What is this so called "intermediate plateau" thing everyone is talking about?

Sorry to bombard you guys with questions, but I am very curious.

  1. What is the intermediate plateau?

  2. Approximately between what two levels or maybe word counts would you find yourself in this thing?

  3. What changes in your language learning would you have to make to get out of the plateau faster?

  4. Is it different for different languages?


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It’s a phenomenon that many people encounter when learning a language. It’s equivalent to Steve Kaufmann’s “inverted hockey stick” analogy.
Basically, what tends to happen is that you progress fairly quickly when you are at a beginner’s level but, as you progress, you experience “diminishing returns” (as in many other areas), so that your knowledge seems to improve slower.
There are no general rules as to when you will experience this effect or how strongly. Luca Lampariello has recently talked about this. He considers that it happens between levels B and C, between “fluency” and “proficiency”, using his terms, but your mileage may vary.
I would say that it does depend on language. Every language has its own idiosycratic difficulties that show up at different learning stages, but it also depends on your learning style and your own strengths and weaknesses
Luca has proposed a few techniques to accelerate learning, you may want to have a look at what he has to say:

Steve has also talked about this recently:

I had this experience with Italian (many years ago.) I’d say it’s about reaching a level where we are able to do some useful things like:

1.) communicate to a significant degree in the language, speaking quite quickly and manipulating the structures of the language with reasonable accuracy (albeit not without any stumbling or making mistakes)

2.) listen to the spoken language and understand 95% or more when it is spoken at normal speed. And do so without having to concentrate very hard - at least if the subject is non-specialist. There are gaps in understanding, but one can still enjoy listening without losing the thread of what is being said.

3.) read and understand a fair amount - especially things like articles in popular glossy magazines, etc. (However more serious or highbrow literature will still be way too hard!)

At this level there is also a kind of feeling that active use - the ability to express oneself - lags significantly behind passive understanding. There is a sense of being able to understand more that one is able to say - which can be very frustrating.

The reason it felt like a “plateau” for me was that that my Italian wasn’t any longer getting better over time - or at least it sure felt that way.

At an earlier stage one can learn 300 words and - wham! - things really go up a gear. At intermediate level, we might listen for dozens of hours, strive to learn several hundred new words…yet things don’t seem to be getting any better at all.

The unfortunate truth, I think, is that new vocabulary eventually starts to yield diminishing returns. The first 2000 or 3000 words learned as a beginner are likely to have a (very!) much higher frequency of occurrence than the new words that one will be learning at intermediate to advanced level. Indeed, there are some more advanced words that (though they may be vital to understand a particular point in a particular context) might not be encountered in 2 whole years worth of living in the country in question… (EDIT: I just saw Ftornay already explained this point very well above.)

You could say that breaking through this barrier is one of the great enigmas of language learning!

Thank you for all your replies. So it seems like reading specialized content over and over might be a way to get past this plateau.

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Yea, I think this is very much so happening to me in German right now. At 10,000 words I can listen to most things and kind of, sort of understand what is going on, at least the gist. It feels like I am so so close to understanding but I just… can’t… quite… understand everything. Many sentences have a word here or there I don’t know or can’t quite remember and it feels pretty daunting at this point.

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As a teacher, I see the plateau happening consistently with adults at B2. but i think only about 40-50% of my students actually plateau. My students usually come to me because they feel stuck. In almost all cases, I ask them what they do to study English. Most of my students still come the old-school grammar and vocabulary study world. They are bored and frustrated. I do my best to guide them towards listening, reading, and interacting. I suspect many of them are still subconsciously seeking a magic English pill.

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One nice thing about German is the relatively large number of compound nouns. Some are pretty obvious. If you know that “aus” = “out” and “Land” = “country”, then you can easily see that “Ausländer” = “foreigner”. And if you know that “Feind” = “enemy”, then you can easily guess that “feindlich” = “hostile” and “die Feindlichkeit” = “hostility”; and thus “die Ausländerfeindlichkeit” means something along the lines of “xenophobia”.

Then there are words derived from strong verbs. So from “ziehen” we get “der Zug”, from “anschließen” we get “der Anschluss” - which then gives us “der Internetanschluss”, etc.

But, yeah, there’s still a lot of roots to learn.

As I said on another thread, check out my recent video on the subject. Breaking Through the Intermediate Language Wall - YouTube


I always thought of this in terms of word acquisition and word frequency. Although it most certainly applies to other aspects of language learning as well.

Imagine if you were starting out learning a new language. In the beginning you’re going to learn high frequency words that pop up in texts all the time, regardless of subject matter. But the longer you study and the more words you learn; the usage for each word gets lower. At some point you’re left with learning words that are very specific in usage and gives very little “reward” in the language as a whole.

The learner will percieve the studying to have slowed down as the eureka moments grow further and further a part. But in actuality it’s just as effective as it has always been. So the only way of getting out of that specific stafe would be to use the language more. Which is the case for all levels.

Most people that get stuck at this plateau tend to be people learning languages purely from text books or in classes. The effectiveness of reading and listening corresponds directly to your level in the language. Trying to flash card your way through 5000 nouns is going to kill your interest. But reading and picking up words through context will feel progressively easier.

I don’t have any factual numbers or levels, and my guess would be that it varies from language to language. At least on the surface. And here on LingQ, in terms of statistics, the difference is massive. With 35k linqs in korean, most new texts have 40-60% new words. In English with 15k lingqs it’s close to 10%.

With that said, if you count word families, I believe the plateau would happen around the same number of known words.

I didn’t bring much new to the discussion, but that’s a few of my thoughts on the subject at least…

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I feel a plateau in Italian concerning grammar. I read and listen a lot but I decided to concentrate on grammar more, not necessarily do grammar exercises but read grammar in the textbooks with examples. I hope in this way my knowledge of Italian grammar (especially past tenses and subjonctif) can improve.

@usablefiber: I know you got a lot going on but if you’re at this point, try to spend 3 months only working on German. You’re so close to the fun part!

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I don’t know that the “plateau” exists only at the intermediate level of learning.
If you reach a plateau, it means you have done well and accomplished something.
Not to change the subject, but I wonder how you can estimate your situation quantitatively. Isn’t it a psychological feeling, a sense of irritation that is unrelated to what might be called the “real” process of learning?


I wouldn’t like to avoid this “intermediate plateau”. It’s a real and neccessary level which everyone goes through even in his/her native language.
For native speakers it is between 6 and 10 years old - from the concrete things to the abstract concepts.
So why we have to avoid and to be afraid of such a “plateau” in our new language?
Just continue to go ahead without any panic - and you can go through this level receiving a new freedom in your new language!


Yea, it’s the problem with Juggling 4 languages right now: You can’t get those bursts of progression. I probably should put Korea or Russian on the sidelines for now. It’s tough when you like so many languages!

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Yes , you’re right . But actually if you’re a impatient type of person, It wouldn’t be easy and acceptable as you say :). Plateau is a good signal for your level of language, though.

I feel i won’t be fluent in English. Because, it seems likie i can’t improve my vocabulary and grammar anymore . It’s a motivation problem for continuation, as well.

Yes, I feel the same way about my Italian. I’ve spent most of my time listening and reading here, and can hold on a conversation fine, but once I have to express myself in the past or using the conditional and subjunctive I start to have problems.

This is the point when it’s probably best to hammer through a few grammar exercise books. But I just can’t motivate myself to do it… :slight_smile:

Yes I fully understand this. My only motivation is that I go regularly to an Italian chat for students and native speakers and I want to have my grammar improved so that I could write there better. But at the moment I do not read grammar books but started to read a book (in Italian). I hope this can help a bit too.