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I feel like no matter how much I'm studying my language, no matter how hard I'm doing it (Georgian and Chinese), I'm still at just, a level. I can have conversations in them, read articles in them, and just, use them, but I don't feel like I'm getting any better.

I don't feel like I'm making anymore progress at all because I simply can't find use for the progress I'm making (I'm literally never going to use 混沌 - chaos - in conversation).

It wasn't even hard to get to the level that I am now. I just learnt for a little bit and I'm here, but I want to go further. I just feel like I'm plateauing and want a way to go above and beyond the level I have currently achieved.

Is this common?

What can I do?

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    "I'm literally never going to use 'chaos' in conversation" You will! I thought I would never use "dinosaur" in Japanese conversation when I learnt it, and I actually used it for the first time in Dinseyland when I told my team to "shoot the dinosaur" at an attraction to earn points. Every single word is useful!
    – user2415
    Jul 31, 2017 at 5:01
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    @Zozor I suppose I have had experiences like that before when I used 'accountant' in conversation (I use that SO rarely I've forgotten the character for it), but my point is, you don't use them enough to remember them easily/have the illusion that you're making rapid progress (as in you can understand loads of new things) Jul 31, 2017 at 7:56
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    Even word usage itself is logarithmic. We learn common words first, and learning just 10 new common words is enough to understand 1% more of any given text. On the other hand, if you can already read 90% of any given material and you want to reach 91%, then you’ll need to learn not 10 words but more like 1,000 or 2,000
    – user2415
    Jul 31, 2017 at 8:29

2 Answers 2

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What you describe is a well-known phenomenon in second language acquisition theory and goes by the name of interlanguage fossilization. If it is only temporary, the period of stagnation is also known as a plateau period.

Why the term "interlanguage" in "interlanguage fossilization"? Some theories of second language acquisition describe the incomplete knowledge of a foreign language as "interlanguage" because you start from your native language and gradually move to the foreign language. Each transition phase between the native language and the foreign language is a mostly consistent "interlanguage". When you stop making progress, this interlanguage becomes "fossilized". Since many people learn a foreign language only up to the level that helps them get by (I consider passing tests and exams at school also as a form of "getting by"), interlanguage fossilization is quite normal.

People have suggested all sorts of ways to get over a plateau.

Donovan Nagel at the Mezzofanti Guild makes an analogy with weight training and advocates the "shocking principle": do exercises that your mind (or body – in the case of weight training) is not used to. He also suggests setting very specific microgoals. (A macrogoald would be something like " I want to pass a B2 French exam before the end of the year", and microgoals would be steps that take you closer to that goal.)

Noel Van Vliet has a long article about overcoming a plateau. He says that you need to get out of your comfort zone (a suggestion similar to Donovan Nagel's shocking principle), that you should gradually move to learning materials in your target language, that you should analyze your weaknesses and then work on them by using "mini goals", and that you should write more. (Noel Van Vliet gives several examples of mini goals, e.g. learning 100 new words in two weeks.)

For other articles, see Language Hacking: Breaking out of the Intermediate Plateau by Robert William McCaul, and 5 Innovative Tips for Language Learners Stuck on the Plateau Phase by Brian Powers.

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    Do you have any sort of personal experiences in overcoming a learning "plateau", language learning related or not?
    – Hatchet
    Jul 29, 2017 at 23:15
  • I read one of them about a 'swear jar'. I'll definitely try this, a few of my friends are native speakers of my target languages! Jul 30, 2017 at 8:21
  • @Hatchet I have personal experience with a learning plateau in Standard Chinese but I have almost abandoned that language now. I have relied on other people's articles to write my answer.
    – Tsundoku
    Jul 30, 2017 at 15:15
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Does plateau exist?
It has been experienced by many language learners and brief googling is bound to produce many articles on the subject, e.g., this one, this one, or this one. I think that the answer by @Tsundoku also confirms that it has been recognized by the experts. Plateau effect has been also described as a more general phenomenon. Below I share a few of my own observations and thoughts on why the plateau happens in language learning and possible strategies for dealing with it.

Why plateau?
Most language learners that I have met experienced plateau around around B1 level on CEFRL scale - particularly struggling to lift themselves from B1 to B2. In layman terms it is characterized by knowing the main language structures, having enough vocabulary, and being fluent enough to deal with most everyday situations in the target language... yet, being unable to have an intelligent extended conversation in this language. Note that in many European countries B1 is a sufficient requirement for obtaining permanent residency or citizenship (if you are coming from outside of the EU).

There are some objective reasons why it happens:

  • Vocabulary acquisition usually lags behind learning grammar. Language grammar is a finite (and typically rather small) set of rules that can be learned rather quickly, and requires mastering only a small vocabulary - just enough to be able to form sentences with the grammatical structures that one learns. (Though grammar has bad name among some language learners, one could argue that these simply prefer to learn it intuitively rather than using their analytic capacities.) The learner finds themselves in a situation where they have seemingly learned most of what there was to learn, but they still don't know the language - this is the point where the language courses typically start having word advanced in their titles... but the learner does not feel that they are advancing at all.
  • In terms of complexity of different stages CEFRL framework is actually based on a logarithmic scale. This is most readily seen by the size of vocabulary required for different stages: A1 = 500 words, A2 = 1000 words, B1 = 2000 words, B2 = 4000 words, and so on (the precise numbers vary depending on the language). The amount of material to learn doubles at every stage (i.e., grows exponentially), but your learning (at best) proceeds at the same pace: that is, if it took you three months to get to level A1, you might need about four years to get to B2. Thus, if the learner quickly passed through A1, A2 and B1, it may seem to them rather unexpected that they are struggling to achieve B2 - either because they do not realize the size of the task or because they are depressed by its size. Notably, it kills the enthusiasm/motivation that one might have obtained from passing quickly through the initial stages.

Working through the plateau

  • New challenges require new methods As it is clear from the first bullet in the previous section, one needs to focus on learning different things and learning them differently. Notably, if diligently doing the class and home work was enough for getting to B1, it is no more sufficient after that. Although advanced classes sometimes exist up to C2 level, from B1 onward they play an auxiliary role - the learning must happen elsewhere: through reading, watching films, communicating with native speakers, etc. Some teachers at this point adopt unorthodox approaches: e.g., focusing on exposing their students to local culture and politics, in order to motivate their linguistic curiosity outside of the class. Some go as far as transforming their class in a creative writing workshop or simply suggesting students to enroll in a course taught in the target language (especially good for humanity majors, but less relevant to sciences).

  • Stable routines The sheer size of the task requires discipline or some other way of imposing constant use/exercise of the target language - enthusiasm usually does not last long enough to get through the plateau. This is where immersion is most effective, as one is fully equipped for benefiting from exposure to the language. For conversational skills it is useful to have one's life partner, roommate, or colleagues speaking the target language. Those not having access to native speakers, may try binge-watching movies/series or reading junk literature (which is usually easy enough to understand and follow through, unlike serious literary or scientific works.)

Other plateaus
As the other answer points out, a plateau may occur at different levels of language learning. In immigrant communities it is not uncommon to have the language at B2+ level, permitting to have normal professional life in the country of residence. These immigrants are however often reluctant to read, watch films, or follow news in the language, opting for equivalent resources in their native tongue. This produces a curious phenomenon of people living for decades in one country, but seeming better informed and passionate about something happening in their homeland, thousands miles away. However, such choices are not a matter of purely linguistic needs and shortcomings, as they reflect one's cultural identity, need to belong to a community, etc.

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