From B to C: Part II – 5 Strategies for Conquering the Intermediate Plateau
When learning a language, there is one thing that truly separates the good from the great: the Intermediate Plateau.
In the last article in this series, we discussed at length what it means to be fluent and proficient across each of the four major language skills.
The intermediate plateau is the gap between those skill levels. On the CEFR scale, it is the range between B2 and C1, and although those levels are adjacent to one another on that scale, it takes quite a bit of effort and strategy to get from one to the other.
In fact, it takes so much work to bridge this gap—with so little obvious return on investment—that very few learners actually do so.
Of course, not all learners need nor want to reach advanced skill levels in their target languages. But for those that do, to give up on learning prior to crossing the intermediate plateau is simply a shame, as to experience the depth and freedom of language use that lie beyond is a sensation like any other.
If you have your sights set on the top of the language learning mountain, and wish to plant your C1- or C2-emblazoned flag at the summit, then you’ll need a few tools—a few key tips—to help you climb.
Tip 1: Step Out of Your Comfort Zone
As we gain fluency, we often gain a measure of complacency with our skills. Once you can accomplish most of your language goals with relative ease, it is easy to restrict what we say and do in our target language to those familiar, comfortable tasks.
The danger here is that the fluent learner stops pushing the boundaries of what he or she is capable of, and, as a result, begins to shy away from any true challenge of his or her language skills.
However, it is an unavoidable fact of learning that challenge is the impetus for growth, for the expansion of one’s ability in any domain. For language learners, it is through attempting to do that which we are not yet capable of doing that we slowly expand our boundaries, and gain further mastery of our chosen languages.
Very often, for example, we are capable of listening to podcasts in “slowed-down” language, but we find ourselves completely unable to handle listening to normal-speed podcasts, or similar media like TV news or movies.
Instead of just sticking to the comfortable slowed-down podcasts, it is in your best interest as a learner to begin to expose yourself to those more difficult (and perhaps “scarier”) forms of media.
After all, if you never attempt what you think is impossible, how will you ever know if it’s possible?
Tip 2: Follow the Fun
As your language skills improve, you will find that how you like to spend your learning time will change.
Perhaps, prior to reaching the intermediate plateau, you are a big fan of flashcard-based programs like Anki or Memrise. You might spends hours of your day practicing your deck of flashcards, and gain great satisfaction with each phrase or vocabulary word that you remember.
Gradually, however, you begin to become tired of seeing the same cards day in and day out. You start to feel as if you’re just going through the motions. What was once fun has become rote, automatic, and therefore boring.
Since up to this point flashcard practice has been such a high-yield activity for you, it might be tempting to try to “power through” the boredom and keep going.
This, however, would be a poor choice, as you would risk becoming so tired of the activity that you begin to resent it, and eventually hate doing it.
Once you’ve reached the intermediate plateau, instead of continuing on with the same old stale routine that has gotten you this far, it is exactly the right time to start changing things up—and to follow the fun!
I personally have experienced this many times, even with learning methods I’ve developed myself!
For example, whenever I decide to study a new language, I begin by employing my bidirectional translation method. Typically, combining this method with a single course will get me up to right around a B1 or B2 level, just before the intermediate plateau.
Once I’ve applied the Bidirectional Translation method to a single course (usually for a period of 90 days), I find it to be less fun and less useful for me than it was at the beginning. Once I reach this point, I drop the method, and move on to another activity I find a bit more interesting.
Tip 3: Do Things Progressively
Learners wishing to conquer the Intermediate Plateau need to organize their learning with this progression of challenges in mind.
A learner who is working on his or her reading skills could organize a sequence of learning as follows:
- Beginner/Intermediate print-based course (e.g. Assimil, Teach Yourself, or Colloquial)
- Bilingual Books (Native <-> Target Language)
- Monolingual Books (Target Language Only)
- Newspapers and/or specialized texts
This progression starts the reader off with short texts accompanied by ample learning aids, and “ends” with long, complex texts with few or no learning aids at all. Such a sequence, of course, is to be followed over the long-term, with the learner reading many texts at each level before “ramping-up” the challenge and tackling the next level.
A similar progression could be applied to another one of the four skills: Speaking.
- Small talk about everyday topics.
- Short speeches on specific topics.
- Describing concrete images
- Describing abstract concepts.
This progression gradually expands the learner’s comfort zone by slowly building the skills of discourse. Most fluent learners can chit-chat at random about things they come into contact with every day, but few ever move on to elaborate, in-depth discussions of ideas, or recounting complex narratives. By following a plan like this, the learner’s speaking skills become more and more versatile over time.
Tip 4: Understand Deliberate vs. Natural Practice
Most people across the world begin learning foreign languages in school. Because of this, language learning is viewed similarly to other school subjects—as something requiring hard work, intense study, and rote memorization. In the eyes of many, school is not fun, but is just another form of work.
This mental association between language learning and book-based study is unfortunately so ingrained in the popular consciousness that even those who choose to learn a language outside of school think that it requires long hours of boring, dry, book-based study.
And this is simply not so. Don’t get me wrong—sitting down to study from a textbook certainly has its uses—but it is only one of two types of practice that every learner should engage in to become proficient.
When you sit down with the express intention of learning (as you would during a class, or with a textbook or tutor) that is called deliberate practice.
The other, equally valuable type of practice is known as natural practice.
Natural practice is the type of language practice that is typically low-stress, and done with pleasure and fun in mind.
Some examples of natural practice include:
- Chatting with friends at a language exchange meetup.
- Watching a target language movie.
- Playing target language video games.
- Pleasure reading in your target language.
Natural practice is particularly useful for those who wish to move from B- to C-level skills, as it is possible to do lots of natural practice in a short time, with a low expenditure of mental effort.
By understanding the value of both types of practice, you can push your language learning to new heights:
For example, I plan to take a C1 exam in Russian by the end of 2017. Considering this exam will test me on my technical mastery of each of the four skills, I will have to engage in lots of deliberate practice to prepare for it, such as:
- Reading articles and marking/recording unknown words and phrases.
- Speaking about specific topics with a native, and receiving and reviewing feedback.
- Writing about specific topics, and receiving and reviewing corrections.
However, I will also enhance my Russian by engaging in certain natural practice activities just for fun, like:
- Chatting and texting with Russian friends online.
- Watching Russian movies and news channels.
- Listening to Russian podcasts.
Altogether, engaging in both types of practice over time will help me maximize my learning time, and allow me to keep learning during periods of both high and low mental energy.
Tip 5: Be Patient
I firmly believe that anyone who wants to be a C-level language learner can become one.
However, I also believe that every learner is different, and depending on your individual circumstances, it will take more or less time to achieve that goal.
To put into actual numbers, I believe it should take any dedicated learner anywhere from 6 months to 3 years to go from B2 to C1.
6 Months if you:
- Are an experienced language learner.
- Are learning a very close language to your native tongue
- Are living in-country
- Have more than 10 hours a day of total language exposure
2-3 years if you:
- Are learning a distant to very distant language
- Are learning at least 30 minutes per day
- Are exposed to good-quality learning material
One more thing: No matter where you stand, don’t look to the top of the mountain and curse the distance in between.
Instead, look to that peak and realize that today it is closer than it was yesterday, and tomorrow it will be even closer than it is today.
No matter how you cut it, going from intermediate to advanced language skills is a long-term goal. However, if you proceed with the above five tips in mind, you will, one day, plant your flag at the summit.
I guarantee it.
Written by Luca Lampariello and Kevin Morehouse