Tips on overcoming a language-learning plateau?
November 22, 2016 11:50 AM   Subscribe

How do I overcome a stubborn plateau when it comes to learning a language?

I am already living in the target language (Spanish) country and have been for 3 years, I talk the language every day, I have plenty of friends I practice with, I use it at work, I watch Spanish-language TV, but I am still at a high/intermediate level; I still make a lot of mistakes and have a strong accent. How do I get more advanced?

For people who have been living in a country for many years and now speak the language very well, was there a big difference between how you spoke the language after 3 years, and how you spoke it after, say, 5 years?

I am especially interested in personal experiences, resources, grammar books, any tips at all...

Thank you!
posted by iamsuper to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
When I read the heading, my first thought was immersion in the language would help, but after clicking through to your full question, it's clear you're already well immersed in the language on a daily basis. So I would recommend taking lessons.

I took one-on-one lessons when I lived in Thailand and then Japan. They certainly helped me gain a degree of proficiency. You should be able to find in your town some local Spanish teachers. A good one would be able to identify specifically what is wrong with your accent and help you figure out what sort of mistakes you're inclined to make and how to correct them.
posted by Leontine at 12:12 PM on November 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

for me (now i think 15 years straight in chile, with some time here before) this has been very slow.

one thing that improved my accent was to have some time (over maybe 3 months, once a week or two, a couple of years ago) with a fonoaudióloga (who specialises in helping children with speaking difficulties, but took me on because she already knew me socially). that finally got me to the point where i understood what to do with r/rr, even if i still wasn't great (it also helped to have confirmation i was ok with some sounds and get consistent, correct advice - native speakers can be frustratingly inconsistent because so much of language is "picked up"). also, many years ago, i took some nightschool lessons (in edinburgh) to specifically learn the subjunctive (which, not really being used in english, was always a problem).

so twice i have taken focussed action to improve one particular thing i felt was holding me back.

these days i am occasionally posting to a local reddit group, in spanish, sometimes checking what i post with my partner, and am finding that writing is pushing me further (a joke / smart comment has to be short, idiomatic, and correct - it's much more exacting than one-to-one conversation).

i think you do improve continuously. a friend of mine (german) arrived here a couple of years ago and just hearing all the mistakes he makes (yay! it's painful!) brought home to me how much better i had become, without realising it (unfortunately i think he will pass me in a year or two because he needs to use spanish a lot more during the day at work than i do). he found that going to english / spanish meetups helped (because there people will help / correct you - at work people tend to simply roll with your mistakes), but personally i found the whole social aspect too demanding.
posted by andrewcooke at 12:15 PM on November 22, 2016

I went to a French-language bookstore and was really impressed by some of the specialty language learning books there. There were books on advanced verbs, common mistakes, and the nuances of conjugation. These were really helpful books!

I am not at your level of second-language skill, but it's worth exploring. Find a really good bookstore and see what's there.

Another thing that I think helps: memorizing songs or poems that are fun to say. This gets specific cadences/word combinations into your brain in a way much like a child would learn.
posted by amtho at 12:20 PM on November 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

ps i am not sure reading spanish helps much, and it's frustratingly slow compared to english (which i read very quickly), but if you want to read some spanish authors i found bolaño, javier marías, and (surprisingly) borges to all have clear, understandable prose. and the spanish translation of w g sebald is a delight.
posted by andrewcooke at 12:23 PM on November 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

My parents had great experiences with a week-long intensive language camp for the level of mastery that you're looking for.
posted by bq at 12:45 PM on November 22, 2016

Seconding that composition in any foreign language is of tremendous help in one's mastery of it.
posted by eclectist at 1:07 PM on November 22, 2016

I think 3 years isn't actually very long when it comes to learning a new language, even though it can feel incredibly long! This is particularly true if you were starting from scratch, or from a high-school Spanish level, when you moved. More time and more exposure will help. Reading for fun in Spanish will help.

I think it also helps to take targeted language classes. If your main trouble is with pronunciation, look for a class at a local language school that focuses solely on pronunciation. If you understand the essential grammar but still mix up your sentences, sign up for a conversation class where you'll have a teacher to correct you. If you're making mistakes because you're a bit fuzzy on the grammar or the rules, then it's a good idea to sign up for an evening language class. Sometimes grammar rules make more sense once you've had some more practice with the language, because when the teacher explains something, you go, "Oh, so that's why I'm always hearing people say that!"

If you don't have time for a class right now, the best way I've found to work on my pronunciation is to record myself reading something aloud and then listening to it. It can make you cringe, but it makes your errors much clearer to you. It helps even more if you can listen to a native speaker reading the same thing aloud and then record yourself and listen to the differences. I have done this with German news and the Deutsche Welle , rather than Spanish news, but I looked around and there's a website called News in Slow Spanish which seems to give you both the text and the recording of native speakers, so you could listen to it and then record yourself reading the same thing.
posted by colfax at 1:47 PM on November 22, 2016 [3 favorites]

Lifelong language learner here.

I think what you need is a challenge, some measurable goal. It's hard to see progress when you are talking to the same people every day, about the same things, in the same words.

All of the following worked for me:

- registering for a language proficiency exam, and then attending an intensive prep course
- participating in a book club
- hiring a tutor and asking for feedback on your most common mistakes
- watching [Spanish] movies with [Spanish] subtitles
- working through high school textbooks in your target language (I did bio and physics)
- teaching a professional course in my target language

Good luck, you are most likely making a ton of progress even though you cannot see it. Look at your emails from a year ago - do they sound different to you now? Do you notice mistakes you are no longer making?
posted by M. at 1:48 PM on November 22, 2016

Scott Thornbury is a language educator and scholar living in Spain who faced a similar problem. He wrote extensively about this at The (De-)Fossilization Diaries. You may take some solace from a linguist facing a plateau after many years. There is a lot of background and some technical stuff but it is mostly accessible, or just skip to entry 13, "The talking cure," which describes a less lesson-y kind of lesson.
posted by Gotanda at 2:07 PM on November 22, 2016 [5 favorites]

Give yourself linguisticky challenges: I did an improv course and even a parachute jump with no translation, which helped me get out of the "everyday expressions" rut.

Try writing some poetry that rhymes and scans, it forces you to think at a different angle.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 2:34 PM on November 22, 2016

How often do you use your first language instead of Spanish? Have you tried spending an extended length of time (like, a couple months) using only Spanish - refusing to speak or write English, reading only Spanish books and websites, setting your phone to Spanish? I haven't been in a position to try this myself, but I've heard it can be useful.
posted by waffleriot at 3:43 PM on November 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

I agree with waffleriot: my Russian improved dramatically when I was forced to use it exclusively even for a short period. (It's since degenerated dramatically because I haven't had anyone to speak it with, but that's life.)
posted by languagehat at 5:18 PM on November 22, 2016

For the pronunciation, offers a Spanish pronunciation trainer with minimal pairs to help hear the differences beteween sounds that sound similar to non-native Spanish speakers. For me this was a problem I didn't even realize I had. Without hearing the differences between sounds, it's really hard to pinpoint your mistakes. You use Anki and download them. It's no substitute for a tutor, but can help in your off-time.

Edited to add a link to a related pronunciation article, here.
posted by onecircleaday at 7:20 PM on November 22, 2016

Something else to remember: language fluency has 4 different pieces. Speaking ability, reading ability, writing ability, and listening comprehension. In your native language and as an adult, the fours skills sort of blur together and it's easy to forget that those four skills don't just automatically flow together. But in my experience, most people are not uniformly strong in all four of those categories of a foreign language.

For instance, I have friends who went off to university in Germany (as foreigners) with excellent reading and listening comprehension skills, but who struggled when putting together an answer to basic small chat questions. I have another friend who grew up in an English-speaking country with German parents who can speak flawless, unaccented German, but who struggles with writing grammatically correct German sentences. Personally, I had to leave Germany just as I was getting fairly fluent and start over in a related language, which means my passive language skills, i.e. reading and listening, have vastly outstripped my activity abilities in this new language since day 1.

Anyway, I wanted to mention this because I think it can help to focus your goals a bit and help you figure out how to practice better. For instance, if you can read Spanish fluently already and understand most of what is said around you, but you still struggle with speaking, then in order to improve your speaking ability, you have to throw a lot of time and energy into practicing speaking. Reading more or watching more Spanish tv won't help.
posted by colfax at 2:46 AM on November 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

one small, practical tip i just caught myself doing: spanish has a bunch of words where the accent is used not to indicate stress, but to separate two meanings. if you google these you invariably find an article explaining the difference.

related: learn how to type accents with your keyboard (mine, at least, is american, so on linux i need to enable some composition setting doohickey in kde and then type WIN-' to add an accent).
posted by andrewcooke at 12:32 PM on November 23, 2016

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