The Intermediate Plateau vs. The Intermediate Boost

An interesting thread on this forum started by Ellery has made me think about the idea of the “Intermediate Plateau,” and how this is actually completely avoidable phenomenon. Though in the past I myself have experienced this plateau, once I figured out what it was and how to get over it with one language, it was easy to avoid it the next time around, and turn the intermediate phase into a boost instead of a time of stagnation.

What is the intermediate plateau? In practical terms, I would identify it as this: When a student reaches the intermediate stage, but doesn’t switch their methodology that got them there, they will plateau.

Just as the song says: “it’s like you’re always stuck in second gear.” All one needs to do to get over the intermediate plateau is shift gears. Shift materials, shift methods, shift behaviors.

As often advised by Steve Kaurmann, I can attest that one of the best ways to do this is to shift over to native level content, especially long form reading as soon as possible – or at least as soon as one feels that they might be plateauing. If a student’s known word count here in LingQ is in the intermediate ranges, they’re actually nowhere near plateauing as far as vocab acquisition is concerned. They’re just not getting the right input.

There is actually an opposite phenomenon one can encounter: The Intermediate Boost. In similar practical terms I would describe this as: When a student manages to shift gears at the right time during the intermediate phase, they will experience a boost in many aspects of their language use, comprehension, speaking, etc.

For example, I never felt that I plateaued in German, because I think I shifted to reading books on LingQ just at the right time. And with Spanish, I’m using the reading method with native content from the very beginning. With that, I was moving along a bit slowly at first, but then I experienced the Intermediate Boost. With both these languages, instead of plateauing at 15K known words, things actually started really accelerating for me at that time. My reading and comprehension started really clicking, started listening to more audiobooks, etc. With Spanish I’m over 20K words now, and I’m nowhere near plateauing.

If you figure out how to switch gears at the right time, there is really no plateaus in language learning, there is just the summit of independent fluency on the top of the mountain.


Good insight. I had a similar experience when I was learning Japanese. I hit an intermediate plateau where I felt I wasn’t progressing at all for a long time. The thing that got me out of the rut was picking a topic (in my case astronomy) and reading (first) kids’ books on that topic and then adult books on the topic. The shift to native materials, in a focused topic, made all the difference for me.