3 Reasons why you are still an intermediate level language learner – Sam Gendreau

The rate of failure of classroom based language training is astronomical, although of course some countries do better than others. For example, a 2012 European Union Working Document has data showing that the share of students in school reaching the level of “independent user” in their first foreign language is 9% in England and 14% in France. That’s roughly the success rate of Americans and other native English speakers, which means that over 85% of people fail to become proficient in a foreign language in those places.

This catastrophic failure rate of language training clearly shows there’s a problem: learning a language often doesn’t work for most people. And I speak from experience: I learned foreign languages in Middle School, High School, college, and back when I was an undergraduate student at university, and it simply didn’t do it for me. In fact, we all know somebody who has studied French, Spanish, or some other common language and who dabbles in them (especially if you live in an English-speaking country). But much fewer are those who have reached a very high level of proficiency in a foreign language (English might be the exception). Why is that?

Three Reasons

  1. Most learners fail to set clear goals and develop healthy habits early on
  2. Most learners expect their progress to be linear, while in fact any skill development has diminishing marginal returns
  3. Most learners quickly reach a comfort zone in which they have trouble getting out of

Let’s get to each point, one at a time.ost learners fail to set clear goals and develop healthy habits

Here are three quick questions for you:

  1. Have you set goals regarding your language learning?
  2. Have you written them down?
  3. Do you have a plan to accomplish them?

If you’ve answered “no” to two or more of these questions, you need to grab a pen and a paper and get to work, now. 

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. Having goals helps you to track your progress and gives you a sense of direction, which in turns help to increase motivation and reduces your chances of giving up. Research recently conducted by Psychology professor Dr. Gail Matthews shows that people who wrote down their goals, shared this information with a friend, and sent weekly updates to that friend were on average 33% more successful in accomplishing their stated goals than those who merely formulated goals. Another study undergone by a scientist concludes that “Goal-setting effects are quite robust, typically yielding a success rate of 90%, even including studies that made methodological and/or theoretical errors.” I’ll be honest: one of the first times I learned a foreign language, I had totally no idea of what I was embarking myself in. I didn’t have any goals (either in my head or written down), let alone any plan. Not surprisingly, after buying a lot of shiny books, I dabbled in the language for a few weeks and I quickly got disinterested. Soon I had a newly found passion for another language, and the whole process repeated itself. After a year, I actually hadn’t gone much far in any of the two languages I had begun, which led to a big loss of motivation. The point is, set realistic but challenging goals, write them down, and draw up a specific plan of action to accomplish them. And of course, remind yourself as often as possible of your goals and track your progress. It’s a simple, but very important first step in the right direction.

Most learners expect their progress to be linear

The improvement of skills works on a so-called “logarithmic scale” as opposed to linear, to put it in fancy terms. What this means is that as you get better, it gets harder and harder to improve. Elite athletes, for example, expend enormous effort to shave seconds off their best times, whereas novice athletes can shave minutes with just a little practice. The same goes for language learning: at the beginning you make quick improvements, since you’re essentially starting from a blank slate. But as you progress, you see diminishing returns proportional to the amount of time and effort that you put in. That’s a totally normal phenomenon, the key is simply to be prepared for it. On a graph, it would look something like this:

Imagined and actual learning curve

As productivity author Scott Young says, “Assuming straight-line growth means overconfidence in long-term progress. As a result, it is easy to hit plateaus if the difficulty isn’t deliberately tuned to break your comfortable rhythm.” More importantly, Scott adds:

In logarithmic domains, two mindsets are important. In the beginning, high-growth phase, the emphasis needs to be on maintaining long-term habits. Since growth is fast initially, care needs to be taken so that it won’t slide back down once effort is removed. In the later, low-growth phase, the emphasis needs to be on habit breaking. Since low-growth is often caused by calcifying routines, deliberate effort needs to be taken to break out of that comfort zone.

However, there’s a plus side to reaching an intermediate stage in any given language, which shouldn’t be forgotten: once you have cleared the first hurdles of starting literally from scratch, learning becomes easier and so your enjoyment of the language and your mental stamina increase.

This means you can start adding quantity to the equation. As Luca Lampariello adds, “We can spend much more time on real content, and that time is not restricted to language learning material anymore.

We can talk with friends, watch TV and movies, read books. We are not deliberately spending time with the language anymore– we are using and enjoining it. We can spend countless, precious hours with the language.” Let me tell you a little personal story: I’ve been learning Korean for several years now, and at first, even though progress was a lot quicker, it was fairly hard at times to keep my motivation high because I had to go through a lot of language learning material rather than “real content”, as Luca puts it.

But as I got to an intermediate stage, I really started enjoying a lot of material that any other native speaker would enjoy: watching movies and TV series, reading simple books, understanding the lyrics of songs, etc. It felt like I was no longer “studying”, but rather truly embracing and enjoying the language.

Even though progress was a lot slower, it almost didn’t matter, because I wasn’t into the game to reach some kind of destination, but rather to enjoy the journey. Before this post gets too long, let’s turn our attention to the “low-growth” phase that swe were talking about a bit earlier, and why most of us fail to pierce through that barrier and instead choose to rest on our laurels by dabbling aimlessly in one or more foreign languages. .

Most learners quickly reach a comfort zone

Is your goal in life to be great, or is it to avoid discomfort? If we didn’t have to work hard to reach success, we wouldn’t appreciate it. Hard is what makes it great. Yet, in the back of our minds, somehow we all want to have it easy. We want to go through the smooth, paved, straight road to success, rather than the unbeaten bush. Let me tell you one thing: the straight, paved road doesn’t exist. Most people reach their “comfort zone” because they start telling themselves that their level is good enough. My career is “good enough.” My level of health is “good enough.” My Spanish is “good enough.” This phase is also sometimes called the “autonomous stage,” when we figure that we’ve gotten as good as we need to get (which doesn’t mean anything if you haven’t set yourself some clear goals in the first place) at the task and we’re basically running on autopilot.

During that autonomous stage, we lose conscious control over what we’re doing.

But what separates experts from the rest of us is that they focus on their technique, stay goal-oriented, and get constant and immediate feedback on their performance. Remember that when you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend. In fact, in every domain of expertise that’s been rigorously examined, from chess to violin to basketball, studies have found that the number of years one has been doing something correlates only weakly with level of performance. Constant feedback is also crucial in order to rapidly push through a plateau, for example. “Getting feedback is also helpful for learning what you’re doing right, which can give you a boost of confidence and help you realize that you are in fact making progress,” says philomath and language enthusiast David Mansaray. “This serves to reinforce a positive mental attitude and helps keep you motivated.” As Scott Young emphasizes in another one of his articles: “Don’t get stuck in the trap of ‘good enough’. There is no such thing as good enough, or even not enough. All that matters is how much you are doing.”


In this article, I’ve tried to emphasize the importance of setting clear goals right from the outset and develop healthy habits early on. I’ve also underlined the importance of understanding that as you progress in your language studies, it will become harder to make large, noticeable gains in fluency and skill development. That’s a normal process that you have to be prepared for. Finally, I’ve told you about the importance to get outside of your comfort zone, to embrace difficulty, and to rise up to the challenge of learning a language up to a high level. Really, it’s what makes it so fun. I hope you’ll have enjoyed this post, and I would be thoroughly interested in hearing about your opinion on those topics. Have you managed to reach a high level of proficiency in a foreign language other than English? If yes, how did you do it? If no, how can you fix it?

By Sam Gendreau Sam is the guy behind Lingholic, a blog with a wealth of resources for making the life of language learners easier, 

including interviews with polyglots from the world and articles on just about any topic language-related. 

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  • Really nice article, and its come at a perfect time! Im just over six months into my German studies (this is my first foreign language, so the process is very new to me). I’ve made leaps and bounds in progress, but now suddenly I realise what a long road I have ahead to really be able to manipulate the language (and not just get the jist of a sentence written down). Its demoralising at times, but knowing its part of the process, and other language learners go through it, really helps.
    Thank you!!

    • Hi ROM. It’s awesome to know that my article has come at the right time 🙂 Yes, it’s definitely part of the process. Just enjoy the journey, and as you long as you keep consistent habits, everything will eventually fall into place.


      • Thank you :). I have a quick question though. How do you think your ‘Actual Learning Curve’ ties in with Luca’s graph of the ‘Epiphany point’? I kind of imagine the Epiphany point occurring right at the end of your curve if it was to continue, when you’ve finally reached the end of that long slow line you’ve drawn?

        • Hmmm… that’s a good question. I think the “epiphany point” definitely comes before the end of the curve… for the simple reason that there is no end to that curve! Language learning is a lifelong journey, and no matter how many years you’ve been learning a particular language, there’s always a way you can become better at it (even if it’s your mother tongue, think of Shakespeare for example).

          Personally I’ve felt like the epiphany curves comes around the time you reach a C1 kind of level in your target language, but it can really vary from person to person and language to language (well, now that’s a vague answer isn’t it?) In any case, if I were to put a point in the graph, it would probably be somewhere after the curve really starts to flatten, cause that means that’s where you’ve reached some kind of advanced level in the language.

          Hope this answers your question 🙂

  • This was definitely one of the most insightful articles I have read regarding foreign language learning in a long time. Now I understand how I ended up stuck in the comfort zone area of French, and why I keep jumping from language to language every few months. It would appear I need to go write some goals down.

    • Wow, thanks for the great comment! Let me know once your goals are written down. If you’re interested, check out the “SMART” goals, it’s a good place to start.


  • è vero! Ho raggiunto un livello decente con Italiano, pero ancora non sono esperta…Sono divenentata molto pigra! E doppo aver letto (dopo ho letto?) quest’articulo ho deciso di passare alcuni mesi perfezionando il mio Italiano… cosi posso “move on”(?) a Spagnolo!

    It’s true! I reached a good level in Italian, butstill not fluent… I’ve become lazy after reaching intermediate. After reading this, I’ve decided to spend some months perfecting my Italian (otherwise I fear I’ll be perfecting it for the next few years) and then I can move on to Spanish!

    Any corrections would be appreciated 🙂

    • Great to hear you decided to focus on your Italian. Are you using any particular resources these days? You seem to be doing pretty well!

      I’d love to correct your Italian but unfortunately I’ve never learned Italian more than a couple of days in my life 🙂



      • Thanks for the response 🙂

        I’m using HelloTalk, a language-learning type of “whatsapp” which has been surprisingly useful, watching films/TV, Anki…. but of course the key is spoken practice with natives, which I will have to bump up. The nice thing about getting to a good level in a language is that you practice it and it’s fun 🙂

        • Is HelloTalk specifically for language learners? I’m curious to know whether you’ve found any other apps to be really useful for learning your target language.

    • Alcune correzioni!

      è vero! Ho raggiunto un livello decente con l’italiano, però ancora non sono esperta… Sono diventata molto pigra! E dopo aver letto quest’articolo ho deciso di dedicare alcuni mesi al perfezionamento del mio italiano… cosi, poi, potrò passare allo spagnolo!

      In bocca al lupo!

  • *Otherwise I fear I will be “perfecting” it for the next few years i.e. in a state where I half-heartedly learn the language but make little progress.

    • Thanks Stu. What language are you learning right now? If you feel like you’ve been stuck in a plateau for some time, try changing some of your learning strategies and getting exposed to different learning materials.

      Hope this’ll help!


  • Great article. Thanks for sharing. I believe I am on my way to achieving a high level of proficiency in Spanish (although that may not be too difficult considering I’m Brazilian). My current goal is to get as good as I can before my trip to Spain by the end of September. I am listening to real content every day, reading a novel (my 6th or 7th in Spanish), and practicing conversation over Skype.

    • Hi Julio. That sounds like a pretty nice strategy to me. Although Spanish may be easy for a Portuguese speaker, I’ve found that “easy” languages are challenging because it’s easy to become lazy and make a minimum amount of effort. Your English seems very fluent too, that’s amazing! 🙂

  • Great article!
    I started learning Polish since one month and a half now and I didn’t set clear and long-term habits because I didn’t make them depending only on me. I had a teacher on italki and my habit was to have a class almost every single day whereas, the teacher wasn’t always available as she took some holidays. Now, after reading this article, I know that I have to look back on both my habits and my goals to be fluent in Polish, and most of all, set realistic ones.

    • Yes, depending on someone else is also a bit tricky. I encourage you to look for additional teachers on italki. Usually, if you find a good one and you book your classes in advance, there shouldn’t be any problems.

      How do you find Polish by the way? I heard it’s a fairly challenging language.

  • Hi Sam, i’m Miss.Aimee,thank you so much for your share. This is very useful for me now.Because i’m learning English for Ielts test. My goal is 7.0,i learn this language because i love languages, cultures. You are my new idol 🙂 .Hope that you will let us know more your skills about languages.
    Best regards,

    • Thanks for your very kind comment Aimee! Your English seems fantastic, I’m sure you’ll reach your goal in the very near future. Keep up the good work 🙂

  • HI Sam. Could you give some examples of goals in language learning from your experience? It’s tough for me to set clear goals. Thanks

    • Hi Mike,

      I usually like to think of goals as short-, medium-, and long-term.

      A typical example of a short-term goal (or daily goal) could be, for example, to go over a chapter in your textbook every day, or to read the news in the language every day.

      Medium-term goals could be something like: “have a conversation with a native speakers over Skype entirely in the target language, and be able to talk about simple topics such as hobbies, the weather, and my family.”

      Long-term goals could be tied to actually traveling/living to the country that speaks your target language, which could be condition upon having reached an advanced level in the language. More specific goals include being able to listen to movies and understand over 80-90% without subtitles, or maintaining a blog entirely in your target language.

      Hope this helps!

      • I think it should help me to stay motivated and set clear goals in language learning. Thank you Sam for help.

    • Hi Holdenq,

      Right now I’m learning Mandarin Chinese, and my short-term goal is to get exposed to Chinese learning materials at least 30 minutes every weekday.

      My medium-term goal, some time around next year, is to reach a solid B1 level and be able to chat with a native speaker over Skype entirely in Chinese about a variety of more or less simple topics.

      Let me know if you need additional help in setting goals, and also have a look at my reply to Mike just above. 🙂

  • Hi there. Enjoyed your article a lot. A quick question about the weak correlation between level of performance and the number of years of study/practice: surely the relationship between these two variables would appear more robust if skill level were plotted against number of HOURS spent developing it? Also, a lot of people highlight the importance of regularity of practice in addition to sheer quantity; in an ideal research study, maybe the best thing to look at would be the average amount of time spent on practice per day. It would be very difficult to get accurate estimations from participants though!

    • Hi Tom,

      As surprising as it may sound, even if skill level were plotted against the exact number of hours spent developing it, the correlation with level of performance would still be weak among the general population.

      To give you a simple example, we all have an uncle who has been playing guitar since he was young, and most uncles who play guitar are not pro-level players even though they’ve been playing for 20+ years. The same goes for chess; skill is simply not determinant on the numbers of years somebody has played the game, but rather how that person has spent his/her time practicing it.

      Languages are a bit similar, in that if you do not focus on your technique, stay goal-oriented, and get constant feedback on your performance, you will progress much less rapidly than someone who does. Focusing on technique means focusing on those areas that are problematic, instead of those areas where you are very comfortable in. Most people, once they have become comfortable doing a certain thing (say playing with a particular opening at chess, or talking about a specific topic in a foreign language) stop focusing on their technique and stay in their comfort zone. This inhibits progress, and it’s a trap very easy to fall into.

      I hope this answers your question!


      • Hi Sam,

        I completely agree with you when you say that quality of practice is essential to make good progress. Even so, I think the uncle example really encapsulates the point I was trying to make: the only thing you can be sure about when somebody says they’ve been learning something for 20 years is that they STARTED learning 20 years ago. This statement tells us nothing about what they’ve been doing in the meantime. Because of this, talking in terms of years makes it practically impossible to tease apart the variables of quality and quantity of practice. For instance, it may be that a student fails to progress as well as they could not because their study techniques are poor, but because they only study sporadically. Just want to say that it’s only a small point of contention-I’ve taken a lot from your article that I think will help me, especially when it comes to setting concrete goals!



  • salut j’ai bien aimé votre article, ça fait presque 4 moi que j’ai commencé à apprendre l’Anglais, je lui donne une demi-heure chaque jour car je suis un petit peut occupé avec les études et le boulot et je la trouve vraiment facile par-rapport au français, disant que l’Anglais c’est du français mal prononcé et je dirai également que j’ai maintenant un niveau intermédiaire et un professeur m’a dit que je peux y arriver à la parler sans problème dans 6 mois!. ma question c’est que parfois j’arrive pas à comprendre les américains et il me semble qu’ils parlent trop trop vite et ils utilisent beaucoup d’expression et c’est difficile de savoir ce qu’ils voulaient dire, et cela me stresse et me démotive comment je peux faire pour sortir de ça ? sachant que je ne parle pas encore est ce que c’est normal après 4 moi d’écoute en Anglais Merci et je vous souhaite une bonne continuation

    • Salut Ahmed,

      Vous m’avez l’air de vous débrouiller très bien justqu’à date, je ne crois pas qu’il n’y ait quoi que ce soit à s’en faire. Si vous pensez que l’anglais c’est du français ‘mal prononcé’, par contre, il y a de fortes chances que n’arriverez pas à développer une bon accent. Le développement d’un bon accent dans une langue étrangère est étroitement lié avec plusieurs facteurs psychologiques. Si j’étais vous, j’essaierai d’avoir une approche plus positive à la language et à ses accents divers.

      Concernant l’écoute, il faut tout simplement de la pratique. Je vous conseille au moins 30 minutes par jour si possible. Écoutez des podcasts dans vos écouteurs, regardez la télévision en anglais, ou écoutez la radio ou les nouvelles en lignes en anglais. Regarder des films en anglais (avec des sous-titres français au début) est une bonne idée aussi.

      Bonne chance!

  • 한국말 잘하시네요~! KBS Contest 굿럭!!! Major props on your Korean skills from a fellow Koream learner here in Seoul.

    • 알렉스 씨 감사합니다! 한국어를 공부하신 지 얼마나 되었나요? 지금 대학교에서 공부하세요? Good luck with your studies, and if you’re interested, have a look at a recent article I wrote on Lingholic about how to learn Korean, I’ve given a lot of tips based on my experience learning the language.

      Cheers! -Sam

  • Great article!
    I have just recently read an article on an Italian newspaper where it was shown that one of the reasons people, and most of all, students cannot reach a high-proficiency level (or barely an intermediate, as it often happens with Italian students who have to study English) is the fact that they tend to associate the sounds of the foreign language to those of their native one. So of course, when you’re Italian and trying to learn English, you will not be able to get the difference between “live” and “leave”, because we do not have this type of sounds (or sound difference) and we a re not used to it, so our brain just sets both “e” sound on the same level. And this of course happens with all those words that require a sound-detecting process. So the conclusion was that even if a student manages to reach a good grammar level, he will not be able to progress and be stuck in that same intermediate-lower intermediate stage.. Schools and universities should, therefore, focus also on the sound of a language which, as it happens with all foreign languages, is that constitutes a language past the grammar level.

    • Hi Alessandra.

      I think that associating the sounds of the foreign language to those of your native one is certainly not the best thing to do, and will usually result in pronunciation problems over the long-term. However, there are many people who are fluent in a foreign language and yet have a strong accent.

      I personally think that the problem can lie a bit deeper; a lot of language learners have many psychological barriers to the acquisition of a foreign language. This because our sense of self and community are bound up in the speech-rhythms of our first language. A host of other factors, such as identity, discrimination, ethnic group identification, and other social variables influence pronunciation and foreign language acquisition. A surprising amount of people unconsciously do not want to sound foreign, or do not necessarily genuinely care about learning about another country’s culture.

      If you interested to learn more about this topic, I wrote an article a while back exactly regarding this. Have a look here: http://www.lingholic.com/really-want-improve-pronunciation/

      Thanks! -Sam

    • Bit late to this conversation but completely agree from my own experience in learning French. After about 20 years (!) of learning and still being intermediate somebody told me that I keep saying nu instead of nous. They sound exactly the same to me but have a very different meaning to someone French. I find German so much easier than French because, although German grammar is more difficult, when I listen to it I can actually hear the individual words being spoken.

  • HI.
    Really nice article, i had a good time reading It.
    I’m close to turn 30 and after almost a decade of learning english at school, i sadly realized that i wasn’t even able to order a pizza…..But i worked hard (probably not enough yet) to be able to speak and understand english.
    Actually , even if i don’t reach a master level i’m finally able to have fun with english, like reading your article , watching TED, understanding michael jackson songs (which is quiet hard when your a 15 years old french teenager).
    I’d like to be better , and i’m ready to work for it, but i don’t really know which kind of purpose i should gave to myself. (any tips ?)
    second question : do you think as a beginner in learning other languages , i should get stuck into learning only one foreign language at time, or two or even three are possible ?
    thank you for reading.

    • Hi Mathieu. Merci pour ton message!

      First I must say your English is very good, nothing to worry about! You already seem to have made a lot of efforts to learn the language, so it seems that you have given yourself some purpose. Personally, I’ve found that what keeps me going is really to learn more about a different culture. Having friends who speak your target language is also a sure way to go!

      Regarding the learning of multiple languages at once, I would strongly advice against that. It’s already hard to keep oneself motivated in learning one foreign language; usually those who try more than one at a time either give up learning all of them or end up with poor skills in one or all of the languages. I’ll try to write an article on my blog, Lingholic, in the near future about this topic.

      Thanks for your comment!

  • Hello,

    I think that this is a great article. As a teacher and a language learner, I feel that the points you make are very true. Apart from taking language exams, what goals do you think people should set themselves?

  • Awesome article. I think it is really easy to get stuck in that “comfortable level” of the language. I’ve certainly done it, and could use to inject more planning and goal-setting to my process. Thanks for the advice!

  • Sorry to be picky, but as this is a language learning blog:
    “disinterested” = impartial, “uninterested” = not interested
    ” I actually hadn’t gone much far”, should be something like “I actually hadn’t gotten much further”, or “I hadn’t made any greater progess”
    “enjoying” (not “enjoining”)
    “the unbeaten bush”? “the unbeaten” path?

    I know, I’ve probably got too much time on my hands. But I’ll just say, and I include myself in this, that it’s really important to maintain one’s mother tongue when learning foreign languages.

    And yes it’s a good article and a good reminder to push myself further and not rest on my laurels. I have reached a reasonable competency in Hebrew and French (I can read novels and complicated legal documents and express myself on many subjects), but I know that I could do better to be truly fluent. And I totally agree that it’s at that point when language learning becomes rewarding, when you can freely use idioms, make cultural references and be witty and sophisticated in the language. Thank you again for the article.

  • Hi Luca .My name is adriano, a reader from Brazil.Im learning German.
    Luca I have a doubt.When Im studying with flashcards I find two options, No Typing decks and typing decks.Wich one is the best to learn languages?

  • Really nice article. After years trying to get some German, I finally realized I need to set clear goals. Congratulations and thanks for sharing!

    • Yes, setting goals is important, but also picturing yourself where you want to be in the future. That’s the key. In the end, what matters is having enough motivational juices to persist, stay consistent, and keep going until you reach your goals. Hope this will have helped, and keep me posted on how your German is going!

  • Thanks for posting this article!
    It has given me some ideas to improve my language learning process, and also it was a reminder for me in the sense that if we don´t set goals for ourselves, we will not focus our attention, and time on what´s important.
    Thansk again, great advice!

  • Hi Sam, I am from India and everyone on an average speaks at least three languages very fluently ( all Indian but most very distinct and different from each other). Of course we all learn these languages as children. I speak 5 native Indian language which are totally dissimilar. I am currently learning German and Japanese,but the process for adult language learning is very different from the natural process. Do you think people who speak more languages as children have it easier while learning languages as adults? Would like to know what you think

    • Intuitively, the answer to your question would be that yes, children raised in a multilingual environment would have an advantage later in life compared to monoglots when it comes to learning additional languages. However, because I was personally mostly raised in a monolingual environment, I cannot really speak from experience. I’ll look to see if there have been scientific studies conducted on that however, as it’s a very interesting topic. Thanks for your comment!

  • Very nice i live now in Greece and i am originaly from africa ivory coast and in here i got the chance to even learn other language like chinese and japanese…
    in a very nice school with all the accomodities to make you feel like home… here is the link http://oikonomakou.gr

    They also teach swedish, turkish and other foreign language

  • […] 3 Reasons Why You’re Still an Intermediate Level Language Learner-By Sam Gendreau Sam is the guy behind Lingholic detailing why many language learners plateau at the intermediate stage. […]

  • This is a great read, thanks! I feel like I’ve been stuck in the “intermediate” stage for a long time now (I only put quotations on that because, sometimes, I don’t even feel like an intermediate, but I think I technically am!) and it’s kinda frustrating to feel like I’m not getting better. I just need to reevaluate my values and keep on with a different approach!

    • Yes! Don’t be afraid to experiment, and never forget why you got in the game in the first place: to enjoy yourself! Discover, learn, and above everything, have a good time doing it. The rest will follow.

  • Hi Sam, thanks for the great article – it helps to clarify what’s been going on with my own language learning. I stopped learning Italian at an intermediate level many years ago, and I think some things I’ve gleaned from your post will help me advance again.

    I’m currently learning German and can now start from the beginning, establishing good habits from the start. 🙂

    • Great, glad you found the article useful Andrea! Good luck with German, and don’t hesitate to let me know should you need any additional pieces of advice 🙂

  • wow this article is really smart and what surprise me the most is that explains perfectly what’s happening to me right now.

    I’m italian and I’ve always wanted to learn french because I’ve always loved the country, the culture…I’m a very “franchophile”! I finally started my french classes 2 years ago and my goal is now the B2 level exam.
    3 months ago I also started a spanish class, and surprisingly I loved it and now I find myself preferring it to french, even though I had never have any interest in the spanish culture.
    Now, that must be because improving my french is getting more difficult while with my spanish classes I’m right at the beginning and the growth is fast.

    I really don’t want to become lazy and I’ll try to focus on my goals…I’m going to print this article and keep it as a “motivation” whenever I’ll feel like stop studying.

    thank you and excuse my english 🙂

    • Your English is fantastic!

      But yes, I believe it’s important to stay consistent, focus, and prioritize. I’ve seen people who tried learning as many as 4(!) languages at the same time. Definitely not a good idea.

      A lot of us also like to dabble in one language for a few months, and then we switch on to something else. I think the important thing is to always remind yourself of why you started learning the language in the first place, and why you shouldn’t give up. While focusing on the “summit” is not the best of tactics (rather, one should focus on progress achieved to date), it’s not a bad idea to actually remind yourself of all the benefits you’ll derive from reaching that summit one day. Successful businesspeople also have that ability to picture themselves where they want to be in the future.

      Hope that helps, and good luck with your French and Spanish! 🙂

  • Great article.

    For me, I notice its the extra amount of time & effort (or lack thereof) that I’m not contributing. To get to an intermediate level, sure, takes a bit of time and effort – but to go above and beyond, you need to ramp it up.

    The funny thing was that this hit me with gym, not language actually, where I realized that while I’m making decent improvements… the reason why I’m not on a higher level (i.e. fitness model or bodybuilding) is due to the limited amount of time I spent.

    Given I have work, that greatly limits my time – and those that are able to get to get superstar level physique… well, it is essentially their day job. So, that also made me look back at my other efforts – like language learning.

    • It’s definitely true that you have to ramp it up, but most of us already spend a staggering amount of time reading the news, watching TV, and listening to music… all in our native language. It’s not too much of a stretch to gradually change such habits and begin switching to target language content, especially once you’ve reached a B1 or B2 level in a particular language. Most people say they’re busy, but in the end it’s a matter or prioritization and efficient use of one’s time!

  • This is one of the best language learning articles I’ve ever read in my life.. thank you Sam! After studying English by myself (Assimil) for 8/9 months,I took a test in a language centre 7 months ago, and was B2+.. simply great. I got on studying (not properly, I admit, and above all not every day anymore) and took another test a few days ago: still B2+. And I can’t say I haven’t practiced : Skype with a friend,I watched films (in American English with subtitles.. I still can’t really understand the accent), I listened to some podcasts. So why still an intermediate? Should I go back studying Assimil every day (I’m stuck halfway through the C1 course)? Or maybe attend a 1to1 course with a native teacher? Above all, is studying still important?

  • Love the article, very good advice. Bringing #1 and #3 together, though, I think it’s important for a student to decide how far they feel like taking the language, or more accurately, at what point the additional work outweighs the additional benefit. Achieving college-educated-native proficiency is a noble goal, but there are other options. If your goal is to score well enough on the TOEFL to get into an American university (for which a strong B1 is usually sufficient), that’s good too.

  • In the first part of the article, you say it’s important to set goals. What type of goals would you recommend for someone whose language skills are borderline advanced? At this point I can read, listen, and speak without too much difficulty, but it’s all rather superficial… what kind of goals will get me to a more profound understanding of French (the language I’m learning)?

  • l have been studying English for five month ago, at the beginning l was doing great. l got excellent score on my final test but at this momment l have reach an impasses where l don’t know how to enhance my English, since l took a few days ago my other test, l’m very discourage because l got the lower score among the other classmate. what do you recommend me to do since l have stepped back.

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