The Intermediate Plateau

A lot of language learners talk about the Intermediate Plateau, a point in the course of language learning where improvement seems to drop off and the learner is left spinning their wheels.  They’ve gotten to a good level in their target language and can do quite a bit already, but not in any comfortable or polished way, and when they try to keep going with their learning they don’t see much in the way of results.  The start of the journey was full of improvements and the end of the journey is still way off, but now they’re just stuck where they are, plodding along with nothing to show for it.

Part of that feeling is likely an illusion; at the start, you know so little that any sort of gain is noticeable, while in the middle those small improvements are far harder to feel, camouflaged by the higher base level of knowledge.  A learner more or less is at a point where they can’t tell what it is they’re learning anymore.  Though it definitely isn’t only an illusion.

The improvements are harder to feel because they are less valuable to the learner overall.  At the very beginning, picking up the most basic vocabulary like ‘hello,’ or wrapping your head around concepts of how the language functions like how a verb is conjugated represent huge steps forward.  It’s building a foundation for the new language.

Inside the plateau, however, learning the word for shoelace, or getting the hang of the way caer conjugates, in the context where it means ‘to like (a person) platonically,’ is far less of an improvement overall.  It’s the same discrete amount of knowledge, but that knowledge doesn’t go as far.  Both because it’s now one of hundreds of bits of information compared to the one of tens that it used to be, but also because it’s information that could have been talked around before.

A speaker who doesn’t know the word for shoelace could get by saying ‘shoe string,’ ‘thing for tying on/attaching shoes,’ or even ‘shoe hair’ and be able to get across the idea, so having the real vocabulary doesn’t actually give the learner much of anything new to use. The foundation is already there, and the new information is just refining and adding nuance.

With new information being harder to notice and also less important, it’s no wonder that a lot of learners get stuck and flounder in the Intermediate Plateau as motivation wanes.  The usual advice is to stay diligent, fighting against those doldrums of demotivation, but also to push yourself in what you’re doing as much as possible.  Keeping up, but only doing comfortable things is just going to highlight the lack of progress and maybe make you feel worse.  Struggle your way through more difficult material and you end up focusing on things you are very much aware you have trouble with, and you’ll have a better, more specific yardstick to measure the small steps of improvement against.

I don’t know that I am at the Intermediate Plateau stage of learning yet.  Like a lot of these things, the definition of the stage is rather subjective and vague, so it’s kinda hard to judge.  I’m fairly sure I should be, as I think I’m comfortably deep in the middle-to-advanced intermediate reading level, with listening lagging just a little behind toward the start of intermediate.  That’s ‘early to mid B2 for reading, early B1 for listening’ for any CEFR sticklers.

But in truth, it’s hard to say, because I haven’t had much in the way of struggling through a lack of noticed gains yet.  Though that might just be a result of structuring my learning materials specifically to combat the plateau.  I’ve been steadily raising the difficulty on all my Spanish materials over time, from books aimed really young to novels for adults, and from toddler cartoons to much more complex shows and podcasts, all with the goal in mind of pushing my limits.  While a number of the things I’m working my way through remain very difficult, I can continuously see that I am improving.  It’s clear as the difficult things slowly grow easier and easier as I go through them, and it’s clear when I go back to stuff like Puffin Rock and understand it far better than I had before.

That’s right.  I can now fully understand a show aimed at preschoolers.  Are you proud of me now, dad?

Anyway, let’s get into the numbers.

Tuesday 9/18

  • Anki: 120 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 55 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 2 chapters of Harry Potter y la Orden del Fénix, ~90 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Bojack Horseman, ~20 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Wednesday 9/19

  • Anki: 140 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 90 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 2 chapters of Harry Potter y la Orden del Fénix, ~80 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Bojack Horseman, ~20 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Thursday 9/20

  • Anki: 140 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 240 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 2 chapters of Harry Potter y la Orden del Fénix, ~90 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Puffin Rock, ~20 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Friday 9/21

  • Anki: 130 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 60 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 2 chapters of Harry Potter y la Orden del Fénix, ~100 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of No Hay Tos, ~10 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Saturday 9/22

  • Anki: 120 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 60 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 2 chapters of Harry Potter y la Orden del Fénix, ~80 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Puffin Rock, 1 episode of My Little Pony, 1 episode of Bojack Horseman, ~60 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Sunday 9/23

  • Anki: 130 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 90 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 2 chapters of Harry Potter y la Orden del Fénix, ~90 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Puffin Rock, 1 episode of Bojack Horseman, ~40 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Monday 9/24

  • Anki: 130 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 60 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 2 chapters of Harry Potter y la Orden del Fénix, ~90 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of My Little Pony, 1 episode of Bojack Horseman, ~40 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes
  • Total Anki: 910 cards reviewed, 70 minutes
  • Total Duolingo: 655 XP, 210 minutes
  • Total Watching/Listening: 10 tv episodes and 1 podcast, 210 minutes
  • Total reading: 15 chapters read, 620 minutes
  • Total speaking: reading out loud, 210 minutes
  • Total Time: 18 hours 30 minutes

Not a terrible week, but not a great one, either.  I was rather busy through the week, and I’m also going through a mild amount of burnout, I think.  Not so much that I’ve dropped the ball, really, but I’ve certainly been less vigilant with everything.  I’m not sure that it’s over yet, either, so next week might be much the same.

I’m starting to get in the ballpark of finishing La Orden del Fénix, with maybe two hundred pages left to go on it.  As I said before, it’s a real thick book.  I think I’m going to need to take a break from Potter afterwards, probably with another short story by Borges and then maybe Matar a un Ruiseñor before going back into the series.  I know El Misterio del Príncipe and Las Reliquias de la Muerte are both noticeably shorter than Fénix is, so they won’t be quite the same sort of reading marathon, but my brain needs a good rinse of something different first.  I also have been having trouble finding Príncipe at the right price, so even if I were ready to keep going I might not have the book on hand just yet.

That’ll do for this week.  TTFN.

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