What can language learners do when they feel stuck?

We have all at some point felt stuck in our language learning. It can feel like the march toward fluency is hopeless, too slow, and not worth the effort. We may think of all the things we could be doing instead of studying our target language: surely some of those things are valuable, too. And maybe we are good enough already and should mark this lifelong goal as completed.

This feeling of being stuck has been called the “language plateau.” Learners often reach the plateau at the intermediate or advanced level. It is a time when the rapid, satisfying progress one experienced as a beginner levels off, and progress begins to feel slower and harder to come by. Learners’ communication skills are decent, but fluency still seems like a distant goal. They can understand 60-80% of their target language, but the remaining 20-40% can seem like an insurmountable obstacle.

Linguist Jack Richards identifies several problems connected to this plateau: unnatural speech, limited vocabulary, gaps between input (listening, reading) and output (speaking, writing) activities, and lack of complex grammar usage. In other words, the learner still has a long way to go. Yet learners often have difficulty monitoring and appreciating their progress at this stage.

Here are some suggestions about how to overcome the plateau and continue your progress toward fluency:

Practice complex grammar

Get out of your comfort zone and start pushing yourself to learn and use new forms accurately. Richards notes that the “development of fluency may mean greater ease of known language forms but does not necessarily imply development in the complexity of the learner’s language.”

If you don’t understand a sentence, but know all the words, consider trying to diagram it while taking note of any gaps in your understanding of how the sentence works. Try buying a comprehensive grammar workbook in your target language and working through it, or look into preparation guides for high-level certification tests, such as C1 or C2 on the Common European Framework of Reference for Language (CEFR) scale.

Set ambitious but practical vocabulary goals

Richards writes that learners at the intermediate plateau stage tend to overuse simple vocabulary while failing to master more advanced and nuanced vocabulary. Try learning new vocabulary by topic and setting a goal for how many new words to learn each day. Richards believes that a vocabulary of about 5000-6000 words should get you through to the next level. In WordBrewery’s level system, intermediate learners focus on the 3,000 highest-frequency word families (500 for beginners, 10,000 for advanced learners, and 30,000 for master-level learners).

We also recommend looking at variations of each word you learn. If you are learning a noun, is there a verb form? An adjective? Adverb? You can find these derivative terms on Wiktionary or via an online dictionary in your target language. If you discover or look up a word on WordBrewery’s Explore Mode, you can look it up in Wiktionary instantly by clicking the link in the word information box. You can also automatically generate a list of real example sentences that use various forms of the word you are studying.

WordBrewery members can automatically create study lists with example sentences illustrating different word forms.

WordBrewery members can automatically create study lists with example sentences illustrating different word forms.

Find native speakers and practice conversing about new topics.

Find a language partner and arrange to move beyond small talk and discuss a particular topic in depth. Go in with a list of new vocabulary or grammatical structures that you want to try out in conversation. As you talk, ask the native speaker to note mistakes you make on a piece of paper, then coach you through them after the conversation.

If this topic interests you, we recommend reading the full paper by Jack Richards; it is academic but well-written and readable. Another article by researcher Qing Xu argues that, to overcome the plateau, language learners must implement an active and deliberate strategy with the help of teachers and native speakers. Xu says that an effective strategy places emphasis on active and productive activities such as speaking and writing.