Daily Archives: March 15, 2012

Moving Beyond the (Language-learning) Plateau

Since we moved to China, I’ve had the good fortune of studying Mandarin in just about every aspect of life (classroom, private tutoring, research–in terms of reading and speaking, and social life).  One would assume that this type of immersion would lead to increasing competence in the area of language, especially of the oral variety.

Language-learning never stops!

Indeed, especially in the first year we were here I could track my progress fairly easily: I remember how quickly, out of necessity, really, I had to get over my anxiety about speaking over the phone, and how rapidly my vocabulary expanded to the demands of daily life in China.  In short, the on-the-ground learning curve (despite the previous two years of classroom study I had under belt) was quite steep and measurable.

But over the last year, I’ve hit that language-learning plateau.  

An article I read on the topic published by Cambridge University Press describes my experience in five succinct points, e.g. “you know you’ve hit a plateau when:”

  1. There is a gap between receptive and productive competence (i.e. you can understand far more than you can speak or express).
  2. Fluency may have progressed at the expense of complexity (you use simple grammar patterns to express your thoughts despite the fact that you’ve actually learned much more complex patterns of speech).
  3. Learners have a limited vocabulary range (pretty self-explanatory…).
  4. Language production may be adequate but often lacks the characteristics of natural speech (I still don’t speak like a native!).
  5. There are persistent, fossilized language errors (you make the same mistakes over and over again).

The article exactly highlights my frustrations, but only provides abstract suggestions for how to tackle them.  Recently my tutor and I have discussed the necessity of finding a new approach to language-learning.

Mandarin Bible and Dai script captured on one of my husband's many trips to Yunnan Province.

So I’ve been trying everything, making my way through the dictionary and making flashcards for words I don’t know or frequently mix (see #3).  I’m thinking of reading the newspaper and scripture aloud with my tutor: those are both places where I frequently encounter a lot of words I don’t know, and I end up getting dejected and giving up.  And I’m trying to focus more on my oral speech, giving short presentations about my research, trying to articulate some of those more complex ideas (#1 and 2).

How have you addressed plateaus (especially of the above variety) in your own language-learning?  I’d love some suggestions!