Understanding the Intermediate Plateau

If I'm really stuck on a plateau, at least I know I haven't peaked yet

While I have occasionally had unrealistic fantasies over learning Spanish to my goal super-fast, I have mostly viewed this project as a long-haul endeavor.  Nobody learns a language overnight, and every expert out there warns about how necessary it is to put in the time and effort in order to see results.  I didn’t start in expecting to pick it up over the course of a few weeks, I had the suspicion that the process would be years in the making.  So far that’s held true.

I can also easily recognize the learning arc that often gets described by experts as I look back with hindsight.  At the early going it was very overwhelming, because there was just a wealth of stuff that I plain old didn’t know, but that feeling was tempered by constant discovery.  There was a wealth of stuff I didn’t know, which meant there was always something new I was learning.  I couldn’t necessarily hold onto every new thing I learned each day, but there was a real sense of momentum and accumulation there.  Throw a thousand new things at a wall, and some of them are bound to stick, after all.

Then, several months in and with a few books under my belt, that sense of being overwhelmed tapered off and was replaced with a growing confidence.  Suddenly there was a lot I did know.  Obviously the stuff I didn’t know vastly outweighed that small pool of earned knowledge, but I had a base to work off of and could make my way through content in Spanish and actually understand it.  A lot of stuff was still too difficult and I sometimes had to give up and regroup, but I was truly and authentically engaging with the language.  I had entered the intermediate plateau.

The intermediate plateau is an interesting place.  It’s a common topic of conversation in these online spaces, mostly rooted in people looking for directions off the damn thing.  Nobody wants to be on the plateau.  Being on the plateau means you’re walking forward, but not improving in a discernible way.  The difficult, rewarding flopsweat work of the early going has been done, and now you’re just trudging along, potentially for years.  You start to question yourself.  You were doing so good there for a while, what changed?  Are you doing something wrong now?  How long are you going to be stuck here?  It felt so good to be adding knowledge and seeing that improvement before, is that all gone and you’re left feeling like nothing’s happening forever?

The plateau is the fail point for a lot of language learning projects.  You hit a stride, then get discouraged and bored when that stride carries you along a barren field, and you wander off to do something else.  Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you, there are plenty of “serial dabblers” who hop from language to language, working their way up to an intermediate level and get a good feel for one before moving onto the next.  Which is a totally valid way to approach language learning, it’s just not been my goal for it.  The thing that I’ve aimed for since landing on the plateau was to stop focusing on the extrinsic in favor of the intrinsic: it doesn’t matter if I’m not feeling myself improve dramatically in a language if I’m getting something out of the studying itself.  I can plod along the plateau until time ends if I’m reading and watching stuff that makes me daily life more pleasant.

Which, boiling things down, is my general advice about language learning that I’d happily give to everyone: find stuff you’d want to consume in your native language, do that in your new language instead, and stop worrying about all this plateau stuff.  Enjoy the journey, not the destination, not because the journey is the “best part” or whatever other kumbaya bullshit you associate with that idea, but because the destination is really far away and you’re gonna get frustrated and bored waiting for it.  Focusing on the intrinsic rewards from the studying turns a chore into something you do automatically for personal pleasure.  If you don’t find that and leave it as a chore, which is now something you don’t get any sense of accomplishment for doing, you’re gonna really be plodding along for a very long time.

And it has been a long time for me.  I first discussed the possibility that I was in the plateau back in September 2018, and by the start of the year I probably was actually there, which means we’re closing out on a cool year of plodding.  What’s interesting about that, though, is that the day to day not-getting-anywhere turns into a steady and noticeable improvement with hindsight.  I might not see much week to week, or even month to month, but six month to six month?  There are tons of things that I know now that I didn’t at the start of the year.  More words, more grammatical structure, more experience with the language, letting it feel well-worn and natural in ways it just couldn’t back then.  I might have read and understood those early going books, but not with the same flow as I could now.  And that’s just for reading, my listening comprehension has skyrocketed since then.

At the end of the day, I think my real takeaway is that ‘the intermediate plateau’ is a misnomer.  You’re still going uphill and climbing the mountain, the incline has just gotten a lot less steep.  That might seem like a negative compared to the early-going rock-wall climbing you have to do, but it’s honestly a good thing.  Languages are too big to handle the straight scaling upward.  You’re not climbing a rock-wall at the gym, you’re climbing Mount Olympus, you need the path to be walkable if you’re ever going to get up all the way.  And it really isn’t even that flat, you are constantly learning new stuff at that stage, it just doesn’t feel the same.  And why should it?  Adding a grain of sand to a thimble feels a lot more monumental than adding one to a beach.  The feeling isn’t real, it’s illusory.

Which is how I’m going to classify “the intermediate plateau.”  It doesn’t actually exist, it is an illusion, and ought to be treated as such.  I’m at an intermediate stage with my learning still, because after intermediate comes mastery and I know I’m not there yet, but there is no plateau in sight.  I’m on a mountain, and I’m still climbing.

Now then, let’s take a look at this week’s numbers.

Tuesday 12/24

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 3% of Cien Años de Soledad, ~60 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Radio Ambulante, 1 episode of Arte Divierte, ~60 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Wednesday 12/25

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 3% of Cien Años de Soledad, ~60 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 2 episodes of Kiwillius, ~90 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Thursday 12/26

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 4% of Cien Años de Soledad, ~70 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Kiwillius, 1 episode of Carole & Tuesday, ~60 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Friday 12/27

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 3% of Cien Años de Soledad, ~60 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Radio Ambulante, 1 episode of La Zona Cero, ~60 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Saturday 12/28

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: .5 cases in Ghosts of Miami, ~60 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Seis Manos, 1 episode of Carole & Tuesday, 1 episode of Daniel San GMR, ~90 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Sunday 12/29

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 5% of Cien Años de Soledad, ~90 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Daniel San GMR, ~60 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Monday 12/30

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 3% of Cien Años de Soledad, ~60 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Kiwillius, 1 episode of Radio Ambulante, 1 episode of La Zona Cero, ~60 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes
  • Total Duolingo: 140 XP, 0 minutes
  • Total reading: 1/5 books and .5 video game cases, 490 minutes
  • Total watching/listening: 9 YouTube episodes, 3 podcasts, and 3 tv episodes, 480 minutes
  • Total speaking: reading out loud, 210 minutes
  • Total Time: 16 hours 10 minutes

A normal week in the number department, while a decidedly not normal one in real life.  Between the holiday at the start and some weirdness with work scheduling, I had a lot of stuff going on.  Christmas came and went, and wasn’t a terrible drag this year, which was nice, and I got some good study time in.  This week was strange at work, so I don’t yet have enough information to know what to expect yet in terms of how much reading I can expect to fit in at work, because there are still too many variables.

I’m inching closer to finishing Cien Años de Soledad, which continues being not bad, but really dense and with some themes that I find uncomfortable.  I’ll be through it eventually, but it’s naturally kinda dragging, and that isn’t helped along by me playing through more of Ghosts of Miami here and there.  If I wasn’t so stubborn, I’d be more receptive to the idea of dropping this one and aiming for something that I’m more into reading, but I unfortunately am this sort of person.

And to add insult to my struggle through uncomfortable themes issues, I continued on with more of Carole & Tuesday this week, and ran afoul with one of the side characters making me uncomfortable.  I just can’t win.  I mostly like the show otherwise, so I’ll probably keep watching it, but it feels like the universe is conspiring against me.  Doesn’t help that I’m feeling down in the dumps in general, either

Anyway, gloominess aside, I’m not totally bereft of entertainment or anything, there are still plenty of options online and plenty of things to read.  I’ve been greatly enjoying Radio Ambulante, which fits well into a podcast niche I was really feeling, and I gave a Netflix show called Seis Manos a shot and found the first episode pretty interesting.  The options aren’t all bad.

I have a feeling I’ll get out of the gloom and start feeling better in a couple more weeks, once I’m really and truly settled into an expected routine.  There’s still a lot of unknown and anxiety wrapped up in my new job as I get used to things, and I’ve also been slowly going insane waiting with as much patience as possible for a doctor appointment I had to schedule out like two months in advance.  I think I’ve earned my grump, even if it’s a bit unpleasant.

All that junk aside, there are lots of positives that are going on, too.  Even with the anxiety of the unknown, I’m finding myself mostly enjoying the job, and the wages are a lot more comfortable than what I was struggling with for the last few years.  And I’ve almost made it to that doctor appointment, where I hope to be validated and start in on doing the singlemost scary, exhilarating, affirming, and difficult thing I’ve even done in my life.  Fingers crossed.

As this blog goes up on New Year’s Eve, let me wish anyone out there reading a happy new year.  I’ll be wrapping up the tail end of 2019 and looking forward to 2020 in the next blog, so we’ll regroup from the hangover then, in the new decade.  TTFN.

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