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

Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

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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Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months

Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish

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