5 Tips on Overcoming Language Learning Plateaus

Ah, the plateau. It's that spot in your language learning adventure where you feel you've made some progress, and then you stop progressing. You feel stuck. This is the point where lots of people feel like they want to give up.

Looking smart with my SMART goals.
Notice I'm not on the plateau? That's because I followed my own advice.

Learning that new language was fun for a while, but now you feel like your at the same level you were a few weeks ago, despite the fact you've put in lots of effort.

Been there. Done that. (I think most of us have.) Here's a few things I've learned about how to overcome those learning plateaus and how to reach new heights.

Don't be afraid of the Plateau

The word "plateau" comes from the French word "plateau", which means "plateau."

(Okay, that was an attempt at language humor. I'll stop.)

A plateau, geographically speaking, is a relatively high, flat piece of land. Metaphorically speaking, a plateau is a state of little or no change after a period of activity or progress.

So, if you're at a plateau, pat yourself on the back, tell yourself "good job," and go buy yourself a candy bar. You're only at a plateau because you've made progress. Look where you were before you got to the plateau. (Hopefully you can remember back that far.)

Don't beat yourself up too much that you are at a learning plateau. And don't get too discouraged. Plateaus happen to everybody.

Don't get too comfortable, though

Unless you've reached the plateau of native fluency (or whatever level of language learning you are trying to achieve) you shouldn't be content being where you are at.

Here's my Disneyland story. Years and years ago, when I was just a kid, my family decided to go to Disneyland on vacation. We saved. We planned. We talked about it lots. And when it came to finally go, we drove for about ten hours to get there.

Me at Disneyland sometime in the late 1980's.
That's me with the big ears. No, the kid with the striped shirt and big ears.

Our first day at Disneyland, we drove from the motel to the park, then stood in two lines. One line was to buy tickets. The other line was to actually get in Disneyland. I don't know how long it actually took to stand in those lines, but to an 11-year old, it seemed like forever.

Then we made it. We walked through the gates. Mom found a perfect stranger to take our picture. We were so happy to finally be inside Disneyland.

Did we immediately go home?

No way. Yes, we were super happy just to be inside the gates, but Disneyland has so much more to offer than just a spot to get your family picture taken by a stranger. There are more exciting lines to stand in. There are the rides to get sick on (or sick of, if you mistakenly get in the Small World ride line). There are shows to watch. There is overpriced food to buy, measles to avoid, and crowds to wade through. There's the whole experience and you wouldn't want to miss out on it by going home too early.

Language learning is like that. Great, you've made it through the gates. Now it's time to take it to the next level. Here's a few things to try when you get stuck.

Try something different

If you keep trying the same thing, and you keep getting the same results (or lack of results), then maybe it's time to try something different.

I know that sounded like a no-brainer, but really, it's something we sometimes forget when we are in the middle of trying to get to the next level.

My biggest plateau with Lao, the language I'm currently learning, was the tone rules. It took me months. I'd read about the tone rules. I'd practice producing tones according to the tone rules. And though I had a superficial understanding of tone rules, it wasn't sinking in.

When I decided to tackle the tone rules in a different way, I finally learned them. What I had been doing was memorizing the rules one by one.

If you have this type of consonant, followed by this type of vowel, followed by this type of syllable ending, you need to produce this tone.

When I finally decided to visualize the tone chart in my head, and memorize that instead, I finally started to make progress. I wish I had figured that out earlier. Three months was way too long to get stuck on one principle.

Go back a couple steps

Usually the first time you learn something, you don't really learn it completely. This has happened time and time and time again with me while learning languages. You learn some grammar principle. You move on to the next grammar principle. And then you find yourself stuck and not able to understand the next level.

I've found that sometimes going back to the basics really helps.

I've found that when I go back and read about some grammar rule a couple of weeks later, I understand it better. In those couple of weeks I've been exposed to the language. I may have consciously or unconsciously been looking for examples of that grammar rule.

Wikipedia often has articles summarizing a language's basic grammar. I've read their Lao grammar page about four times now. Every time I read it, I learn something new. Even though I'm reading the same exact words I read before, I'm able to connect the dots in a different way than I could before.

Another example of going back a couple of steps is to make sure you have a solid understanding of what you already know. For me, I had to this as I finally started getting a grasp on the Lao tone rules. I had to go back and review the Lao consonant classes. I was never going to have a solid understanding of the Lao tone rules unless I knew what type each and every consonant was.

Find another source

I spent 9 months studying German, almost exclusively on Duolingo. Now, I love Duolingo, but it has it's limits. If I ever get serious about learning German again, I'll continue to use Duolingo, but I'll be using other sources as well. You are never going to get everything from one language learning course, or book, or phone app, or piece of software.

One advantage of learning things from multiple sources is that it helps you make more connections in your brain.

For example, I was talking to a Lao lady I met a couple of weeks ago. She introduced me to her husband.

I learned the word for husband months ago. It's in at least two of my Anki flash card decks. I always get that word correct when I see it in Anki. But I have never come across the word anywhere besides Anki. So when she said the word husband, I didn't understand what she meant. Luckily, I had another Lao friend with me who speaks great English. She reminded me that "pua" means "husband" and I was able to make the connection. I don't think I'll misunderstand that word again. I had now learned that word in two different settings.

I've learned that the more different places I see a word or grammar construct, the better. So I read different Lao language learning books, watch Lao videos on YouTube, go through vocabulary on flash cards, write my own sentences, etc.

Study more than one language

This is something I tried in September, and the more I do it, the more I'm a fan of it. When I get stuck in Lao, I'll go spend some time learning a completely different language.

When I do this, I'm not trying too hard on that other language. I might check out a language I've not really tried before on Duolingo, like Dutch or Swedish, or I may spend some time brushing up on a language I've already learned or studied.

My goal is never to make progress in that other language. My goal is to take a short break from Lao.

I don't understand why it works, but doing this helps me in Lao.

I wouldn't recommend looking at a language that too closely resembles the one you are actively trying to make progress in. Lao learners should stay away from Thai, Spanish learners should stay away from Italian, Norwegian learners should stay away from Swedish, etc.

Take a small break from the hard stuff

I sometimes recommend taking a small break from the hard stuff, but not a break from the language you are learning.

Do something fun in the language you are learning. Find some music on YouTube, watch a movie in your target language, read a children's book.

I feel it's important that when you are taking a break from the hard learning, you don't break the habit of language learning. Even when I spend time with another language, I make sure that I spend at least a few minutes a day with Lao.

Taking a break from the hard stuff is different than taking a break from the language. When you take a break from the language, you risk forgetting too much stuff.

Your turn

What have you done to get over a language learning plateau? Share your knowledge and experiences in the comments below. Thanks!


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