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Breaking the intermediate plateau: your path to English mastery

01 - How to overcome the English intermediate plateau - SEA

Have you ever embarked on a journey to learn something new, only to find yourself stranded at the same level with no progress in sight? When it comes to learning a language like English, this phenomenon is often referred to as the "intermediate plateau."

Think of it this way: imagine you're climbing a mountain, and as you ascend, the terrain gets flatter and flatter at the peak. That's essentially what happens during the intermediate plateau in language learning — you've made progress, but suddenly, it feels like you're stuck on a linguistic hilltop.

While it's somewhat of a frustrating experience, we've all been there.

But why does it happen, and how can you break through it and ace the IELTS?

What exactly is the intermediate plateau?

Perhaps you’ve hit a point in your language learning journey where you've moved beyond the basics, but you're not quite fluent yet. Or, you might understand everything that is being said to you in English, but find that expressing yourself naturally is a challenge.

Read on to learn what are the signs that you’ve hit an intermediate plateau.

What does intermediate mean?

One of the tricky things about the intermediate plateau is that it's not easy to define what "intermediate" actually means. After all, "intermediate" can mean different things to different people.

Sure, there are some definitions out there. The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) scale, for example, which includes levels like B1 Intermediate and B2 Upper Intermediate, is commonly used to describe people at intermediate levels.

According to the CEFR, an intermediate learner:

  • Can understand the main ideas of complex texts, even on technical topics.

  • Can have conversations with native speakers quite comfortably.

  • Can write detailed essays on a wide range of subjects.

What does hitting a “plateau” mean?

At its core, a plateau, as defined by Cambridge Dictionary, is the state of reaching a particular level and then remaining at that stage.

From this, you might be able to guess that hitting the intermediate plateau in language learning refers to a stage in a learning journey where progress, while steady, no longer feels as exhilarating or fulfilling.

Demystifying the intermediate plateau: why does it happen?

Now that we've identified this so-called "intermediate plateau," the next question naturally arises: why does it happen in the first place? Or at least, why does it feel like we're in a lull period?

The answer lies in the nature of learning English.

1. The law of diminishing returns

Imagine you're a beginner learning a new language, and you're starting with the basics — common words and phrases like “Hello” and “How are you?” used in everyday conversations.

Early on, your progress feels meteoric. For instance, if you learn five new words one day, it feels like a significant leap in your language proficiency. However, as you move towards the intermediate level, the vocabulary you encounter and acquire becomes less commonplace. More advanced words like "zeitgeist" and other specialised terms, for example, tend to enter the scene.

While these words are interesting and can be valuable, they don't contribute as substantially to your everyday conversations. Given this investment in learning words that do not offer much in terms of practical usage, the advancement in your proficiency might seem negligible as a result.

2. The illusion of a shrinking universe

Another reason for the intermediate plateau is linked to the thought that the more you learn, the less you know.

With advancement comes an enhanced awareness of the language's vastness and intricacies. This heightened sensitivity can be overwhelming and create the illusion that your progress has come to a standstill.

Identifying the intermediate plateau: are you there yet?

Before attempting to surpass the English intermediate level, it's vital to know if you've genuinely encountered the intermediate plateau. Sometimes, it might feel like you've hit a wall in your language learning, but it could simply be a temporary hurdle rather than a prolonged rut.

Consider these characteristics that distinguish the intermediate plateau from the everyday challenges in language acquisition:

1. The gap between understanding and expressing

One of the telltale signs of the intermediate plateau is the noticeable gap between understanding a language (receptive competence) and effectively expressing oneself (productive competence).

In simpler terms, it means you might find yourself in a situation where you can grasp what others are saying or comprehend complex texts with relative ease yet struggle when it's your turn to speak or write with the same level of proficiency.

Identifying this gap and taking preparatory steps to address this is particularly vital in English proficiency tests such as IELTS, where a natural and fluid conversation flow is essential, especially in the Speaking test.

2. The persistence of language errors

Heard of the saying “old habits die hard”?

Another common feature of the intermediate plateau is the persistence of what linguists like Jack C. Richards call "fossilised errors." These are the mistakes typical of beginners despite your dedication and countless hours of practice. You may have been diligently working on your English, but some of the errors you made when you were a beginner just won't budge. These errors might hibernate for a while, only to resurface when you least expect them, often in specific situations or contexts.

3. Fluency vs. complexity

The intermediate plateau often presents learners with a trade-off between fluency and complexity. At this stage, you might find that you can communicate your thoughts and ideas reasonably well, but there's a catch — you tend to rely on simpler grammar, vocabulary, and communication strategies that are more characteristic of beginners.

While your language skills allow you to convey your meaning effectively, you might not have fully acquired the more sophisticated language patterns and usage characteristics of advanced English users.

This trade-off can be a bit like walking on a tightrope. On one hand, you're eager to express yourself fluently and ensure you're understood. On the other hand, you're aware that achieving a higher level of complexity in your language use is the next step towards mastering English. It's a delicate balance that many language learners grapple with on their journey to advanced proficiency.

4. Limited vocabulary range

Another characteristic of the intermediate plateau is the limitation in vocabulary range. While you've made significant strides in learning English, your vocabulary development might not have progressed as far as you'd like. At this stage, learners often find themselves overusing simple vocabulary and struggling to acquire more advanced words and their appropriate usage.

To put it simply, while you can communicate effectively in everyday situations, when it comes to expressing complex ideas or delving into specialised fields, your vocabulary may fall short. This limitation can become particularly evident during the speaking test section of IELTS. For instance, when the examiner asks to discuss a complex topic, your vocabulary may fall short, making it challenging to express nuanced ideas effectively.

5. Fluency vs. natural expression

Imagine having a conversation where your sentences are flawlessly structured, and your grammar is impeccable, but something feels a bit off. It's as if you're conversing from the pages of a textbook rather than engaging in a natural, everyday dialogue.

When you've hit a plateau, learners often find themselves in a situation where their English is fluent and grammatically sound, but it may sound excessively formal or bookish.

This phenomenon arises from an earnest desire to speak correctly, which is undoubtedly a commendable goal. However, it can lead to overthinking every word and phrase, resulting in an artificial tone.

So, how do you overcome an intermediate language plateau?

1. Keep calm and carry on

While it may be easier said than done, understanding that hitting an intermediate plateau is a natural part of language learning is the first step toward change. In your journey, you'll come across periods when it feels like you're not advancing at all. However, it's essential to remember that progress in language acquisition is not always linear or consistent. During these plateaus, patience and persistence are your allies, especially if your aim is to prepare for and eventually ace the IELTS.

2. Increase the time spent learning

The amount of time required to overcome the intermediate plateau varies from person to person. Nevertheless, one effective strategy is to simply increase the effort you put into practising English, be it through reading specific books, listening to podcasts online, or leveraging top-notch IELTS preparation materials that can help take your English skills to the next level. By dedicating more time to reading, speaking, and practising active listening in English, you can expedite your progress. The more you immerse yourself, the quicker you'll move beyond basic fluency, ultimately boosting your confidence and success in the IELTS.

3. Listen more and notice

Listening is most definitely one of the best ways to learn English. You can use podcasts or audiobooks for this. But rather than passively listening to native speakers, actively dissect their speech patterns. Pay close attention to how they articulate sounds, their intonation, and their word choices in various contexts. Then, make a conscious effort to replicate these nuances in your own conversational style. Think of it as learning to dance by closely observing and mimicking the steps of an expert.

4. When learning becomes dull or comfortable, it's time for a change

When the learning process becomes monotonous or overly comfortable, it's a clear sign that you've settled into a routine. To break free from this plateau, seek new challenges. Experiment with different language resources, alter your study environment or find a language exchange partner. Embracing change and welcoming challenges can reignite your enthusiasm for learning and propel you past the plateau.

Enhance your language proficiency with IDP

Ready to take your language skills to the next level and conquer that intermediate plateau?

Navigating beyond the intermediate English language learning hurdle is a journey, and IDP is your steadfast companion on this path to linguistic mastery. We offer a wealth of resources and guidance, including top-notch IELTS preparation materials, IELTS preparation courses, and realistic IELTS online practice tests designed to propel you towards language proficiency. You can get all that by downloading the official IELTS by IDP app.

Whether you're aiming to enhance your language skills or preparing for language proficiency tests, IDP, which co-owns the IELTS test, will be your partner in achieving success in your English proficiency. Don't wait — start preparing and book your IELTS test with IDP today!