Learning a foreign language can feel daunting. Although the results bring many opportunities and can even be life-changing, there are times when the road to proficiency feels long, and you reach the dreaded “language learning plateau”. This is a phenomenon where it feels like you’re learning more slowly, but this is simply because you’ve already learned a lot of core vocabulary. The new words you learn at this stage are more niche, so it can feel like you aren’t making progress. However, this is very far from the case. Even though words like “immigration office” may feel irrelevant, having this level of vocabulary really boosts fluency and will allow you to live a fuller life in your target language. So, how to get over the plateau? Have no fear: with this list by your side, you’ll be able to retain motivation, even when the going gets tough.
Remind yourself why you’re learning a language. This is important. If you don’t know why you’re learning a language, it can be really hard to continue putting in effort. The best language learners are the ones who actually want to learn! Reasons for studying a language can be wide-ranging, whether it’s to engage with different cultures, improve career prospects, prepare for a trip, or even just because you love the process!
Read. A good way to overcome the plateau is through reading. There’s an extremely wide range of material to engage in, including magazines, newspapers, novels, poetry, and plays. Each language you learn is its own world, with its own literary (and even internet) culture. I found that literature really helped me to get over my French plateau, especially the play Huis clos (Jean-Paul Sartre) and the novel L'Étranger (Albert Camus). Both were short enough to feel manageable, while Huis clos felt even easier to read as a play composed entirely of dialogue.
Listen to music. Music is a great way of retaining interest in a language: it can be put on in the background while you’re doing other things, which helps you to gently incorporate language-learning into your life. Listening to songs and getting to know lyrics is a relatively stress-free way of picking up vocabulary and will also help to solidify grammatical structures in your head.
Although the results bring many opportunities and can even be life-changing, there are times when the road to proficiency feels long, and you reach the dreaded “language learning plateau”.
Watch films, television, or YouTube. Watching films, television or YouTube not only builds your vocabulary, but it contributes to your understanding of the culture(s) around your target language. Consuming visual media helps you to understand cross-cultural attitudes towards different issues, as well as the sense of humour of your target culture and language. It’s also an excuse to watch more Netflix!
Research and celebrate festivals. Finding out more about cultural practices such as national holidays and festivals will teach you a lot about the values of your target culture and is a fun way to get involved without being in a country where the language is spoken. Sometimes you may be able to find a local community of speakers near you. When I was younger, I would always go to Birmingham’s Chinatown to celebrate Chinese New Year, where I was able to meet lots of Chinese speakers.
Set up a language exchange or visit the country. While it can be difficult to physically go to a country where your target language is spoken, this doesn’t mean that you can’t meet native speakers! Most towns and cities will have language exchange groups where you can meet and practice with people from different countries, or you could see if your school would be able to set up a pen pal exchange programme with schools in another country. Being able to have a conversation in your target language is one of the greatest rewards of language learning, motivating you to continue your language journey until you get over the plateau!
About The Author: Rene is an Olea Ambassador (Team 1.0, March - Sept 2023) and an undergraduate student of Modern and Medieval Languages at the University of Cambridge.