The beginning stages of learning a language are often filled with excitement and determination. We go from knowing absolutely nothing in terms of vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation, celebrating each new acquisition of knowledge, to slowly being able to express ourselves in a basic way. Our trajectory looks like a steady upward curve, until we reach the intermediate (B1/B2) level and we feel that our improvement plateaus. At this level, we are probably comfortable using the language operationally and can get by with the familiar vocabulary, repeated phrases and satisfactory grammar forms that we churn out. We can communicate now, so we’ve reached our target, right? Not so.
Rather than being the end point, this intermediate stage is where the majority of my English second language students are when they begin lessons with me. They voice their common frustrations with not being able to advance to the next levels of proficiency to fluency. The old methods of vocabulary flash cards and using grammar workbooks (read our article on Introduction to phrasal verbs) are no longer yielding results. Their motivation and excitement about studying the language has also worn off. So, how do we overcome this dreaded intermediate plateau? Using English as an example target language, here are 3 simple ways to move past the threshold of intermediate and finally level up to become an advanced speaker.
1. Shift from studying English to using English as a tool to access other information.
When moving from intermediate to advanced in proficiency, studying English should no longer be our focus. As we’ve established, we’re operational in this language now, so we can leverage that and learn new things in this language rather than using our native language to access new information. Read the news and use search engines in English, learn a new skill through English instruction, take a course in English, even learn a new language from English rather than from your native language. This way we are not actually focusing on English itself, which may be boring at this stage in our proficiency, but we are focusing on something new that excites or engages us, with English merely as the tool to acquire the knowledge that we want.
This helps to restore our motivation to improve our language skills. In addition, by expanding our horizons, it is likely that we will come across new vocabulary, phrases and terminology in English that we otherwise would not have encountered or had an interest in learning. These new forms are contextualized and relevant, so we’re more likely to remember them and incorporate them into our own repertoires. Expanding our vocabulary and adding more advanced and nuanced phrases are important steps in moving closer to fluency. To reach your goal quickly you can also take a look at the Fun English idioms to sound like a native.
2. Adjust your environment to be more immersed in English
We’ve all heard of people who accelerated their proficiency by moving to a country that speaks their target language. While this is a great way to achieve fluency, it may not be feasible or desirable for everyone to uproot themselves. It is possible, however, to tweak the environment around us and automatically increase our daily exposure to the acquired language. Changing the language of our technology from our mother tongue to English (for example) is a great hack, as most of us use our phones, laptops, TVs, and tablets multiple times per day. Since we are probably familiar with the layout of these interfaces, it shouldn’t be too difficult to navigate in our target language, and subconsciously we are seeing this language in our ‘environment’ constantly where it was previously absent.
Another way to adjust the language of our environment is to do our hobbies in our target language. Particularly if we attend classes (be it dancing, sports, art, photography, cooking, gardening, sewing etc.) or participate in group activities, we can find instructors or participants who use English to hone these skills. If you’re in a country that doesn’t use much English at all, try to find foreigners in expat communities through online groups and forums. There are almost always foreigners hosting events in English for other expats, and if not you can simply follow English instructors through video/online recordings. You can also join online communities that share your hobby or interest, as global groups usually operate in English.
Probably the most common way to adjust our environment is to consume content for fun in English. I’m sure you’ve tried this before, but listening to music, watching movies or series, reading books and following social media accounts in your target language is an easy and enjoyable way to get more contact with the language every day. Remember to be actively engaged with the language by looking up new vocabulary words or noting down expressions that you come across which you’d like to incorporate into your own communication.
3. Increase your output in English and be consistent
The main reason why intermediate students seek out lessons with native English instructors is because they have little opportunity to use English in their daily lives. Simply having a person to speak to in English on a regular basis is often enough to maintain and even increase their language proficiency. Therefore, getting a private tutor to guarantee that you’ll have consistent practice using English is a great idea. Alternatively, making friends with native speakers of your target language is a great way to force yourself to use that language, especially if they do not speak your language. Again, check out expat and traveler groups or local language exchanges on social apps if you don’t encounter foreigners in your daily life.
If you absolutely are not able to find a native speaker to communicate with, speak to yourself! It may sound a little crazy, but recording your voice while you talk about your day or give your opinion on current events or content you’ve read can be a great way to use your English regularly. Recording puts you on the spot in the same way as live conversations do, and you can listen back to yourself to spot any mistakes that you might have made. You can also make a habit of journaling in English as a way to process your day and practice expressing yourself authentically in your target language.
Ultimately, you are learning another language in order to use it and connect with more people than previously possible. Take advantage of being at an intermediate phase and incorporate the target language into your daily life as much as you can, and I assure you that you’ll overcome the plateau sooner than you think!