5 Innovative Tips for Language Learners Stuck on the Plateau Phase

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately trying to think outside the box when it comes to new learning strategies, both for myself and my own language projects as well as to share on this blog.

If I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again – learning a language is a lengthy process for the vast majority of us and motivation is key. We need to be constantly implementing new strategies and methods to keep ourselves on the track to success, and after a few weeks or months of feeling like the stellar progress you were making in the beginning has stopped, the excitement turns to drudgery.

So you’ve passed the honeymoon phase of your language learning project. You’ve got the basics of conjugation, you understand gender, and you’ve got a lexicon of maybe one or two thousand words under your belt. It was fairly easy, and kind of fun. That’s awesome! So now you’re ready to sit on that horrible plateau period for months on end feeling like you’re bashing your skull against a wall. Well isn’t this exciting.

Day Seventy-six: Headdesk

The intermediate stages of a language learning project can feel like they drag on forever. It can be hard sometimes to gauge your progress at this point in the game, especially if you aren’t speaking your language with a real person on a regular basis. So, what can you do to keep yourself motivated, keep learning and not want to throw yourself off a bridge in the meantime?

1) 100 Photos. 

So this one is kind of fun, especially if you’re into photography. Take a camera; your phone is fine if that’s what you prefer to use, and venture outside into a familiar setting. The grocery store or mall, a park, or just wander around town; it doesn’t really matter, but make it somewhat interesting. Take one hundred(ish) photos of anything that strikes your fancy.

These things can be as simple as a banana or more complex like a city street complete with all of its buildings and other sights.

You may convert the pictures to whatever format you prefer – either electronic, or have them developed if you’re using film (this can take a while…), or just leave them on your mobile device and scroll through them. It doesn’t matter, as long as you can see them clearly.

Get a timer or stopwatch. In 20 seconds; say out loud as many words as you can think of in your target language that describe what is going on in the photo. Try to describe the colors you see, what’s going on, tell a super short story about why the images in the picture are doing the things they’re doing. Make it up, get creative, but it has to be in the language you’re learning! 


You could even write these things down if you prefer, a good way to practice writing especially if you’re learning a language that uses a different script than you’re used to.

English: Cameras from Large to Small, Film to ...

It doesn’t matter if you get the words 100% correct, or if you only think of one or two words the first time through. As soon as the 20 seconds are up, move on to the next photo and do the same thing. The timer forces you to think quickly, and rely on words that you may have thought you had forgotten.

Whether you’re just starting to learn a new language or have been at it for a while, you’d be amazed at how much you pick up and then don’t use, and thus won’t think about.

You haven’t forgotten these words, they’re just lying dormant. Hopefully some of them will come back to you, and your ability to describe what you’re seeing, as well as recall words and their meanings will improve. Rinse, repeat.

2) Taking Notes

Ugh, notes, I know. Some of us are avid note takers, some of us, like myself, are not. If you are a note taker however this might be something you’re already doing. Taking notes is a pretty obvious one. You take notes on whatever texts you’re reading, on various words you know you want to remember but won’t, or on ideas that you have when you’re too tired to write them out in full. Yeah, that’s normal and everyone always says to do it, but do you? Well, I don’t, and I know, I’m horrible.

This is a little different though. Rather than taking notes in your native language, take your notes in the language you’re learning. Watch movies, listen to music or read a book – in English! It doesn’t have to be in the language you’re learning, just watch regular, English language films like you always would, but take notes on what’s going on in your 2nd language. In this case the point isn’t to remember the movie, it’s to practice your writing and your ability to transition into your new language.

Just like with the 100 Photos, you don’t need to write anything in depth, even a few words here and there is sufficient to keep you thinking in your target language even while doing mundane things in your native language.

It’s important to remember that these notes aren’t actually something you’re going to be studying. I mean, you could if you wanted, but the point of this exercise isn’t to go back and study them later, the point is in the exercise itself; in the writing and the on-the-spot thinking of things to say or write in your new language.

A lot of mobile devices come with multilingual keyboard support. In fact I often use my phone or tablet to type messages in Russian that I could otherwise type on my computer, because it’s easier – not to mention faster. You can take your notes on an electronic device if you so choose, though if you’re learning an Asian language wherein the strokes actually matter, it might be better to practice this manually.

There are plenty of mobile apps that will help you take notes using your devices. One of my favorites is Evernote.

3) Make a swear jar.

Some people, in order to discourage swearing in their house or school or place of work, implement something called a “swear jar”. Every time someone drops a word or phrase that goes against the rules of that facility, the offending party must deposit $1 (or whatever) into a jar that is then used, when full, for some purpose that generally isn’t to the liking of the people at fault.

I’m glad I don’t use one – I’d be broke.

When it comes to language learning though, you need to tweak the rules a little bit. This works better when you have multiple learners, either a friend or family member with whom you can designate specific times for language study, or are teaching a class of your own. You might be able to manage it on your own, but it’s considerably more difficult to police yourself than it is to have someone else do it for you.

Rather than swearing, every time you, or your partners speak (without good reason of course) in a language that isn’t the one you’re supposed to be learning, the culprit must deposit $1 into the jar. It could be any amount of money, or perhaps something other than money agreed upon by the group.

When the jar is full (because lets face it, we all slip), use the money collected to purchase some sort of language learning material. You can modify this any way you like, including directly paying the money to your learning partner(s) rather than into a central jar.

4) Start a blog.

Oh, yes. I’m quite serious. But before you get all jumpy; it’s free, it’s easy, and you never know where it might take you. A blog is really nothing more than an online journal that you can use to not only track your progress, but to accrue a following of like minded individuals.

How is this helpful?

Knowing that someone else is reading what you have to say is a pretty strong motivational factor when it comes to performing at your highest potential – no matter how nerve wracking it might be. If this seems a bit extreme, know that you can also keep a blog private for as long as you like, or restrict it to a small audience of your choosing.

You could alternatively just do a pen and paper journal, but I like the electronic format a lot better for a few different reasons. With various mobile apps and the ability to upload photos from just about anywhere at any time, blogging allows us to cobble together anything we want without having to carry around a book and a pencil. Like I said, you don’t have to make it public, but doing so has its own benefits.

You can write whatever you want, be it a summary of your own progress, strategies you want to test out, or perhaps try your hand at writing a little bit in your new language. It’s also a good place to rant and rave about how frustrated your language progress is making you.


The benefit of making it public is that it invites other learners and speakers to monitor your progress. This can lead to interesting opportunities for you to reach out to others, find speaking partners and learn about strategies that have worked for other people in your situation. The blogosphere is large and growing and offers a social media aspect that is unique and customize-able. Give it a whirl, it’s worth a shot!

5) Boxing

Unfortunately, this doesn’t involve hitting anyone, but if done correctly might be just as satisfying. There are a few ways to do this; varying lengths of time and different opinions exist as to what the ‘optimal’ time might be, but I’m not an expert on this so you can probably figure out what works best for you.

Timeboxing, as the name suggests, consists of relegating your learning projects into short, manageable and specific tasks  that allow you to focus on really nailing down specific sub-goals of your larger aspirations.

 Following the SMART method, devise mini lessons for yourself into blocks of about 25 minutes dedicated to a single topic, like verbs or something, and then follow it up with a brief resting period in which you do something entirely unrelated that isn’t mentally taxing.

Repeat this cycle of long, intensive study periods, followed by breaks (very important!) and you’ll find yourself realizing your goals in no time.

As I’ve written about before, setting smaller goals to build up to a larger goal is the best way to feel like you’re actually achieving something, and will assist you in escaping that awful ‘plateau’ phase. Feeling as though you’re making actual progress again restores motivation and confidence and keeps you pushing forward towards eventual fluency in your new language.

So there you go; five more tips you can implement to help get past that nauseating “plateau” phase and restore the feeling of progress. What other techniques do you like to use to keep yourself on track?

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Brian is the creator, owner and Apex Editor of Languages Around the Globe. When he’s not hanging around with linguistics nerds and learning languages, Brian works full time at Kolibri Online, a Hamburg based international content marketing and translation agency as a copywriter, human dictionary and general doer of great things.

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Brian Powers

Brian is the creator, owner and Apex Editor of Languages Around the Globe. When he's not hanging around with linguistics nerds and learning languages, Brian works full time at Kolibri Online, a Hamburg based international content marketing and translation agency as a copywriter, human dictionary and general doer of great things.

  • Martha Victor

    Have your ESL students heard of all the holidays you celebrate? Mine haven’t, so I am sure to teach them these holidays in an effort to build their common, cultural knowledge

    reading knowledge

  • ChrisB

    Excellent post Brian and I must say I couldn’t agree more with the “start a blog” point, because it makes you so damn accountable for actually studying. Even if its only yourself and your mom reading, it’s just different pressing that “publish” button and sending off your log into the world.

    If you want further accountability and pressure I’m currently doing DAILY youtube vlogs documenting my journey in Russian – holy crap that helps a ton. Each video is only seen maybe by 10 people, but that doesn’t matter at all.

    • Hey Chris, daily vlogs must be pretty intense! I regrettably haven’t been following my own advice lately as well as I should have. I’ve spent most of the last month promoting the crap out of this blog, trying to get it set up and looking nice. Custom URL and all that jazz. This has seriously damaged my study time and I am feeling it pretty badly.

      I’m definitely going to be considering vlogs in the future myself, and you’re right – that’s a great suggestion! Way to put the pressure on even harder. But hey, if you want to get it done, you do what it takes, a highly publicized project is the best assurance you have.

      Thanks for your comment! I really appreciate your support.

  • Anonymous

    These are great ideas! I am so happy to see something original on the subject for a change. Thanks for sharing your insights!

    • Thank you very much for your comment! Your support really means a lot. I’m trying to make an effort to offer something different, but I doubt it’s as original as you make it sound 😉

      Regardless, thank you again!