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The Language Learning Plateau & How to Move Past It

written by: Vandana Singhal • edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch • updated: 6/6/2012

When learning a new language, learners often feel stuck. They feel like they have reached a plateau where they see no further significant progress. Read on to find out why this happens and how you can get out of it.

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    Learning a second language is a long process. It takes years and years to become proficient in a language, even with a native language. However, after learning for some time, most learners feel stuck in a stage of knowledge. In fact, they feel reaching a plateau in their language acquisition. Literally, a plateau is a state of no or little progress. Why does this happen?

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    What is the Learning Plateau?

    A learning plateau is a term that is often used in educational psychology. This is a kind of phenomenon that refers to a situation when the learner in the course of learning, despite all the efforts of learning and practice, seems to make no significant progress. In the beginning of the process, the learning curve is steep, then it gradually starts leveling out. The learning plateau is that flat part of learning curve which comes after rapid progress initially. However, after being in plateau for certain period, the learner will continue to make progress.

    The plateau period is sometimes also referred as the "Temporary Fossilization," which is a prelude to permanent fossilization. Fossilization means the rules and linguistic items of the native language of the speaker persist in the inter-language relative to a target language. When compared to fossilization, the plateau is the temporary and reversible stage of language learning.

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    Why This is a Good Sign

    Language learning is not a smooth process. A learner experiences spurts and slow-downs. They reach a plateau in learning because initially, in the early stages of learning, they clearly see their learning progress. They tackle all the hurdles in learning enthusiastically and successfully. However, when it comes to intermediate stage of language learning, they need to consolidate and apply that existing knowledge. It makes it harder for them to know what has to be achieved and recognize the success of knowledge.

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    Recognizing the Plateau

    You can recognize the plateau in language learning by two ways. Evaluate the outcomes of the standardized tests that measure proficiency and achievement in the language you are studying. Secondly, observe the performance of learners at anytime of the learning process. This phenomenon is displayed both in behavior and psychology of the language learners. For instance, you will observe that learners are not showing as much interest in the teacher's instructions as they were previously. Their transition from intermediate to advanced intermediate seems to be frustrating. This situation is seen even after teachers impart new information and knowledge, as learners are not able to use that information. They may start feeling that this new language is too difficult for them to learn. Some may even appear to regress and have difficulty in every part of language learning, such speaking, reading, pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar and understanding.

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    What to Do

    To handle this plateau in language acquisition, teachers should explain the typical learning curve at the start of program. They should help learners understand the intermediate phase, which is for strengthening their knowledge and gaining confidence. This phase is to help the learners become more autonomous as language users.

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