You know the feeling: You’ve been at this for weeks, months and sometimes even years, but somehow, you start getting the feeling that you are just chasing your own tail while learning French. And you become discouraged.
You suddenly feel like you are making zero progress and that this is all just a waste of time and money. Before long, you start playing with the idea to give up.
You have reached the so-called level (common at the intermediate level and then later the advanced level) where you experience the “plateau effect”. Let me explain.
When you start learning a language, you usually make progress quite rapidly. You are very motivated, the first hundred words seem like a breeze to learn, you build your first sentences… In short, it’s the honeymoon phase of language learning and you feel like nothing can stop you!
After a while, though, the going gets tougher, just as in a mountain climb. Suddenly it gets steeper and you can either choose to do it the hardcore way by going straight up without any shortcuts OR, you have to resign yourself to take the winding route to the top, to make it easier and more pleasant. BUT, this means it will also take a little longer (depending on how many breaks you take along the journey, literally).
So what can you do? While there is no way to avoid this “plateau effect” or “stagnating feeling” you get at the intermediate level and then again around the advanced level, there IS a way to face it with confidence and to overcome it.
1. Stop focusing on the wrong thing
What’s the wrong thing? Glad you asked. It’s focusing on aaaaaaalllll the things you can’t do or say yet. THAT is a sure way to discouragement. NEVER focus on what you can’t do yet. This will discourage you at best and/or lead you to give up at worst – if not in practice (perhaps because you HAVE to study French against your own will), at least in theory (meaning your heart and mind won’t be cooperating anymore).
That is setting yourself up for failure and you might as well just stop right now and stop wasting your time and your money (or someone else’s time and money!).
You CANNOT learn ANYTHING if your heart and mind are not in it and thus cooperating. Everything will just go right above your head. Or through one ear and out the other. The result is the same: nothing will stick with you anymore.
So, in case you were wondering why you can’t seem to remember anything, do a heart and mind check. Chances are, that is where you will find the solution to your problem.
So, now you know what you SHOULDN’T be focusing on, what SHOULD you be focusing on?
2. Focus on what you already can say and do
That’s right. If you keep focusing on what you know and are excited to use it at every opportunity, you set yourself up for success. Now, nothing can stop you!
You look at the road traveled rather than the long stretch still ahead. Having this attitude, is like patting yourself on the back the whole time. THAT is encouraging to your heart and mind!
I’ll be so bold and claim that language learning is the only instance where looking back is more than looking forward is beneficial.
Successful students don’t care much about all they can’t say or do YET. They are excited to work with the tools they have and make the best of it.
3. Have a focused language learning strategy
Most students start learning without a plan. They trust the teacher to lay it all out for them and they follow blindly. They are not in charge of their language learning and that is the reason why many give up at some point.
Knowing the road before embarking on it, is a sure way to make the journey more pleasant and to make sure to avoid unnecessary detours.
So your goal is to become fluent? That’s great! Now, what will you do about it?
As I just said, many students go wrong here, by expecting the teacher to lay out a road map for them. Yes, the teacher can do it for you. But it is A LOT more beneficial for you to make that road map yourself (with the teacher’s advice and guidance if you like).
Why? Because it will make you responsible of your own learning and because you will thus be accountable for your progress to no one else but yourself. Far too many students blame their lack of success on the teacher. And while I agree that there are many teachers who know their craft but don’t know how to impart it successfully, that doesn’t mean they are always entirely responsible for your lack of success.
See it this way: it’s like an adult sitting in front of a full plate complaining he’s not being fed with a spoon. Sorry for that comparison, but it comes pretty close.
There are MANY resources out there and if your teacher is not the best, you have other options.
There are plenty of manuals, books, CDs, etc to work with. The only thing is that you must know HOW to use them, HOW to combine them so that they complement each other and, especially, at what point in your language learning you need to do what.
If you want to know what the best “stages” are to follow during language learning and set up an effective learning strategy accordingly, check this post to learn how to learn a language naturally.
4. Set goals and break them down in small steps
So, now we have established that you want to become fluent, we have to make a plan. And I highly recommend you read the post on how to learn a language naturally to establish your strategy.
Now, for each phase of your language learning, you should have a plan of action. Write down the action steps you will take each week. Much like a promise to yourself. Make bullet points, break it down into a list of things to do each week.
Another great way to encourage self-discipline and accountability, is to keep a language learning journal. Knowing that you will have to take 5-10 minutes at the end of your day to “report” what and how much you have learned, is a good way to build “productive pressure”.
5. Write it down to keep a visual track
Finally, you should also write down what you CAN say and do. Like we said in the beginning, it’s important to focus on what you already know and master in order to boost your self-confidence and your motivation.
Get a workbook and use it like a DIY phrase book. For each action you can perform, you can write down your favorite phrases. As you progress, I encourage you to flick through the pages regularly for revision (very important!) but, just as importantly, for self-confidence and motivation boost.
If you are ready to take charge of your language learning and go from discouragement to motivation and from insecurity to self-confidence, make sure to use the recommended tools in this post!