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How to get over a plateau stopping you from making progress: how I’m doing it with my Chinese

| 36 comments | Category: learning languages

One of the biggest questions I get asked by people already deep into their language learning project relates to how they should get over the plateau they are stuck in.

There are many different types of plateaux you could be looking at. Maybe you have learned some basic vocab but can’t muster up the courage to use it with people? Maybe you’re already talking but can’t get past speaking more than a few words? Maybe you are actually speaking, but stuck at a certain level of conversation with lots of mistakes? In the intermediate spot and wish you could jump up to advanced?

Wherever you are, it seems like no amount of work, studying, practice or anything else is getting you out of this spot.

Today’s advice is very simple for how I’ve learned the hard way to get out of such a plateau, as I’ve encountered dozens of plateaux in my language learning projects over the last decade:

Completely change your strategy

This may seem obvious, but if what you are doing now isn’t working to bring you forward then what you are doing now is not good enough.

I’ve lost count of the number of times someone has emailed me to say something along the lines of “no matter how much I study, I’m not progressing!” Well, then clearly just more of the same thing is not going to help. A favourite quote of mine defining “insanity” is:

“Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”

It doesn’t matter how wonderful you think the software you are using is, how many rave reviews the course you paid for got, or how much of a difference you think an approach like good old studying should work. If it isn’t working to genuinely bring you noticeably forward, ditch it right now.

REALLY think about what is holding you back

In this Chinese project of mine, one of the key factors of ensuring fast progress has been that I have changed my approach entirely every week, based on what my biggest issue to overcome that week is.

This has in fact been the key to fast progress. I have ultimately run into some “plateau” every week and thought hard about how to get around it (or applied something that I knew from experience with other languages would work).

So if you were to ask me what my “typical day” learning Chinese was, then I simply can’t give you a useful answer, other than to give you a typical day of one particular week. If I did have the same strategy every single week, then there’s no way I’d be able to converse with people by now.

For example, after pushing myself ahead, at the end of the first month I could use basic Chinese with people, and remember sentences I had learned off (as demonstrated in my one month video), and have quick exchanges if the answer I was looking for was a simple one word or set phrase. But I couldn’t actually converse with anyone. A million hours of studying or repeating what I had done for my first month, wouldn’t have gotten me around this problem.

As efficient as a strategy might be, no strategy will work for every stage of learning a language.

Looking at my situation, rather than my “biggest problem” being that Chinese is too hard, I don’t have enough words, or other such nonsense that has no actual short-term actionable solution, the problem was actually that I hadn’t tried to speak to people hard or long enough.

So what I did was bite the bullet, and set myself up with 3 hours of conversation a day.

This does not mean that 3 hours of conversation a day will solve every possible problem I will encounter but it was by far the best way to deal with the problem of “I can’t hold up a conversation for more than a few seconds”. I threw myself in the deep end until I fixed this problem – all other problems can be put on hold.

It was a really rough week or two; especially the first sessions since I was drawing too many blanks and feeling incredibly exhausted from the brainmelting of trying to say anything beyond the comfortable quick bursts of “Can I have that please? Thank you”. But at the end of it, I could talk as long as I wanted.

Adapt your approach to your biggest problem

After dealing with that problem of not being able to speak for very long, another issue I had was simply not being able to properly interact. If the topic was very easy, like my travels or work, then I could go off on a soliloquy and simply have the person interact with me to correct my mistakes, or ask me the next question. Now long speaking sessions were more comfortable, but I clearly had other problems to fix.

This sounds like a huge enough task to take on, but I broke it down into sub problems that I could handle and fix on a week per week basis, until I was able to fully understand the questions directed at me two weeks ago, and then next, to being able to have a more complex discussion and not have the other person speak so slowly this week, with more interaction than before.

Now I have other issues I’m working on that I’ve decided should take priority, such that they reduce communication potential in some way.

When this mission has ended, I’ll be coming back to describe the many steps I took (as well as, of course, particular tricks specifically relevant to learning Chinese) but to be honest the key to it all has been this approach of solving my biggest problem THIS week.

This impatience has been a key to moving forward.

I have totally abandoned many techniques that I had applied vigorously in previous weeks. For example, in my most intensive week of lessons I had paid for a whopping 15 hours of private lessons!! (Luckily cheaper in Taiwan and online than you might think, and luckily for my wallet, only so many lessons that one week). This week I’ve only received two hours of private instruction.

On the other hand, I’ve kept up my “speak from day one” philosophy, and last weekend was out socialising for 3 hours on Saturday night; as it happens the priority that night was to attempt to keep up with multiple people speaking, since I could handle one-on-one conversations fine with someone adjusting a little for me, and need to pick up the pace to catch up to natives speaking naturally.

Think about it for real and fix that problem now

This is why one size fits all approaches of language learning drive me crazy – a generic course is designed to follow the same basic strategy in the first week as it does several months in, and presumes everyone learns in the same way.

I’ve found that learning grammar your first week is a waste of time, but coming back to it when it has suddenly become your true biggest priority is the best use of your time. My first week I need to learn off essential phrases and pleasantries, since this is something I can use right now. But if you aren’t in an immersion environment, you may have other priorities.

Yes, I know you have a million problems in your language to fix. But look at them all and decide which is the most important one right now and think of a way (no matter how painful) to fix it.

Seriously, stop for a second and ask yourself If I had to fix just one issue that I realistically could attempt to fix in a short time, what would it be?

In getting feedback for my videos, it’s been frustrating to see people not appreciate priorities. Like one thing that comes up a lot is me saying “em” a lot as I currently speak. Yes I know and I’m getting to it, but that’s such a silly low priority thing to be commenting on starting from my second month, as if that some how hinders communication in any huge way. I’ve been hearing about this the entire time and only now in the last couple of weeks do I give a crap.

If you’re the kind of person to be worried about saying “em” instead of precisely the right filler word, when you have much bigger fish to fry, then you are doing it arseways in my opinion. Saying “em” isn’t stopping me from having natural conversations with people, other things are, which I’m currently focused on.

I’ll deal with “em” when I’ve dealt with the bigger issues, and such a low priority thing like sound like a native with your hesitations can and should be postponed (unless of course you are cursed with the worst possible affliction known to language-learners; perfectionism. If that’s the case then you have my condolences).

Apply some kind of a “triage” system to it; a hospital emergency room doesn’t deal with the guy with a sore ankle and the GSW at the same time; it prioritises. When you look at that ER and see all the sick people, it seems like you should treat them all, but there are certain ones that need your attention more than anyone else.

Prioritising, and changing your approach to focus specifically on the biggest problem, which can be quantified and acted on, will ultimately get you out of that plateau. You’ll find a new plateau waiting for you on the other side, but with a similar approach that there is no one method to solve all your problems, you will charge forward, taking the most important step each time. In fact, this is part and parcel of the language learning journey. I look at it like this:

The difference between a stumbling block and a stepping stone is how high you raise your foot.

So are you going to keep stumbling, or are you going to raise your foot high enough over that one problem to get up to the next step?

Let me know in the comments!

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  • http://amanofnonation.com/ Kevin Post

    Another well written post my friend. The ER analogy is aweso…em…er…fantastic!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      People are never going to let me off the hook for picking on that word are they? :)
      Glad you enjoyed it!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    Fixed.

  • Anonymous

    I just found your blog and I  have to say this is fantastic and inspiring.  I am very conversant in Chinese, go figure, but I feel I’m in a plateau now.  I can’t use it much in my current situation, but I guess if anyone wants to progress, in anything, actually, they just have to bite the bullet, like you did.  This can be true of language, music, social skills, scholarly stuff, jobs, etc.

  • David Cheney

    This posting hit me on the side of the head like a plank.  Of course if what I’m doing now isn’t working, doing the same thing over and over isn’t going to help!  I learned from you earlier about setting short term goals, but now I know what to do when I hit a road block.  Unconsciously I’ve done this before, but not until I wasted way too much time on something that wasn’t working.  Thanks as always for a great blog.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Great to see I’m slapping some sense into people :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=724934059 Andrew Parnell

    Hey Benny! Exactly what I needed to hear! Much appreciated and extremely timely! Keep up the good work!

  • Elias Filho

    I found about this site yesterday when I started to learn German and I have to say : YOU ARE GREAT. And I don’t understand most of the bad comments, I don’t think that even them do.

    So wheres that troll girl now? Clearly this Irish is kicking ass! Lina was her name!! Damm, so pessimist got to do something good and forget about this guy, let him do his job.

    One more thing, Vivian is beautiful, nobody said it so I had to say =D She makes a lot of expression that I found really nice to see, is that normal of the Taiwanese people? or just her?

    Auf Wiedersehen. Até mais =D

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      I find the Taiwanese quite expressive in general! They’re easy to talk to.

  • http://3000hanzi.com/ Steven Daniels

    I like you advice of changing things up on a weekly basis. Besides keeping things fresh, it’s also a good example of breaking a bigger task into smaller more manageable chunks.

    I’ve been doing something similar in a blog series I call 52 weeks of Chinese, where I talk about learning Chinese and discuss my progress. 

    Good stuff.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Best of luck with your project!

  • Judith Meyer

    Nice post! It seems obvious to change your approach when you’re at a plateau, but a lot of language learners don’t think about it, so I’m glad you wrote about the issue.

    Focussing on weekly goals is a great way to ensure progress. Still I would probably fix a recurring problem if the fix only took 10 minutes, even if the problem wasn’t on that week’s to-do list.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      What on earth takes “10 minutes to fix” that wouldn’t go on a to-do list??

      If this is another comment about my emming, “feel confident and don’t hesitate” or “every time you need to think about something, think about saying “name” before you think about saying the thing you are originally stopping to think about!” isn’t a 10 minute fix ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    If you are paying them, then it’s not so kind, it’s just them earning their wage really well ;)

    I disagree about focusing on phonetics so early; in my opinion that really needs to be a late stage priority instead. Even heavily accented beginner level of many languages can be understood. In Chinese for example, misuse of tones is greatly exaggerated in terms of causing miscommunications. The more you speak, the less important correct pronunciation becomes (whereas a single syllable without context definitely needs perfect pronunciation).

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    That’s funny – never thought my ideas in this post could be applied to learning Chemistry :) But the same philosophy does apply to any efficient learning! Best of luck!!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    Aw, thanks!! :)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    Ha, thanks for the compliment! I never think of anyone actually taking notes from my blog posts…

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    Great! Glad to hear it :)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    Sorry but I can’t lighten up on that because it’s a low priority demand to say “When you forget something, and are trying to remember it, try to remember something way less important FIRST”.

    Saying “em” isn’t an issue with a quickie fix, it’s about comfort and flow in the language, and I’m amazed that people actually think it’s something I can fix in 10 minutes!! I’ll focus on getting better comfort and flow FIRST, rather than try to think about something else every time I make a pause. I have ways to improve on that, and it’s what I’m currently working on. If I still say “em” a lot into April *THEN* and only then should I care about specifically eliminating it.

    I’m not claiming fluency right now, so I really don’t want to hear about pre-fluency problems that are low priority. Spending time on this problem is NOT something I need to think about right now as it does NOT hinder communication. It only hinders “pretty sounding Chinese”.

    Remember to prioritise – aesthetics really really needs to be pushed much further down the list of priorities that too many people are putting it on, with communication taking its place in importance.

    Otherwise, glad you enjoyed the post!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    I’ll be meeting up with readers next week probably on Wednesday. Email me for details.

  • http://twitter.com/nick_mcintosh Nick McIntosh

    Hey Benny

    I’ve been watching with interest as I moved to Beijing China, 1 month before you moved to Taipei and I was wondering how we’d progress – you the expert & me trying to learn my first language.

    After 3.5 months I really get what you’re saying and I’ve already changed my tactics a number of times to spend more time on the things I’m struggling with and less on the things that I think I have a reasonable grip on.

    I’m no where near the point you are, even though you’ve had 1 less month than I have, but I’m pleased to say that I know a lot of vocab, and seem to have no problem being understood by natives even though I’m butchering grammer.

    The challenge is now to spend more time on listening comprehension as I’m really struggling to understand what’s being said back to me… look forward to reading your suggestions for this in the coming weeks

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Sounds like great progress! Keep it up! :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/ayumisan1511 Siew Ying

    Benny, 这篇文章和你一贯写的文章一样,很有启发性。目前我正在学习日语,但频频遇到瓶颈。你的建议很实用。我会试着用用看,相信应该在不久的将来发挥成效 ! (=^~^=)

  • http://www.facebook.com/ayumisan1511 Siew Ying

    Benny, 这篇文章和你一贯写的文章一样,很有启发性。目前我正在学习日语,但频频遇到瓶颈。你的建议很实用。我会试着用看看,相信在不久的将来能发挥成效!(=^~^=)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    “for someone who wants to be fluent” – as someone fitting this description, I disagree strongly with you.

    You have to strike the right balance – either extreme is no good; either just mustling by with lots of mistakes forever will mean you’ll never truly master the language… but trying to do everything perfect from the start, means you’ll learn far too slowly.

    Don’t try to get everything right from the start, and don’t ever stop learning so that you can improve on things that have been an issue for a longer time. This is the simplest solution, not one of either extremes.

    I will highly recommend people only give pronunciation casual attention at the start of learning Chinese (as it does NOT hinder communication as much as people make it out to) and improve on it much more later when you are comfortable in communicating in the language in general. Fossilization excuses be damned.

    • Kevin Iga

      I agree with Benny on this one.  Perfecting pronunciation is a long process, and ultimately comes from prolonged contact with native speakers, listening to them, and speaking to them.  But this is impossible if all you are doing is learning how to pronounce the letter “b”, and refusing to proceed beyond it until you have it perfect.

      I have found that bad pronunciation is not fossilized early in the language learning process.  Rather, you can learn to modify your pronunciation long after you’ve begun speaking.  I see this all the time with foreign students who arrive at my university with bad accents, but graduate with only a minor accent.  I also see people who start with a Southern US or English accent, and they gradually adjust to a more Californian accent (sometimes to their dismay).

      There are many skills to practice in learning a language, and focusing on one (pronunciation) before the others is counter-productive.  Better to get an approximate pronunciation, enough so that you can work on learning words and putting them together into things you want to say.  And learn to understand the language when you are spoken to (this is a separate skill from pronunciation!).

      Now on the other hand, there are people who have false ideas about language pronunciation, like pronouncing all the letters as if you are using English pronunciation rules.  Like seeing a word in French, “habitons”, and saying the English word “habit” then saying “awnz”.  This kind of thinking *will* be an obstacle and is best corrected early.  But if the student is open to the idea he ought to listen to how a native pronounces it, then imitate what he hears, then even if he has it wrong at first, he will eventually get it right, as long as he keeps talking with native speakers.

      What the starting level for pronunciation is will depend on the language, but trying to speak with natives will give you immediate and reliable feedback on whether or not you can be understood.

  • thisisjohnsmith

    Good article.  I’m looking forward to hearing about the process once your mission is done– specifically about how the new characters you had to learn factored into the process.  

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    I’ve been learning a lot of Hanzi too actually, and am getting along quite quickly with it! But I focused almost exclusively on learning via pinyin in my first 2 months. I’ll be describing the approach I took on this in much greater detail in future posts.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    Aww, thanks a lot! Keep up the great work!! :)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    Wow, that’s amazing that my wee blog has kept you from giving up, thanks for saying so!!

    Never give up ;)

  • Fearchar

    It’s a good suggestion to break down problems into manageable challenges, and the advice isn’t just restricted to learning languages. Sometimes, though, tackling other, smaller problems, rather than the one you see as the biggest, will either boost confidence (giving the energy to tackle the big problem) or introduce a way round the stumbling-block. Vaulting over it isn’t always the best technique.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_YCINJXODIKMDMME47X447A3XC4 S.D.I.

    If
    you don’t like talking to people, wouldn’t you rather learn to read and
    understand the language better instead? In that case, I wouldn’t see
    anything wrong with focusing on books and movies and so on instead of
    Benny’s more conversational method.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_YCINJXODIKMDMME47X447A3XC4 S.D.I.

    Thanks Benny, that’s really the kick up the butt I needed! I’m glad I came back to check out how you were going with your Mandarin after I had blocked all my English-language sites to get a better immersion experience (I’m in Serbia, where I’m trying to iron out grammatical mistakes form my childhood Serbian and be able to understand educated and literary language).

    I’ve been trying to learn Urdu, and I’ve been very frustrated with my lack of progress. But your post has helped me realized that I should expect that amount of progress with the effort I’ve put in! Unlike my other foreign languages (Dutch and Spanish), I haven’t fallen in love with the language. I try to translate music, but I don’t sing Urdu songs every day like I did with my other two foreign languages.

    I think I’ll try and do a small amount (30 mins – 1 hr, and no more) every day. I can be a bit of a megalomaniac with languages, as whenever I try and study I sit until I finish the text/song/whatever even if I’m bored off my ass, and am then burned out for like the rest of the week. As for Serbian, if I want to be able to read, I should start reading. Duh. I shouldn’t expect to understand higher-order concepts just from some Serbian classes for foreigners.

    Thanks again, and sorry for the long post, but I’m kind of working this out for myself here! Back to the no-English-internet-except-Facebook policy for me!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Great job on blocking all English sites! You’re stronger than I am :D

  • Yousef

    My problem recently has been with Farsi (Persian). Just to give you some background, I am half Persian and half Irish born and raised in the states. As a kid I remember being able to speak a little bit, but I lost it all at some point. The accent comes easily to me because I grew up hearing it, but my problem lies elsewhere. Although I already have what many polyglots refer to as a “language core”, REMEMBERING new words seems nearly impossible. There are some words that I’ve had to relearn several times and yet I still can’t bring them to memory. I am at a highly advanced level with Spanish and it was a language that came easily to me…but Farsi seems far more complicated. I imagine that my problem is putting the words into use. Another thing is that I feel a bit embarrassed talking to people (as a Persian who speaks Farsi at a novice level). I’m sorry for the long message man…but do you have any input on this at all?

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