Keep changing your approach, or your languages will plateau

Every time I discover that I have a new skill or that something is starting to get easy, I change my approach.

People speak often of being stuck at an intermediate plateau. I’ve even heard of a beginner plateau. And many of us wonder if we’ll ever get beyond C1 to reach C2 in any of our languages. The plateaus have various causes, but one of the most common causes is that we each stick with a method that worked for us before but it’s not working for us anymore and we don’t realize it.

 

Luca Lampariello first drew my attention to this problem. He said in a video that you’ll have to do something different to reach the advanced level than what you did to reach the intermediate level. (Here’s a link to the video. https://youtu.be/NySKjOTbHsU)

 

To give a personal example, I went from B1 (low intermediate) to B2 (high intermediate) in French primarily by reading graded readers and then novels, and by listening to similar material. But I was stuck at B2 and made no further progress until I started reading and listening to the news. I’m still at B2 but noticeably closer to C1, at least in reading and listening comprehension. My next steps will probably be to read schoolbooks or textbooks in French, write essays, give speeches and participate in debates, learn slang and a lot of idioms, and listen to a lot of You Tube vloggers in order to attain C1. Once I reach C1, my next steps will probably be to take free university courses (MOOCs) in French and to create documentary-style YouTube videos in French.

 

Here’s my path–now make your own

Here’s my path from absolute beginner to a B1 conversational level, which I follow for each language I learn. Yours is undoubtably different, but notice how I change my method of study a few times along the way. If you feel stuck at whatever level you’re at, hopefully my example will motivate you to experiment with different methods or materials in order to advance to the next step in your learning. Once you do this successfully with one language, write down the various methods you used and when, and this can be your template for the next few languages you learn. (For more information, read my article, “Templates and Innovation in Language Learning.” https://oregonpolyglot.com/2018/03/22/templates-and-innovation-in-language-learning/)

 

First, I play with the new language, I dabble, I listen to people speaking it on YouTube. I call this the “honeymoon phase” and Shannon Kennedy calls it the “discovery phase” (or something like that). In languages where I skipped this step, I developed motivational problems later. The goal of this first step is to start falling in love with my new language. For me, it means falling in love with the way the language sounds or its grammar–some aesthetic quality of the language itself. For other people, it could mean falling in love with the culture or with the people who speak it, with its literature or music, with a country where it’s spoken, or something else associated with the language. (I also work on my pronunciation a little at this stage and at every stage hereafter.)

 

I’ve always had a bad habit of talking to myself (i.e. thinking aloud), but now I use it to my advantage to practice speaking foreign languages. I’m introverted and quickly become tired even while conversing in my native language, so talking to myself is how I prepare for conversation practice in each of my foreign languages. I speak almost from day one, but I don’t converse from day one. Logically, if I can’t even talk to myself, how can I expect to be able to talk to anyone else?

 

However, after my honeymoon phase, I know very little vocabulary or grammar, so even talking to myself is impossible. My approach as a beginner is to create as many sentences aloud as I can, with each new vocabulary word or grammatical form that I learn. This approach is more effective for me personally than memorization or grammar exercises. If I have access to a course that uses this approach (like Michel Thomas), I’ll use it. If not, I skim through textbooks and grammar books for grammar forms and vocabulary I think I can use in conversation, write it in a pocket notebook, and make sentences aloud based on my notes in my notebook. I sometimes use paper flashcards for a couple of days, then throw them away and practice making sentences with the words on the cards. Making new sentences is one of the building blocks of conversation anyway.

 

At some point, I spontaneously start talking to myself in my new language unintentionally. This happened to me in Russian after about 10 Michel Thomas CD’s and in German during the fifth CD. There was no Michel Thomas or similar course for Korean, so I used my notebook method, and it took a lot longer to reach this stage–but I persevered and got there eventually. Even using the notebook method, I supplement it with whatever audio courses I can find (such as Pimsleur).

 

I sense growth, now change up my method

Once I start spontaneously talking to myself, I add something new to my routine. I continue learning grammar and vocabulary by making sentences, but I also do deliberate speaking practice. I take walks and talk to myself (think aloud) in my target language as much as I can, using a bilingual dictionary on my phone to look up words I don’t know as I need them. At first, it’s really difficult. But it gets easier and easier and eventually I get into the flow of speaking. Then it’s time to make another change.

 

I continue learning grammar and vocabulary a little bit, and I continue talking to myself sometimes, but now I spend most of my time listening to the language and building up my listening comprehension. After all, how can I have a conversation with a native speaker if I can’t understand what they’re saying? For German, I’m using the free Deutsche Welle podcasts for beginners. For most other languages, I use Innovative Language podcasts. For Korean and Japanese, I read dialogs from textbooks and then listen to the same dialogs. (I prefer beginner textbooks where the audio is quickly spoken.)

 

From time to time, I go to the italki website and listen to its teachers’ self-introduction videos. After a few months of listening practice, I can start to understand at least some of the things they’re saying in their videos. Once again, I sense that I can do something that I couldn’t do before, and that’s my cue to change up my methods again.

 

What’s next? Conversation practice

Now I hire a lot of italki tutors (the cheapest ones I find that I’m interested in talking with) for 30-minute conversation practice sessions. I select topics in advance and prepare them, then I talk with one tutor after another about the same group of topics. When they start getting easy, I switch to the next group of topics. (See my blog article for more details. https://oregonpolyglot.com/2019/02/02/my-order-of-a2-b1-conversation-topics/)

 

Once I can talk on a dozen or so topics, I’ve typically reached the B1 (low intermediate) conversational level. That’s my cue to change my approach again. Now I start reading a lot of interesting material in order to build up my vocabulary as my first step from B1 to B2 (high intermediate). I gradually add listening back into the mix, then more conversation practice with deeper conversations on one topic.

 

What this means for you

In summary, every time I discover that I have a new skill or that something is starting to get easy, I change up my approach. At the very least, I change the material that I’m reading and listening to. Gradually, I work my way up from beginner materials to materials for native speakers. This is how I overcome plateaus and make progress in each of my languages.

 

No two people learn foreign languages in exactly the same way from beginning to “end.” We each follow our own path. Even if two learners start out learning in exactly the same way, they’ll diverge at some point along the way. If you interview a bunch of people who learned a language to the high intermediate (B2) level or above, each will have a unique story to tell. In this article, when I describe my own path, it’s by way of example. You can try my and other people’s ideas, but in the end, you’ll end up with your own path.

 

As you make your own path for learning languages, remember to keep changing your direction from time to time. Otherwise, you’ll realize that you aren’t getting anywhere.

Audio courses and review

I find a certain method of review a great foundation for conversation.

Audio courses vary considerably in how (or whether) they review what they’ve already taught. I group them into three general categories based on how useful I’ve found their review methods. I find a certain method of review a great foundation for conversation.

 

The most useful: Review by creating new sentences

Some courses teach new material by asking users to create sentences in their target language by translating sentences from English. For example, such a course might teach that hablo means “I speak” in Spanish and español means “Spanish” (the language). “How do you say, ‘I speak Spanish?’” I pause the audio and answer, “Hablo español.” The teacher or better yet a native speaker says the correct sentence, and I repeat.

The course goes on to teach other material and then comes back and reviews the word hablo by asking me to make a new sentence. “Francés means the French language. How do you say, ‘I speak French’?” Answer: Hablo francés. Now I’ve reviewed the word hablo and created a new (for me) sentence in Spanish. After an hour, I’ve said a lot of new sentences aloud, and after 10-12 hours, I find myself starting to talk to myself spontaneously in my target language. That’s a tremendous foundation for conversation.

Courses in this category include Michel Thomas, Language Transfer, and Boostcamp (by Language Transfer)–the same courses I mentioned in my recent blog article, “Creating new sentences aloud, part one.” https://oregonpolyglot.com/2018/11/12/creating-new-sentences-aloud-part-one/

Audiolingual Method courses (such as the old FSI courses available for free on the Yojik website) fall under this category as well. Learners are encouraged to memorize the dialogs at the beginning of each lesson. Then, in the grammar drills section, certain sentences from the dialog are used as model sentences for the drills. Following cues, learners create new sentences by substituting words or somehow altering the model sentences (e.g. making them negative, changing them into questions, etc.). They then hear and repeat the correct answers. They’re supposed to do the drills with the book closed. It’s possible, however, to listen to and/or read the drills with the correct answers once or twice first, then do the drills one or more times with the book closed. No matter how it’s done, they review by generating new sentences in their target language or learning 6-12 sentences that exemplify a grammatical point instead of just 1-2 sentences.

Many people claim that Paul Noble is similar to Michel Thomas, but when it comes to review, it’s not.

 

Somewhat useful: Review by recalling already-learned sentences

Audio courses in this category start off the same way–teaching one or two sentences that exemplify a grammatical point or a useful expression–but review by asking users to recall the sentences they learned earlier. For example, the word hablo is taught with the sentence “Hablo español” and reviewed with the same sentence, “Hablo español.” After an hour, I’ve said “Hablo español” several (or many) times. After 10-12 hours, I’ve learned a fair amount of useful example sentences, but I don’t spontaneously start talking to myself in my target language. (Other people have reported that they do, but that hasn’t been my experience personally.)

There’s a way I get around this shortcoming: After a lesson, I review some of the sentences on my own, and then create new sentences by substituting words from one sentence into another (and hope that I don’t make grammatical errors in the process, since I have no one to check my work). I talked about this in my blog article, “Creating new sentences aloud, part two.” https://oregonpolyglot.com/2019/01/25/creating-new-sentences-aloud-part-two/

Courses in this category include Pimsleur, Paul Noble, Rocket Languages, and Glossika. They’re all fine courses. I use them and recommend them to others; I just have to work harder to supplement them in order to get the same results as the courses in the first category.

 

Less useful: No review

Next you have many courses that include no review whatsoever, but they at least provide a lot of example sentences. I have to split my time between continuing with new lessons and reviewing old lessons. (Granted, even in the first category, I might study a lesson twice, if the material is completely new and difficult for me–but twice is sufficient.) Here, spaced repetition might be useful. Hypothetically, I could review a lesson after a day, a few days, a week, etc. In addition to review, it’s also helpful for me to create new sentences on my own after reviewing the lesson, though I have no way to verify whether I create the new sentences correctly.

Courses in this category are basically audio phrase books, like the old cassette Language/30 courses (some available now for download at eStories). A good contemporary example is Book2 (also called 50 Languages), which is free of charge. I like these courses, too, but they aren’t my first choice.

 

Some audio courses are primarily lists of words to be repeated. They’re still far better than learning just from a book without audio, but pedagogically they’re far inferior to everything I talked about above. Review means replaying the audio many times, and if I make my own sentences, they’ll probably be both grammatically incorrect and unnatural to native speakers’ ears. I would consider these courses last resorts or mere supplements.

Examples include the Behind the Wheel series and Vocabulearn. Actually, a surprising number of courses aimed at tourists and inexperienced language learners fall under this category. I tend to lose interest after 10 minutes and am not motivated to review them, personally.

 

No matter what

My approach as a beginner is to create new sentences and to use mostly audio courses whenever possible. A textbook with a lot of audio (e.g. Dos Mundos) or dialogs with transcripts (Olly Richards’ Conversations series or Innovative Language podcasts) are helpful for reading and listening practice and can grow my vocabulary, but I tend to minimize written material as a beginner if I can. While dabbling in Tagalog this winter, I didn’t have that luxury, but in Swahili, I do.