There comes a point in learning a new language where things just seem to stop. Motivation, direction, and clarity dwindle, and after what could be years of rapid growth in language proficiency, things just calm down a bit.
For me, this happened with Spanish sometime last year. Since I can already speak Spanish well enough to handle my usual conversations without much problem, I haven’t been challenged enough to keep growing.
In Fluent in 3 Months: How Anyone at Any Age Can Learn to Speak Any Language from Anywhere in the World, Benny Lewis refers to these periods as plateaus.
By the way, this is the third post in a series revealing what I learned reading the aforementioned book — they’re not in any specific order, but feel free to read part one, which is about focus and part two, which is about perfectionism.
Now, back to plateaus. Plateaus happen when the method you’re using to learn a language isn’t working anymore. They can be very hard to notice. It’s easy to get used to routine and not question whether it’s really doing anything for you.
Are my Anki decks still relevant and teaching me new things? Are my conversations pushing me to new heights? Is what I’m doing working?
Leave me alone, brain. I did all the things for today, so I’m obviously getting better. Probably.
The thing about learning on your own is that there’s not supposed to be busywork. This isn’t high school, and repeating the same sentence you already know 200 times isn’t going to get you any points.
Plateaus are deceptive, and you’ll need to stay on guard to make sure one doesn’t sneak up on you. As Alastor Moody might say, you’ll need constant vigilance.
But all is not lost if you find yourself trapped on a plateau. I promise, with a little focus and dedication, you can find a higher peak ahead.
You’ll need a little something Benny calls a mini-mission. As he says in his book, “[mini-missions] take on the absolute biggest specific problem you may have at a particular moment with a language and help you focus on solving that problem as quickly as possible.”
It’s essentially just three steps: find your weaknesses, choose one, and show it no mercy. Rinse and repeat are optional, but encouraged.
My biggest weaknesses in Spanish were discovered when I found myself avoiding certain phrases while trying to think in Spanish.
Those weaknesses are:
- Perfect tense (preterit, conditional, and future)
- Perfect subjunctive tense (past, present, and future)
- Vosotros (literally all of it)
You Spanish speakers might notice a trend — I get most of the compound tenses involving haber confused. I don’t tend to need them very often, so they’ve gotten quite rusty.
This isn’t necessarily because I’ve been doing something wrong. In fact, it’s the side effect of doing something right — in the beginning stages of learning a new language, it’s essential that you can reword things to make them simple. It keeps you from needing to resort to your first language all the time, at the cost of a tiny bit of accuracy in what you’re trying to say.
I don’t know how to do conjugations with vosotros (the plural form of you) because my high school Spanish teacher was from Panama, where they don’t need vosotros at all. This one’s all new territory.
Avoiding these things earlier on helped me focus on the basics, but I don’t need that crutch anymore. At least I won’t soon enough, after I recover from a bit of an absence from language learning forced upon me by my last semester at school. Consider it a mini-mission to get my groove back.
Once that first mission is done, I’ll get to the more specific weaknesses by:
- Studying the relevant lessons in Duolingo
- Writing practice sentences with Lang–8
- Preparing a list of topics that would help me practice, and trying to bring these up during conversations on iTalki and WeSpeke
The most important part of this is to actually focus on the weakness at hand. If you try to tackle everything at once, you may end up spending all of your energy just maintaining everything, rather than really pushing ahead on any of them. Divide and conquer, and they won’t stand a chance.
And that’s how it has to be done. One step at a time, sending weaknesses back into the shadow realm where they belong.
My first mini-mission begins now. How about yours?