Category Archives: Linguistics

Great advice from St. George's, London

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. 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?


A Short Tour of Babel: Language Change and the Emergence of New Varieties.

(PIE Language Tree image above created by Minna Sundberg for the ‘Stand Still. Stay Silent’ webcomic, P196
The infinite variety

It is often thought that languages evolve in much the same way as Darwinian natural selection acts upon life on Earth. In this argument, dialects can be seen as the intermediary stages in the evolution of a ‘proper’ language such as French, Japanese, or Tamil or are hybridised versions thereof. In the same way that the ancestors of modern whales can be considered to be half hippo-like creatures and half aquatic mammals. This tantalising parallel does, however, not reflect the reality. Languages develop in a way that is wholly alien to how life evolves. Notwithstanding, languages and dialects do have their own versions of the blind watchmaker. So what are these mechanisms that create new languages? How did French spring from Latin? And Hindi from Sanscrit? Danish from Old Norse? And what is the difference between a dialect and a language?

A very human question-where do languages come from? The Biblical version of the emergence of language variety: The Tower of Babel (Pieter Bruegel)


Through a glass, darkly

We all instinctively understand what a language is. Most of us speak more than one. However, dialect has a more nuanced meaning. There is a lack of consensus in precisely what a dialect is because, a bit like Einsteinian physics, it depends on a given observer’s frame of reference. The traditional definition of a dialect is that it is a variant which is mutually understandable with another variant. For example, Gallego is a dialect both of Spanish and of Portuguese as it is a variant of each these languages and is mutually intelligible with speakers of either tongue. However, from the perspective of a French speaker, Spanish, Portuguese and Gallego are all languages for the same reason. In short, it’s complicated. What we consider serious enough to be given the haughty status of a language and what is regulated to merely being a dialect depends on many forces, among these being nationalism, history and politics.

Sometimes we think of ‘proper’ languages as having standardised grammars and dialects do not. If by ‘standardised’ grammar it is meant one which is universally accepted by its speakers, then every dialect has a standardised grammar, in the sense that all speakers of a given dialect use the same grammar. Of course they do, as do speakers of pidgins and creoles, even if the grammatical rules they abide by never get written down, and exist solely in the heads of their speakers. And even if they appear to be using ‘bad grammar’ to someone else. Similarly, if by ‘standardised’ we mean grammar which has been formalised and taught in schools, then languages that we often think of as dialects, such as Toscano, have a standardised grammar, so does Gallego and many others.

Our idea of what is a language and what is merely a dialect is tied up with the development of the European nationalism. Delacroix’s La liberté guidant le peuple (Liberty leading the people)
A matter of perspective
To help get to grips with this double standard, an often quoted definition, attributed to the best known figure in Yiddish linguistics, Max Weinreich, is that “a language is a dialect with its own army and navy”. In other words, a language is what is spoken by the person who carries a gun, waves a flag and wears a uniform. These power brokers also name the language. English, when named wasn’t spoken in all of England, nor was it the only place where it was spoken, it had a large number of speakers in Scotland, Southern Wales, Eastern Ireland and further afield. Spanish is more accurately described as Castilian. There are many other languages which are native to Spain and might also be called Spanish, for example Basque & Catalan. What we now call Italian is simply a variety which was, and still is, spoken in Florence. What we refer to as German is known as High German, Hochdeutsche Dialekte, in Germany, the most prestigious variety maybe, but nonetheless just one of the competing versions of German. Other varieties of German exist elsewhere, most notably in Switzerland, where Swiss German is often referred to as a dialect. The ‘Arabic’ of Morocco is very hard to understand for someone who speaks the local Arabic dialect of Saudi Arabia. Chinese has literally hundreds of versions or ‘dialects’. All this should serve to illustrate that the distinction between a language and a dialect, from the point of view of the objective observer, is pretty redundant.
Languages of Italy- note: these are not dialects of Italian in any sense. (image: Pellegrini’s ‘Dialetti parlati en Italia’)
“Allons enfants de la Patrie, Le jour de gloire est arrivé!”
So we can see that the very idea of a ‘language’ as separate and distinct and ‘proper’ is very recent and European and is tied up with the idea of the nation-state and a centralised political power structure. For a new one to develop, its speakers need to be cut off in some way from their neighbours. This isolation can be artificial, as in nation states, and usually involves the establishment of an official standard and the suppressing of competing variants. The English of the chancery in London shows how standard spelling and grammar sprung forth from the quill of a collection of government officials. More often, and much more naturally, languages come about because of geographical isolation, for example the languages of the island of Borneo, and develop independently within a few generations, quickly becoming unintelligible to their linguistically related neighbours.

A few of the ways in which languages change:

  • Their morphology and pronunciation changes.

The development of new forms of suffixes and prefixes appear such as adding -ism to make a generic noun, Trump and Trumpism being a recent instance. They undergo sound change, illustrated in the case of the hard /k/ sound of ‘cicer’ (chickpeas) of Classical Latin being replaced by a softer affricate (the sound represented by ‘ch-‘ in English) of modern Italian’s ‘cici’. Another example of this sound change is the early medieval pronunciation of the word ‘night’ , which was phonetic, i.e. said as it is written, and comparable in sound to its cognate in modern German ‘nacht’ but phonetically more akin to another German word ‘nicht’ (no). This medieval pronunciation of night morphed into the modern pronunciation of the word /naɪt/ following the Great Vowel Shift, GVS. (See below for further examples)

The Great Vowel shift ‘feet’ /fe:t/ became the modern /fi:t/ (graphic from the University of  Duesseldorf)


Some examples of the Great Vowel Shift: (Theodora Bynon, Historical Linguistics. Cambridge: CUP 1977, 82)
  • New grammar develops.
Or existing grammar takes on new work. Compare how the ‘passé composé’ of French is used to the ‘perfect’ in Latin or Spanish. ‘J’ai vécu à Paris’ means I lived in Paris not I have lived in Paris (for three years). Languages can develop in other ways too. ‘Synthetic’ languages, those with a high morpheme per word ratio, such as modern German, can sometimes cast off these complex morphological systems, becoming more ‘analytical’ languages. English is an example of an analytic language where word order (syntax), articles and prepositions have replaced the need for the accusative, locative, genitive, dative, nominative and vocative cases. This type of development, going from synthetic to analytic is what happened when those six cases of Classical Latin were lost in modern Romance languages such as Spanish, French and Portuguese.
  • Languages gain new lexis.

Said more simply, vocabularies expand profusely. New words are borrowed from neighbouring tongues. English happens to be greedy borrower, it loves the ‘je ne sais quoi‘ feel of foreign words, particularly Latinate ones such as ‘information’ or ‘circumspect’, Greek ones such as ‘anachronistic’ and ‘idiosyncratic’ and French words such as ‘city’, ‘accuse’ and ‘parliament’. Other words are created by combining two or more existing words, e.g. ‘Picture-postcard’, or by adding morphemes such as in ‘selfie’ and others still are coined seemingly from scratch or are onomatopoeic e.g. ‘bling’. New lexis are also created by reworking some of its existing lexicon.

English is a greedy borrower of words. It loves the ‘je ne sais qoui’ feel of imported lexis (source unknown)


Semantic Change
Existing vocabulary can take on new meaning. Linguists sometimes refer to this as semantic change. Sometimes the old meaning of a piece of vocabulary is still retained while it is simultaneously re-purposed to a new use. Compare the modern meaning of ‘wireless’, i.e. ‘WiFi’, to the meaning that was attached to that word in the beginning of the last century, where a wireless meant a machine that played radio stations’ broadcasts. Friend, which used to be just a noun, now can be used as a verb as well as in e.g. “He just friended me”. Sick used to mean ill, now it can mean that something is amazing as in “Man, that new Kendrick Lamar tune is sick!”
Semantic change: How the meaning of the English word ‘silly’ changed from its 16th century meaning of referring to someone who is blessed & innocent to its present day meaning of foolish.
Karma Chameleons
Languages can become different in other ways too, for example spelling, but there are too many to discuss in any detail here. What can be said, however, is that all aspects of a given language are in constant flux. Things like having a literate society slows this constant flux down but it is always going on, the motor of language change purring away in the background. However, as noted, they do not evolve in the same way that species do. Although they may give the illusion of having evolved, they simply change because of these drivers, without any particular purpose. They don’t change to become more suited to their environment as plants and animals do.
Shall I stay or shall I go now
Languages can be conservative, such as Icelandic, or Lithuanian, retaining more of the features of their ancestor languages, in this case old Norse and Proto-Baltic respectively. This happens because of geographic or cultural isolation or because the language is surrounded by speakers of a tongue from different language trees, as is the case with Romanian, which has retained much of the complex case system of Latin. Similarly, they can be innovative, such as French or Modern English, where because of complex socio-economic reasons, mass migration or war and invasion, they end up mixing profusely with other languages, and change in ways which are analogous to some of the linguistic features of those languages they encounter. This is what happened in the aftermath of the Norman invasion of England by William the Conqueror in 1066. The old Anglo-Saxon aristocracy was replaced by a new French-speaking one. It is no secret that Old English borrowed profusely from French but what isn’t so well known is that it also became influenced by French morphologically. For instance, it picked up the ‘-s’ morpheme to mark plurals from French, losing, for the most part, the plural markers of old English such as -an in words such as ‘naman’ , which becomes modern English ‘names’. Interestingly, vestiges of this old plural marker remain in modern English, for example in the words ‘children’, ‘brethren’ and ‘oxen’.
William the Conqueror (1028-1087) who brought the French Language to England. (image DKFindout)
Birds of a feather and the wall flowers

The other truism about languages is that they are very rarely unrelated to their neighbouring tongues. The Indo-European family is the best known linguistic branch containing among others, the Germanic, Slavic, Greek, Celtic, Anatolic, Indic and Romance lines. Anomalies occur, languages which appear to be unrelated to many others. Basque is one particularly well known orphan, although Korean and Sumerian are also anomalies. These languages are known as isolates and are much more common than you would expect, in fact they constitute 30% of all language families.

Endangered Languages around the World (UNESCO)
Endangered species
The other constant is that as one language is born, another dies. According to Ethnologue, of the (roughly) 6,909 languages which are spoken in the world today, 3,000 of these are spoken by fewer than one thousand people and are in severe danger of extinction. When a language dies, an extremely valuable part of the cultural inheritance of humanity is lost. We may struggle to preserve them, and record them for posterity, but are we merely putting off the inevitable?
A Phoenix from the flames? Can we recover endangered or even dead languages (source unknown)

A Phoenix from the flames?

To end on a more optimistic note, languages, like phoenixes, can rise from their own ashes. They can be reborn or if not reborn then resurrected and given new life, having spent hundreds, or sometimes thousands of years, on the deathbed. The reemergence of Hebrew in Israel as the Lingua Franca gives me hope that we can further recover Irish as the language of everyday communication on the island of Ireland, alongside English. A quick glance at the map below shows how Gaeilge (as its speakers refer to it) was the spoken language of the majority of the population (over 4 million of a total population of over 8 million) before the Great Famine of 1845-50. Due to mass immmigration, death from starvation and disease, the native Irish-speaking population was decimated, becoming about 250,000 by 1922. Since the founding of the state, various, sometimes half-hearted attempts have been made to reintroduce it as the community language in a wider proportion of the country but these initiatives have only had moderate success at best. The tide seems to be turning finally and I am happy to see this beautiful language being spoken more and more today. Much work needs to be done, however, to truly give it renewed vitality as we move towards the middle of the 21st century. I, for one, would love to see a truly bilingual Ireland. How can this be achieved? This is perhaps a question best answered in another blog post.Thanks for reading.

The pre-famine (1845) dominance of the Irish language is clear to see here. Can the language be brought back as the language of everyday communication? image: A History of Ireland in 1,000 objects.

Click on the link below to listen to the author, Robert William McCaul, discuss the topics presented in this article with Marek Kiczkowiak on the TEFL show:

Dialects, Language Change, Death and Revival