Steve and Alex – Language Learning Plateau

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Steve and Alex discuss what it means to experience a plateau in language learning and offer some tips in how to overcome this feeling.

Steve: Hi Alex.

Alex: Good afternoon, Steve.

Steve: Good afternoon.

You know, what I would like to talk about today is, do you know what the doldrums are?

Alex: I do not, no.

Steve: Well, the doldrums, apparently that’s sort if you’re in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in a sailboat and there’s just no wind.

You’ve got the trade winds and they’re blowing in one direction or the other – I remember this from my high school geography or elementary school – but the doldrums is when there’s no wind blowing.

So you can imagine in the days of sailboats if the only thing you have moving you forward is wind and there’s no wind, you aren’t going anywhere.

Alex: Yes.

Steve: And people talk about I’ve got the doldrums.

Maybe that’s not used so much nowadays.

There are all kinds of modern words that I don’t know.

But, anyway, I want to talk about the doldrums when it comes to language learning and the reason for that is I had a chat this morning with Angela, who is known as aybee77, I think, at LingQ.

Alex: Yes, I think so.

Steve: I think she’s doing great in her Spanish, but she was saying well, you know, now I feel I’m not making any progress and I’m not as fluent as I would like to be and blah, blah, blah.

This is quite a common complaint or feeling that language learners have.

Have you had that feeling and, if so, how do you deal with it?

Alex: I would say absolutely I’ve had that feeling, first off, with French.

When I was in high school I learned French.

I took four years of French and didn’t learn very much and I felt oh, I’m just wasting a lot of time because year after year it doesn’t seem like I’m getting much better.

I would say even recently with Korean, for instance, I’ve had moments where I feel like I’m not progressing.

I’m not making much progress.

I’ve already spent four years learning it and I’m not getting too far.

It seems like I’ve hit a plateau.

One of the ways that I deal with it is I think something that people hate to do but is very valuable is to record themselves either speaking or doing a video of themselves at some point in their language learning in that language and watching it through your months later, six months later or something like that.

I think it’s very difficult to kind of feel these small improvements that you’re making, but if you look back at a significant amount of time you can see wow, I really have improved since three months ago, even though it doesn’t feel like it.

Steve: Okay.

Now, the only thing I would say in that regard, first of all, I agree with you.

I think that YouTube, even if you keep it private, to record yourself speaking in the language that you’re learning is a tremendously useful thing to do.

It’s amazing how it sharpens your mind.

The first time you do it you end up having to do it quite a few times because you mess up, but then you finally do one.


This is me after three months.

It’s like baby pictures, right?

This is me after six months.

This is me after a year.

I think it is a good record of your progress.

However, what I have found was that when we speak, when we make a video, we tend to use a limited number of words, the words that we’re very comfortable using.

So if I look at the video that I did after six months versus a video that I might have done after two years, I don’t see a big difference.

The pronunciation is a little bit smoother, the flow is a little bit smoother, but I was kind of disappointed.

In fact, I had the reaction gee, I did pretty well after six months, but now it’s been four years and I haven’t improved that much.

Now, of course, I know that I can read things now with no trouble that I couldn’t read even two years ago and I understand so much better when I listen to audio books or radio.

But, it is an unfortunate fact in language learning that we make the greatest deal of progress in the first six months.

We go from like nothing to actually being able to communicate something and understand something and we have a sense of the language now and that the remaining period is a gradual, long-term struggle.

Alex: It’s absolutely a long haul.

Steve: It’s a protracted war. It’s a long haul, yeah.

How do you then encourage people?

Do you feel right now that your Korean has hit a plateau?

Alex: Not at all.

I would say one of the things that I’ve noticed is…I mean I talk about recording yourself speaking or whatever, but I think in the same vein you can do this with other areas, such as reading and such as listening.

Another thing that I would suggest that I’ve done is I’ve gotten a Korean movie and I’ve watched it all the way through and about six months later, nine months later or something, I watched the same movie again and I was amazed at how much more I understood.

Steve: Absolutely, the same with me.

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: I had that experience with my Russian movies.

Yeah, the comprehension is way up.

Alex: The second time I watched it I was like wow.

There was so much that just went way over my head the first time I watched it.

Steve: It’s as if that dialogue wasn’t even in the movie then.

Alex: Yeah, absolutely.

Steve: You weren’t even conscious of it even being there.

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: You watched the movie and understood it at a certain level and then you watched the movie nine months later and you understand it at a whole different level.

That’s true.

I often believe that movies are like the reward.

Some people treat movies as a language-learning tool, medium.

I don’t, because I tend to spend most of my learning time just listening while doing other stuff.

Alex: Right.

Steve: Movie means I’m going to sit down and I’m stuck there for two hours or whatever.

However, it is fun.

So to me it’s a reward and it’s a particular reward if you do it like you’ve just described.

You know, say six months later watch the movie again and you realize just how much more you can understand.

But Angela’s complaint, she admitted that she understands more, but she just felt that she’s not as fluent as she would like to be, which we all feel because we’re never going to be as fluent as we would like to be.

Alex: Basically.

I mean the thing is, like yesterday I tried recording a video in Korean and about three or four minutes in I’m like ah, I’m not really satisfied.

Steve: Right.

Alex: I feel like I’m rambling. I’m not really focused.

I could do better.

I think it’s always this thing of we feel like we’re bad at it and that in the future we’ll get better.

I mean there are a lot of people who are not very good at things.

The fact of the matter is, the more you do it the better you’re going to get and that’s just the way it is.

Steve: Right.

And I’m sure, well, I can’t speak for Angela, but if she met someone who spoke Spanish as well as she does, she’d be impressed.

Alex: Yeah, absolutely.

Steve: But because it’s herself… I feel when I meet people who speak another language even moderately well I’m always impressed, like I’m impressed.

I mean I appreciate the amount of effort that they’ve had to go through to achieve that level, but that person may feel not satisfied because they’re not as good as they would like to be.

I mean, yeah, there’s no question.

I know in Japanese and French, which are my two best languages, I have no trouble.

I’m comfortable.

I don’t even think about it.

It’s done.

That’s in the bag.

That’s in history.

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: But, in all the other languages where I do claim to be fluent or fairly fluent or quite fluent, there are always moments when I struggle, when I end up kind of getting tongue tied because I couldn’t quite express what I wanted to express and I know that all kinds of mistakes are flying out there, you know?

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: But, I mean, if I worried about it for every one of the languages that I speak I would really be tongue tied.

I wouldn’t speak them at all.

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: It’s only by speaking them that we really improve in speaking.

Obviously, we can improve our comprehension by listening and reading, by increasing our vocabulary.

But, ultimately, speaking is a specific skill so at some point you’ve got to speak a lot.

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: So I’m sure when you went to Korea and you were there for a month, your speaking took a great…

Alex: Oh yeah. Less than a week in I did an interview with the guys that talked to me in Korean.

Steve: I saw that, yes.

Alex: What I was saying there was, basically, if we would have had this conversation two or three weeks ago I wouldn’t have sounded anything like this.

Steve: Right.

Alex: It was the fact that I was speaking every day, that I was completely immersed in the language, using it constantly, that then brought my speaking back up to the level I was at.

Steve: Exactly.

I think when you have one of these step ups you never lose it, I don’t think, because I think what it does is there’s such an intense language experience.

Like I visualize these neuro connections sort of being welded then.

There’s this heat.

There’s this intense heat that causes certain connections to form and it becomes a permanent step up.

You don’t lose that.

Alex: Right.

Steve: You might get a little rusty and so, ultimately, yeah, you have to go there, I think.

In fact, it raises an interesting point that I was asked on my YouTube channel.

They asked me to do a video on this and that is, at what point should you go to the country where the language is spoken.

Of course, as we know, there’s the one extreme, those people who think you should start off by going there.

I think that would be a mistake, because you could not achieve that intensity of language exchange.

You would still be behind the eight ball.

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: You’d still be, in fact, back listening and reading and trying to learn a few words.

Going back to Angela’s case, if Angela had the opportunity to go to Mexico or Honduras or Spain or somewhere for two months and from morning to night she was with native speakers, they were on a project, they were doing something together, she’d come away from that and she would be now ready.

She’d be almost where my French and Japanese are.

Obviously, I lived in France for three years.

I lived in Japan for nine.

So she wouldn’t be at that level, but she would take a major step forward.

Alex: Yeah.

I mean just to, I guess, wrap it up, I think one of the things that, basically, we talked about and you said yourself, if you see someone else who’s good in a language, even if they’re not as good as you, you’re impressed.

Steve: Right.

Alex: You say wow.

They’ve done a good job.

I think putting ourselves in other people’s shoes and seeing it from an outsider’s perspective it doesn’t have that then pressure on ourselves.

Steve: Right.

Alex: We tend to be the hardest on ourselves.

We set these goals for ourselves and when we don’t reach them we’re just ruthless, but if we look at it from an outsider’s perspective it really changes the focus of it.

It doesn’t make it this kind of pessimistic “I’m not improving, I’m not doing anything well” mindset.

Steve: Well, exactly.

I always say, too, you’ve got to enjoy the process.

I mean it’s a bit like golf.

Golf is, first and foremost, I think a social game.

You’re out there with three other people.

You’re having a pleasant walk.

If you don’t enjoy that process you should quit.

If you’re only concern is to get your score down, to shave two-three points off your handicap, well you’re going to be frustrated eight times out of 10, guaranteed.

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: So, you’ve got to have the attitude that I want to enjoy the game and I think the same is true with language learning.

I enjoy it immensely.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t recognize my shortcomings say in Russian, not to mention Korean, but I enjoy the process.

If I sit down tonight and do some Korean, listening, reading, linking, I know I’m going to enjoy it.

I am very dissatisfied with the level of my Korean, but I enjoy the process so it doesn’t matter.

Alex: Yup.

Steve: Okay.

Well, there we dealt with the doldrums.

Alex: Yes, the doldrums.

Steve: Yeah.

We’d be very interested in hearing what other people think.

What do they do when they get in the doldrums or hit a plateau, as you described it?

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: Okay. Thank you for listening.

Alex: Okay. Have a nice day.

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