.

 

Learner’s block comes when we either achieve or don’t have goals

You have learner’s block (hit a plateau) for one of two reasons:

1) You already achieved your goals.

2) You have no goals (or the ones you have are rubbish).

You need macro and micro goals to keep moving forward.

A poor goal is something way too general (e.g. I want to be fluent in French).

A good macro goal is something big but still very specific and measurable (e.g. I want to pass a B2 French exam before the end of the year).

Within that macro goal are smaller micro goals that are the stepping stones toward completing that final goal.

So naturally, the question to ask is – what achievable and measurable micro goals can I set for myself that will help me achieve my achievable and measurable macro goal at the end of the year?

Anything you’re doing that does not help you reach that macro goal you’ve set is a waste of time.

You should be constantly asking yourself:

Is this moving me toward my goal?”

Or is it just making you feel busy?

 

Courses and course books are like training wheels

Or hand-holding until you can stand on your own two feet.

If you reach a point where you feel stuck, it’s because you’re so used to being told what the next step is and you haven’t figured out how to take charge of your own learning.

Realize that you’re now in control.

It’s up to you to be creative, to identify your weak areas and steer your own learning.

You’ve covered all the chapters of a course book, your foundation is set and now it’s up to you to personalize and strategize your own learning plan.

And unfortunately no one else can tell you what that looks like.

 

“The shocking principle”

I use weight-training analogies for everything.

Besides language learning, it’s my favourite activity. 🙂 I practically live in the gym 6 days a week and I’m always looking for creative ways to improve myself physically as well as mentally.

I was recently watching an Arnold Schwarzenegger interview where he talked about the importance of “the shocking principle”.

In other words, unpredictable exercises that never allow your body to adjust or predict what’s coming next.

 
Starts at 4:45.

“The body is saying, ‘Look, I know all your tricks… I know your routine. I know exactly everything you’re gonna do and I’m prepared for that’.

So you have to go and use the shocking principle.”

Most of us develop very predictable routines with learning too.

We have our favourite apps (e.g. Duolingo), course books, etc. and these become part of our predictable routine which ends up resulting in dull learning and boredom.

Or when you finish those predictable learning routines then you can be left wondering what on earth to do next.

Strategies lose their effectiveness over time if there’s no variation.

Take Arnie’s advice:

Shock it.

Instead of signing on to Duolingo like you always do, have a creative and constantly changing strategy for learning.

Never let your study become routine and dull.

It’s the ultimate progress killer.

What this looks like in practice is up to you – rotate your learning routine so one day you’re only focused on speaking, the next day reading, the next day listening, and so on.

Change up the topics and difficulty levels as well to keep it constantly varied.

One day you might really focus heavily on repeating content you already know, another day you might only focus on new content.

Variation and unpredictability is key.

 

The easiest way to work out where to go next

If you’re ever stuck wondering what to do next, there’s a very simple way to figure it out.

All you have to do is this:

Have a conversation about or describe something very specific.

Pick a topic – a specific topic – and just start talking about it now.

Describe it.

For example, let’s say you’ve reached a point in the language you’re learning where you’re wondering what to do next.

Pick a very specific topic (e.g. how to fix something on your car, how to stitch a hole in your torn pants, or what happened on last week’s Game Of Thrones episode).

Can’t do it?

Then that’s your homework.

Spend the week learning all the vocab and expressions needed to talk about those things.

If you can’t comfortably talk about something then that’s what you should focus on next. Until you can rattle on and on about it then you know what needs to be done.

In language learning, you measure progress not by how well you grasp the grammar or can complete course book exercises.

You measure progress by how well you can apply the language to the world around you.

If there are things you can’t discuss then you’ve got work to do.

I gave an example a while back about the butcher in Egypt. I decided one day that I wanted to be able to talk about the different cuts of meat and everything related to ordering the right kind of meat I wanted.

This turned into a highly targeted learning goal that I feel drastically improved my Arabic.

This is how you get off a learning plateau and keep moving forward:

Identify a real world application and make it your mission to be able to talk about it.

 

Have you hit a plateau? What are your strategies for moving forward?

 

Comments

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  1. It’s a very important article. Thank you for giving one specific piece of advice that I can apply to any language and that is too small to forget.
    One request though: can you make a compilation of links to blog posts about plateaus?

  2. Great advice. But what happens if switching things up doesn’t get you beyond the plateau?

    1. Well, variation was only part of the advice I gave.

      If there’s any main take-away from this post, it’s this:

      In language learning, you measure progress not by how well you grasp the grammar or can complete course book exercises.

      You measure progress by how well you can apply the language to the world around you.

  3. It is a very good post focused on a key issue that affects all language learners or teachers even. The idea of the ability to apply the language to specific situations can be the main reason for plateau, if you do not push yourself to try out language in new situations you are unlikely to improve and finding these opportunities can be challenging. The main point to ensure progression is the motivation to seek out these opportunities and maintain the interest in the chosen language. I talk about this a fair bit in my blog if you want to check it out.

  4. Hello Donovan Nagel,
    I’m form Brazil and I´m learning English. Nowadays I can understand more then speak and I know that it is my weakness.
    I need to improve my active vocabulary to overcome the weakness and your article show me how to move in right direction.
    Thanks.

  5. I always end up in the Mezofanti Guild when in need of a guide. One can usually find the most specific subjects.

    I’ve been learning Levantine Arabic for two years now. Very often I have decreased the intensity of the learning, but I try to do at least a bit every day. My goal is to be able to have a casual conversation with Levantine folks. My motivation is curiosity and love for the Arabic culture.

    I have a bigger vocabuary than what I have for some European languages (I am a native Spanish speaker) yet I am unable to make a fluent conversation; the main problem being my inhability to understand what I hear. Too many accents, even within the Levantines (Syrians, Palestinians, Jordanians and Lebanese), sometimes within the same country. Hard to focus in one particular region, given the lack of resources. And I live close to Antarctica.

    I’ve already completed the Rosetta Stone and Assimil, for Fusha; Pimsleur’s “Eastern Arabic”, the Mary Liddicot book for Syrian Colloquial, the Colloquial Palestinian Arabic by Nasser M. Isleem, and the most excellent Living Arabic by Munther Younes for Jordanian Arabic. I also did the Defense Language Institute course for Syrian. The Michel Thomas program for Egyptian was a good help in the early stages of my learning.

    I’ve also talked to many Arab natives via Skype. Always nice, rarely helpful.

    If anyone has a method or a particular resource for improving the hearing, I’d be happy to hear about it.

    Thank you, Donovan; and greetings to all my fellow students of Arabic!

    Jorge

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