Category Archives: Learning languages

Language Hacking: Breaking out of the Intermediate Plateau



There comes a time in the life cycle of every language learning experience where the student is hit by a brick wall. I have experienced this myself while learning, or trying to learn Irish, French, German, Spanish, Latin and Italian. I have seen other learners go through it as both a teacher and a friend. The usual course of events is this: the learner starts out by picking up a great deal of high frequency vocabulary, which gives them an extremely profitable return on their investment. These high frequency words are often heard and seen in reading and listening input and quickly become acquired, making the learner feel like rapid progress is being made. This happy state of affairs remains as the learner progresses through A1 and A2 levels on the CEFR and continues into intermediate stages. With each hour spent acquiring, vocabulary texts become progressively more penetrable, thus positively re-enforcing learner behaviour.

This encouraging state of affairs continues unabated right up until the quagmire that is the B1-B2 crossover point. Think of it as a dark foreboding forest where only the most valiant warriors emerge. The honeymoon phase is over. This phase creates the false impression that languages are easy to learn. Well, they are at first, that is until the learner runs out of high frequency vocabulary to learn. Then, the tables are turned, high frequency vocabulary runs out and learners became faced with the bleak prospect of learning a word which they mightn’t come across again for weeks if not months. This can happen even in a situation where the quantity of input is extremely high, such as can be found in a full immersion environment. This land of no return is well know by language learners and it’s the last stop on the line for many of them. The trains stops and they get off far out in the suburbs.

Polyglots can also experience this stage, having said that it is more rare once you’ve mastered your first second language. I will attempt to address why this is the case later.

Firstly, I want to point out that this stage, sometimes termed the intermediate plateau, is not necessarily a bad thing. This level of proficiency serves many learners well. Let’s imagine a Korean business woman in the IT industry on a trip to her company’s supplier in Vietnam, who happen to make parts for her company’s mobile phones, to oversee new standards of production. Her hosts are equally proficient in the language, and together the happy group negotiate meaning during the visit. Error counts are high- but who cares? There is no teacher around to write down their mistakes and communication, while imperfect, is mostly successful. It’s all about getting the message across and if she doesn’t happen to know how to use the present perfect tense very well-well who cares? If she doesn’t happen to have the word for a particular noun- let’s say ‘a blanket’ in the hotel that she’s staying in- well, she can just show the receptionist a picture on her mobile phone. She could go on holidays the following year to France and have a very similar experience. In short, meaning is negotiated, thrashed out if you like, between two or more willing parties.

The majority of English as a second language speakers around the world are on the plateau and are happy there. They learned the language to get by, not to understand the intricacies of assonance in Grey’s Elegy, nor watch The Godfather Trilogy without subtitles and certainly not to give a talk at a TEDX conference or publish articles in peer-reviewed journals. Their ambitions are much more modest and mediocre works just fine for them in their world thank you very much.

Sounds great, right? And remember practice makes perfect, doesn’t it? So these intermediate plateau learners (IPLs) will inevitably get better as they continue dealing with the language, right? No, that’s where we are sometimes mistaken. This isn’t my line but I wish it was, practice doesn’t make perfect but perfect practice does. If you want to progress to C1 and C2 and beyond, your learning behaviours need to change.

Before I discuss practising more perfectly, I want to quickly explore the other factor which creates the illusion that languages are easy to learn at lower levels. This is the unequal way we have divided up language learning courses into a series of levels. Be it the CEFR, IELTS bands or the old beginner to proficiency system, schools, course books and teachers do not make it clear to students that the time it takes to get from A1 to A2 is not the same as the time it takes to get from C1 to C2, not by a long shot. Think of A1-A2 as the Apollo mission to the moon and C1 to C2 as getting to Mars (and setting up a colony there). Similarly, getting from band 5 to 6 in IELTS can be done in 3 months while getting from 8 to 9 may take 3 years or 30.

Ok so language acquisition is more rapid at the beginning but once progress slows down, how can we make the time we devote to learning a language more worthwhile?
It’s not a revelation, or at least it doesn’t seem so at first, but it is. I mentioned polyglots before. They go through the intermediate plateau in their first second language as all other learners but they manage to find their way out of the forest. They master their L2. L3 is a much easier experience. The brain has been rewired to become highly attuned to acquiring. The difference between L2 and L3 for the typical polyglot is like the difference between getting a taxi from the airport to your hotel or standing in the rain waiting for a bus that’s late and trying to understand the bus maps that are in a foreign language. For the polyglot, it becomes an enjoyable experience to go from elementary to proficiency in your L3. L4 is almost done on autopilot and it gets even easier from there. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that learning a language, even your fourth is easy. On the contrary, it still takes a huge investment of time. However, what reduces is the frustration of performing learning behaviours that give little return on investment. Enjoyment increases. The pleasure of improving is felt much more often, at all proficiency levels, and there is very little of the frustration.

What do polyglots do then that’s different? Well, for one they tend to be extremely disciplined. Just like physical exercise, a little bit on a regular basis goes a long way. They stay relaxed and do not stress to much about their level or undergo anxiety during production. They’re constantly trying out what they know and taking feedback on board, always  trying to do better next time. However, they can be happy to remain silent and simply soak up what’s going on around them. They look at grammar only on a need to know basic and don’t make the mistake of trying to learn the third conditional before they’ve even noticed it during input. They have modest goals, at least at first. These might be to have a enough Italian to order food in a restaurant or hold a conversation about football in German. They find input that’s comprehensible. And of course they keep motivated, which brings me to the key ingredient: avoiding boredom.

Boredom is the mortal enemy of acquisition. Polyglots have developed techniques for avoiding this boredom and its associated frustration on the intermediate plateau. One of the ways of achieving this is to change the learning source frequently. For example, if you’ve been doing French on Duolingo for a few months and have made a lot of progress but are getting a bit fed up with the routine of it all? Say you’ve read all the graded readers in your local library, you’ve got all of Axelle Red’s CDs and you’re sick of trying to read Camus’ L’étranger. Well, try another source- read BBC Afrique, watch TV5 and France 24 and listen to Europe 1. Download some podcasts. Find a TV programme from the Francophone world that you like, for example ‘Un Village Français’, have a look on YouTube for an interesting French language blogger- why not one from Cameroon? Find a language swap in your town. Find 10 of them. In short, change the channel and when you get bored: change again, stay on the same language but change the channel. Find a new French class, watch a documentary in French about a topic that you’re familiar with. Listen or watch to whatever you like so long as it’s in French and so long as you find it interesting. Watch things that you enjoy multiple times. That’ll make it more comprehensible with each listen. Acquisition is INEVITABLE once you stay relaxed, avoid boredom and keep that input comprehensible. Oh an get copious amounts of it: between 2 and 4 hours every day. C’est facile, non?

Language learning tips

LOGO FINALIn this The TEFL Show podcast we give several tips for learning languages more effectively. We’ve both learned various languages over the years, discovering along the way that it is much easier, faster and more enjoyable than you might think, as long as you follow a few basic rules.

What has your language learning experience been like? Have you found any of the tips we discussed useful? Do you have any others? Let us know what you think by commenting below and rating the podcast on iTunes here. And if you’re interested in learning languages, check out this section of the blog.

The podcast music theme is under Creative Commons ShareAlike 3.0 International License and was downloaded from this website.

‘I don’t have talent’ and other language learning myths

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All The TEFL Show podcasts can be found in this playlist on Soundcloud and in the iTunes Store here. You can subscribe to the show there, download the podcasts to listen to later and share them on social media.

In this episode of The TEFL Show we use our own language learning experience to debunk some of the most common myths and misconceptions about learning languages, such as that you need talent or a very long time to get to a high level. We also give several tips that will hopefully boost your language learning progress.

What has your language learning experience been like? Do you have any other tips? Have you found the ones we’ve given useful? Let us know in the comments section below.

If you’re interested in learning languages, you might find this section of the blog useful. All the previous podcasts can be found here on the blog.

The podcast music theme is under Creative Commons ShareAlike 3.0 International License and was downloaded from this website.

TESOL Convention 2015 – ‘Pronunciation through Practice: utilizing apps and the web’ by Amanda Yousuf-Little


One of the Electronic Village presentations I attended this morning focused on 3 apps and 2 websites we can use to help our students practise pronunciation in and outside the class. It was a 20 minutes hands-on practical talk that showed us the basic features and pros and cons of each of the apps and websites. Admittedly, I haven’t had a chance to play with these apps myself, so in writing this post I’m just relying on the notes that I took during the demo and on what I saw then. But if you have, please let me know what you think about these apps in the comments section.


All the apps are apparently only for Android devices. You can find them in the Google Play Store by clicking on the hyperlinks.

k&j app1. K&J app:

It shows you how to produce individual sounds, and gives example words with particular sounds and shows how to produce these. Some of the practice features are spotting the sound that the app says, or identifying the word that the app says

ep speak and listen2. EP Speak and Listen

This app is very good if your students are having trouble pronouncing words that they see written, which is not that uncommon if you think how terribly illogical English pronunciation is. So one of the features is that the student can type in a word they’re not sure how to say and the app will pronounce it for them. The student then can repeat the pronunciation and the app assesses the accuracy.

english pron3. English pronunciation

You can pick any sound you want to work on, and the app shows you the side view of the mouth, air flow, position of tongue, lips, etc.; taking you through the process of producing the sound. Unlike the other apps, you can choose between AmE and BE (when will apps, dictionary, course book writers and ELT in general start including Australian, Scottish, Irish and all the other native and non-native English accents??!!). You can listen to words and record your pronunciation to compare. Also, you can listen to a word and try to spell it phonetically (as you spell the app will pronounce each sound). Alternatively, the word is spelled alphabetically and you have to spell it phonetically.

pron training5. Pronunciation training

Apparently, the lessons are dull. However, the practice part is unique. You listen to a sentence and reproduce it. The app then evaluates you. It can track your accuracy and indicate where you went wrong in the sentence. There are 48 different sentences.

talk to eve6. Talk to Eve

Now this app sounds a bit scary. Basically, you interact with ‘Eve’ alias the app. You can say things to her (whatever you feel like at the moment I guess – leave it to your students’ imagination), and she’ll respond IF… Now here’s the tricky part. Eve will only respond if she understands your pronunciation. Unfortunately, the Internet was down, so we couldn’t really see how it works in practice, but apparently Eve can be quite witty in her responses too. So watch out!


Again, because of technical glitches, we weren’t able to see how the websites work, so if you’ve used them, please comment below. – great for minimal pairs. The cool thing is it lists words by difficulty for students. – sts record themselves and send the recordings to you. These can be downloaded in different formats

Learn a language in 6 months

In January I started a series of blog posts on learning languages, speculating how we could learn faster and more effectively. I decided to use these tips in practice to see if I could learn a new language in 6 months, and I chose Portuguese. The 6 months are over now, so I wanted to give a final update on my progress and reflect on what I’ve learned in the process about learning languages.

But first, if you haven’t been following them, I would like to invite you to read the previous posts on the topic, which you can access by clicking on the links below:

  1. “Dispelling 5 language learning myths”
  2. “5 steps to language fluency”
  3. “Be fluent in a language in 6 months – mission impossible?”
  4. “First update – two months on”

So how much have I learnt?

I can’t say I’m completely fluent, but I can have a chat on most familiar topics, understand people and most of what’s said on TV and read  a book. I still make mistakes, my pronunciation is dodgy at times, I find it difficult to understand people speaking very quickly and colloquially, and I sometimes mix Spanish with Portuguese. So there’s a long way to go, on the one hand, but on the other – I’m quite happy where I am and what I’ve achieved.

And even more importantly, I learned many new things about learning languages, and this is what I would like to share with you in this post.

1. Learning new words:words

  • identify chunks (2 – 3 words together) and functional language (e.g. Would you like a…; Do you fancy +ing) and don’t learn isolated words
  • mine reading and listening texts for lexis
  • when you hear somebody use a phrase you don’t know, ask about the meaning and note it down (unless you have a good memory for sounds, you’ll forget it – so I tend to take a small note pad for my language exchanges where I can quickly jot down the new words)
  • choose a lexical set that is relevant, interesting and useful – there’s no point in learning words you’ll never use!
  • use mnemonic devices to boost your learning (anchor the new word to an image/sound, create a pun around it, i.e. le vol is theft in French – imagine lord VOLdemort stealing a magic wand from Hogwarts)
  • 5 a day, keeps the doctor away – even such a small number of words can make a difference
  • avoid the forgetting curve – use spaced-repetition:
  • use Memrise to boost your efficiency and effects – for me is an absolute winner; by combining spaced repetition with mnemonic devices it gives your memory an incredible kick – read my post on it here
  • use it or lose it – no matter how many new words you manage to memorize, they’ll be useless unless you put them to good use – so go out there, and make a conscious effort to use the new phrases as soon as you get a chance

2. Grammar:

  • it’s much less important than your teacher would like you to believe – especially at the beginning, the key is new vocabulary, phrases and functional language
  • don’t try to be correct all the time – embrace mistakes: believe me – nobody will laugh at you!
  • pay attention to what people say – listen carefully to what and how your interlocutor speaks, identify the grammar pattern and use it
  • pay attention to your own mistakes – you need to learn to monitor your language to identify the slips (i.e. mistakes with language you already know)
  • focused correction – tell your language buddy to focus on a particular area you’re having problems with, or you’ve recently studied (e.g. past simple), and to correct you – if you ask somebody to correct all your mistakes, you’re likely to end up silent and disillusioned after 5 minutes
  • avoid ‘useless’ grammar – many grammar points have little effect on your fluency, so instead of worrying about the correct article or possessive pronouns, first get a hang of the basic tenses present and past simple, going to and present perfect – this will greatly improve the array of things you can say
  • don’t wait until you know it all – start using the past simple even if you only know some regular verbs and only 1 or 2 irregular ones – people will correct you along the way, you will notice the correct patterns, and learn much more by practising it then by doing gap-fills
  • use it – as with vocabulary, there’s no point in learning something if you’re unlikely to use it, so as soon as possible put the new grammar into use – if you’ve just learned a new pattern, then  make a conscious effort to utilise it as soon as you get the chance

3. The input – reading and listening:

  • immersion – whether you are a beginner or not, you should start listening and reading in the target language from day 1, even if it’s just 5 minutes a day, you’ll soon start to note a difference in how much you understandheadphones 2
  • notice the language – try to pay attention to how the language is used, compare it with how you use it, note down one or two useful phrases, and use them when you get a chance
  • make it fun – choose topics that are interesting for you
  • connect it to vocabulary and speaking – if you’re learning football vocabulary on Memrise, listen and read some World Cup commentaries, and make it the speaking topic of your next language exchange
  • choose texts that are useful and relevant – e.g. if you want to learn every day language, choose texts that reflect it
  • prepare for the text – use the title, the headings, the main photo, etc. to brainstorm vocabulary that is likely to appear in the text – it will make reading/listening much easier
  • main message first – focus on the overall meaning and set yourself a simple task, i.e. how many people are speaking? are they happy or sad?
  • identify the difficulties and tackle them – again read/listen to the parts you found difficult a few times to discover the meaning

4. Speaking:conversation bubbles

  • this is crucial if you’re ever going to make any progress – you must SPEAK!
  • language buddy – find somebody you can talk to in the target language – most cities have regular events when people meet to practise different languages
  • make mistakes – otherwise you’ll never learn! But please do pay attention to the correct version as well
  • relax – most adults find it very stressful to speak in a foreign language they don’t know well: now, please take a deep breath, count to 10, and relax – nobody’s going to laugh at you; actually, most native speakers will be delighted you’re trying to speak their language!
  • simplify your language – your L1 vocabulary is incredibly much more varied than your beginner L2, so a good fluency trick at the beginning is to use simpler constructions and words, which you already know, to express yourself in the target language
  • use fillers – long pauses can be embarrassing, so to avoid them, use phrases such as: well, you know, I mean to fill them in: right away you’ll sound much more natural and fluent
  • describe what you don’t know – if you’re about to stop, because you don’t know a word, don’t – use simpler vocabulary, a synonym, describe the word you’re looking for, point to it or ask how it’s called

5. Motivation:dream away

  • it’s got to be fun – if you’re feeling tired or frustrated with studying, give yourself a break: watch a film instead, have a chat with your language buddy, etc.
  • set yourself achievable, concrete and small goals – otherwise you’re risking disappointment, i.e. I will learn 5 words related to football every day for 10 days, is a much better goal then, I will learn new words
  • ask yourself WHY you’re learning the language – the most effective goals are usually the ones that are intrinsic and personal
  • find something you like – there must be something you enjoy doing, a great hobby you have, e.g. cooking: why not learn how to do it in a new language?
  • start a diary – it’s very easy to underrate your own progress, but if you keep a diary of what you have achieved and learnt, you will be able to clearly see how much you have improved

Good luck! Boa sorte! Bonne chance! Suerte! Viel Gluck! Powodzenia!

Apart from the 4 posts mentioned above, you might find these useful too:

  • learn how to be  a good learner here
  • Lizzy Pinnard tells us how she’s learning Italian in this post
  • Sandy Millin reflects on her language learning experience here