Language Learning Plateaus – What Are They and How to Overcome Them? Part 1

Does any of the following sound familiar? You started learning a new language – perhaps took a few lessons, learned the basics of conversation, reached an OK level of understanding and speaking – but, over time, the enthusiasm disappeared and progress stopped. While before you felt like you were learning something new every week and the language was making more and more sense, now you were stuck with mediocre language skills that had seemingly stopped improving.

This might be a scenario you’ve been through yourself, or you’ve seen fellow language learners struggle with. This phenomenon is called a language learning plateau and, unfortunately, it’s rather common among people trying to acquire a new language.

Language Learning Plateaus – What are they?

Stages of learning

Almost half a century ago, two psychologists, Paul Fitts and Michael Posner, started studying the dynamics of learning to find out why plateauing happens with any skill you try to improve. Their published work divided the process of learning into three stages:

The Cognitive Phase
This is the first stage of learning a new skill where learners must focus hard on what they’re trying to achieve. In this phase, mistakes are plentiful but progress is also quick as learners gather new information and work out strategies on how to best put their new skills to use.

The Associative Phase
In this phase, learning is still fast but focus shifts from what to do to how to best do it. The learner has acquired the basics of vocabulary, grammar, and other necessary skills. Mistakes are still made but there’s less of them. Learners are aware of how to use their target language but doing so still takes a lot of concentration and conscious effort.

The Autonomous Phase
In this phase, less thought and concentration is put into performing a task. Learners can process and produce language with fewer mistakes. In the autonomous phase, learning effectively stops, no conscious effort is put into improving, and using the target language becomes second nature.

The work Fitts and Posner did in the 60s is still valued today and their three stages of learning are still widely recognised. According to them, that plateaus happen when you reach (or believe you’ve reached) the third – autonomous – phase.

The OK plateau and other factors

The “OK plateau” is a term developed by Joshua Foer – a journalist and author who has also covered topics of learning and self-improvement. We reach the OK plateau when we’ve got to level where we can comfortably use our skills without having to really think about it and feel like there’s no particular need for improvement.

This plateau can also happen a lot sooner and a lot farther away from fluency than we would like. Even before reaching the autonomous stage or the OK plateau, there are other obstacles on the way. One of them is rather well known from economics – the Pareto principle which states that roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

For language learners, this means that most of your language skills come from only a small amount of time and effort you’ve put into learning them. This can make you feel like the extra work you’ve been putting into learning new rules and vocabulary simply do not matter and progress starts to slow.

The truth about language learning plateaus

So, based on the previous, we can come to the conclusion that language learning plateaus have more to do with your own perception of your skills and efforts, than any measurable metric.

You may feel like you’ve reached a plateau after you’ve become more-or-less good at a language and it seems that your additional hours of work are starting to bring in less and less in return. If you only need to know a few thousand words to understand about 90% of your target language, then reaching full fluency seems like an annoyance.

Or, the natural slowing of progress after the initial burst can create a frustration wall that stops you from becoming truly great in your target language.

But now that we understand how language learning plateaus happen, we can take steps to overcome them and take the next steps towards fluency. Read more about that in Part 2 of this article.