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I am currently living in Curitiba, a city in the south of Brazil where I’m learning Portuguese. There’s this cafe that I like to go to sometimes to work. It’s close to my apartment, they have a sandwich I really like, and the coffee is great.
I’ve been going there probably once or twice a week for several months. I’ve gotten to know the owner, and she and I have little conversations in Portuguese. It feels easy and I find it very satisfying that my Portuguese is good enough that I can have good conversations with someone I don’t know well. Sometimes I feel like I’m approaching fluency.
But last week, the barista was a person I’d never met.
I ordered the same sandwich as always, but she didn’t understand me.
I had to repeat myself three times and ultimately point at the menu. And then I ordered my coffee, and she didn’t understand that either.
It went so badly that she ended up asking if I could switch to English because that would be easier. The horror!
Besides prompting me to consider improving my pronunciation, it felt very discouraging. I consider myself to be at a high-intermediate level. Most of my experiences in Brazil confirm that: I usually have no problem communicating in daily life, or with friends and family in Portuguese.
What’s worse is that I feel like I’ve been making really good progress. I can understand most of what I hear and read, I have conversations with natives daily, and I can even write decently. I usually would have no trouble ordering a sandwich—how basic!
So why did I have difficulty this time?
Sure, she was from another region of the country, so perhaps my accent was too far from what she’s used to. But as much as I’d like to believe that I’m getting closer to “advanced” Portuguese, this experience reminded me that I’m still firmly in the intermediate level.
And sometimes I feel stuck there.
Even though I think I’ve made a lot of progress and people tell me that I speak really well, sometimes I have experiences like this that bring me back down to earth. They prompt me to wonder if I’m really making any progress at all.
We actually have a name for this in language learning: it’s the intermediate plateau.
In this article, I want to give you some advice for struggling through that intermediate plateau in English and getting closer to an advanced level.
What is the intermediate plateau in English?
The intermediate plateau is a stage in your language learning where you stop progressing as quickly as before.
When you’re a beginner, it’s not that hard to learn a lot of language in a short period of time. Within a few days, you can learn a few basic phrases and some vocabulary. Within a month you might be able to have simple conversations about everyday topics. Your progress happens fast, you can see it, and it feels great.
But when you get to an intermediate level, progress can slow down—not because you’re not improving, but because the progress isn’t as drastic. It’s harder to notice learning 200 new words if you already know 2,000 compared to if you don’t know any.
So rather than feeling like we’re making progress up the mountain, it can feel like we’ve reached a “plateau” and have stopped making progress.
It can be really frustrating, and many language learners give up at this point.
Who does it affect?
People stuck in the dreaded intermediate plateau are usually those who have been learning English for a while and have made good progress.
Like me, they can probably have a range of successful conversations without too much difficulty. They can understand most of what’s being said on a Netflix show or a YouTube video, and they can understand the gist when they read.
And—usually—they can order a sandwich without trouble.
What does intermediate actually mean?
The first part of the problem with the intermediate plateau—part of the reason it feels like we stay there for so long—is that “intermediate” is not well-defined.
There are some definitions out there. The B1 and B2 levels of the CEFR scale, which define characteristics of “independent” users, are commonly understood to describe people at an intermediate levels.
According to the CEFR, an independent user:
- Can understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in his/her field of specialisation.
- Can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party.
- Can produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options.
That’s one way of defining it, but “intermediate” actually means different things to different people.
In some ways the “intermediate” level is the huge area between beginners (people who are just starting out) and advanced speakers (a small group of people who are very confident in their ability). The intermediate level may take a long time to get through because it includes such a huge range of ability.
The second part of the problem is that we may not judge ourselves accurately. In my experience as both an English teacher and a language learner, people are much more critical of their own ability than others are of them. We see ourselves as intermediate even when others would say that we are advanced.
So part of the reason there’s a plateau is that even when we’ve left the intermediate stage, we may not feel like we have because there’s not a clear border between the two.
Characteristics of the intermediate plateau
But even if we feel stuck partly because we’re a bit hard on ourselves, sometimes we’re stuck because getting our language to a more advanced stage really is challenging.
Jack Richards is a language theorist that has written extensively on the intermediate plateau and how to get out of it.
He suggests that the intermediate plateau is characterised by several features:
- A gap between receptive and productive competence. You can understand (from listening or reading) much more than you can produce (in speaking or writing).
- Fossilised language errors. You may have mistakes in your language that are kind of “baked in”—that persist.
- Fluency may have progressed at the expense of complexity. In other words, you may speak easily, quickly, and accurately, but you may not use very complex grammar structures.
- Limited vocabulary. You may be stuck with a more limited set of words that you over-use.
- Language production doesn’t feel natural. You may speak fluently in English with good grammar but it may still feel too formal or “bookish”.
What can I do about it?
The trick to getting out of the intermediate plateau is to engage in English and devote time to learning and using it. You need to:
- “Live” English. Immerse yourself in it for hours. Be intentional about using it constantly, whether at work, or at school, or just to learn new things in your free time. Read books, listen to English podcasts, watch TV in it, use it on social media. Make it a part of your life.
- Be a deliberate, active learner. Make time to “study” English. Be an active learner. That means not just passively listening to it, but doing things like reading podcast transcripts while you listen, highlighting new vocabulary, shadowing, writing summaries of films you’ve watched, doing listening exercises, and so on.
Here are seven more specific suggestions, based on research, about how you can move past the intermediate plateau.
1. Listen more, and notice
We’ve written before about Stephen Krashen’s input hypothesis and how you can learn language from comprehensible input.
Another language researcher, Richard Schmidt, argues that you actually have to notice new language features for them to make their way into your own language development. (Again, do you see that the emphasis is on learning actively?)
It turns out that there is a connection between you noticing—paying attention to—features of language and you using those features in your own speech.
The take-away: Don’t just listen to native speakers; actively pay attention to their speech patterns. Then try to mimic these in your own speech.
We’ve created an extensive guide to improving your English listening skills if you need ideas about how to find listening materials.
2. Output: practise speaking and writing
In addition to the input hypothesis for language acquisition—which has ample evidence supporting it—there is also a corresponding output hypothesis.
The output hypothesis suggests the perhaps obvious idea that you need to practise speaking a language to get better at speaking it.
Producing language, and then noticing your errors or noticing when others do not understand you, helps push you towards greater development.
The central point here is that, while there are lots of speaking activities that you can do alone, the output hypothesis suggests that you should speak with another English speaker—at least some of the time. This person doesn’t need to be a native English speaker, but they should speak English reasonably well—perhaps at a level better than yours.
The feedback from your conversation partner—whether they understand you or not—will help you to improve your language development.
The take-away: ensure conversation in English is a regular part of your English learning programme.
Here’s our advice about finding an English conversation partner if you don’t already have one. And if you are wondering about why your understanding of English is so much better than your speaking, you'll probably enjoy our article on Why You Understand English Better Than You Can Speak It—and What You Can Do About It.
3. Record yourself speaking English
One of the characteristics of the intermediate plateau is fossilised errors—errors that you make consistently and that have become a kind of bad habit.
First, I want to clarify that it’s completely fine—even desirable—to make mistakes when learning a language. It’s okay to make the same mistake over and over again.
It’s better to get out there, try, and fail, than to not try.
But once you’re moving towards the advanced level, you can shift your attention to cleaning up those little errors.
For example, in English, a common one is forgetting the “s” at the end of third-person singular verbs. Everyone will still understand you if you forget it, but it’s a mistake that advanced speakers don’t make.
One way to notice the errors you make and fix them is to record to yourself speaking. Not only is listening to yourself a great way to measure your progress over time, but it’s also a great way to see these little errors that you might be making regularly. You don’t have the same opportunity to catch your mistakes yourself if you are speaking with a conversation partner.
The take-away: Record yourself speaking and use those recordings to notice errors that you make regularly.
Some grammar mistakes are more important than others… Here are the 6 English Grammar Rules You Can Break.
4. Learn more complex grammatical forms
One of the ways that I know I’m an intermediate speaker in Portuguese—and not advanced—is that I always talk about the future using “going to”. For example, I’d say Eu vou dar um presente (“I’m going to give a present”) rather than the actual future tense (“I will give a present”).
I do that because I don’t actually know the future tense.
Many English learners find themselves in the same boat, not really knowing how to use some tenses or phrasal verbs or grammar structures. And it’s understandable: those things can be hard.
For this one, you just have to sit down and learn it. For example, if I were going to focus on learning the future tense, my plan would be:
- Look up the rules and what the typical conjugations are
- Then, find out if there are some irregular verbs, and learn those separately
- Then, use a spaced-repetition app to reinforce my learning and help me remember
- Then, notice the future tense in the reading and listening that I do
- Then, make a point to practise the future tense in my speaking activities and conversations
- Then, reinforce it through writing activities
The take-away: intentionally broadening the grammatical structures you know and can use will help you break out of the intermediate plateau.
5. Develop your vocabulary
Jack Richards says that intermediate English speakers can get stuck using the vocabulary they already know and stop expanding it. They often get stuck with the 3,000 most common words.
Now, 3,000 is a lot. It’s about what a lower intermediate learner should aim for.
But 5,000 is roughly what’s needed to read and understand most of a short novel. And you’ll need about 10,000 to understand first-year university materials.
If you’re an intermediate learner in English, you probably know all the most common words. Your goal now is to steadily learn the words you don’t see as often. Aim for about 5,000 to 6,000—what some researchers suggest is at the top of the intermediate range. You want to find those words that are used less frequently but are not too obscure that they’re not useful.
You can do that by exploring English through a diversity of subjects, reading more complicated texts, or listening to podcasts on a wide variety of topics. Then, use a system, like spaced repetition, to remember the words in the long term.
The take-away: To get to an advanced level, you’re going to need to expand your vocabulary.
We’ve provided some ideas about how to expand your English vocabulary, including using spaced repetition flashcard programmes like Brainscape or Anki.
6. Change your mentality
Perhaps one of the most important ways of getting through the intermediate plateau is to reframe the way you think about it and change your attitude.
- Take a moment to appreciate how far you’ve come. If you’re in the intermediate plateau, you’ve learned enough that you can get by in English. Congratulations! That’s a really big deal. Reflecting on your progress can help keep you motivated.
- Try to stop feeling like an imposter. You’re not one. There are more non-native English speakers than native English speakers. You belong here with us in this group of “English speakers”.
- Try not seeing your goal as learning everything in English. You can’t. Instead, focus on what you have learned and how far you’ve come. Use that satisfying feeling to help you continue.
The take-away: Feeling confident in English can help you progress to the next level.
Here’s why your attitude is more important for learning English than your intelligence.
7. Keep working at it
The most important thing for getting through the intermediate plateau in English is just continuing to work at it. Even if it doesn’t feel like you’re making progress, you probably are.
So keep going.
- Set goals. Creating specific goals that are doable for you and for which you can see your progress is one of the best ways to stay motivated.
- Create a routine. Making a language routine and creating a learning system will help you stay consistent in your learning and help ensure that you’re making progress.
- Find a supportive community. Finding a group of people who support you (and tell you how great your English is!) can make all the difference. (Leonardo English has one of the most supportive communities out there!)
- Find things you like. You’ll continue with English if you’re using it for things you love. Use your passions to motivate you to continue even when it’s hard.
- If your activities aren’t working for you, switch. Create a language learning programme that works for you. If you find you’re not making progress with the activities you’re using, mix them up.
The take-away: It takes a lot of time and effort to get to the advanced level. So find ways to put in that time.
Don’t have time? Here’s how to find some time to learn English when it feels like you have none. Need some motivation? Here are some stories of English learners from the Leonardo English community to give you some inspiration.
How long will I be stuck on the Intermediate Plateau?
It depends, of course. It depends on how much you work at your English, how often, and what types of activities you do.
But one thing is for sure: the more you use English—the more you sit in it and make it a part of your life—the faster you’ll make it past the intermediate plateau and into the advanced levels beyond.
We can do it!
If you’re in the intermediate plateau, I understand how frustrating it can be. We’re in the same boat.
But this is just one stage on the path to being an advanced language user. Take heart the way I do: I think to myself, “lots of people have learned Portuguese before me...If they can do it, why can’t I?”
There are tonnes of people that have learned English before you.
They’ve gotten through the intermediate plateau and gotten to whatever’s next—perhaps the “advanced summit”.
Keep on going, enjoy the journey, and you’ll get there too.
Greaney, V. (1980). Factors related to amount and type of leisure time reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 15(3) 337-357.
Krashen, S. (1989). We acquire vocabulary and spelling by reading: Additional evidence for the input hypothesis. The Modern Language Journal, 73(4), 440-464.
Richards, J. C. (2008). Moving beyond the plateau: From intermediate to advanced levels in language learning. Cambridge University Press.
Saragi, T. (1978). Vocabulary learning and reading. System, 6(2), 72-78.
Saville-Troike, M., & Barto, K. (2016). Introducing second language acquisition. Cambridge University Press.
Schmidt, R. W. (1990). The role of consciousness in second language learning. Applied Linguistics, 11(2), 129-158.