The Indigo Plateau

Your motivation is starting to wane; you are conversational yet still frustrated and new languages are beckoning. Welcome to the intermediate plateau, the stage in language learning where you just stop making the fast gains and leaps in proficiency. For those initiated with content like podcasts, self-development and popular non-fiction books, concepts like the 80/20 and 10,000-hour rules and names like “Tim Ferris” and “Malcolm Gladwell” start to spring to mind. How something like the 80/20 rule extrapolates to language learning is that 20% of your effort will be used to see 80% of the results and 80% of your energy will be to achieve the remaining 20% of the results. The 100% meaning language mastery (near-native fluency.) From my own experience, I believe this idea to be true and demonstratable. If you use some rough statistical techniques such analysing the most commonly used words, morphemes, utterances or whatever breakdown of the noises and squiggles of a language you want to use, it will soon show that only a tiny portion of a language gets used frequently.

I think anyone who has gotten to this point in a language has felt super confident in one-on-one conversations with native speakers and then had their confidence smashed when they watch a movie or read poetry. An example from my own life comes from when I was learning French. I thought I was pretty fucking good 😉 only to try to talk to a monolingual French speaker about residential electrical wiring, and home renovation and realise this small portion of my vocabulary was non-existent. It was an example of that insidious 20% that comes in situations that are rare, specific and fluid. The 20% hides here:

  • Specific admin and government shit of the country where the language is spoken.
  • Housing, driver’s licenses, insurance etc.
  • Pop-culture, inside jokes and references to stuff only locals would know.
  • Those damn kids who skateboard on the sidewalk and their slang.
  • Jargon from various professions.
  • Idioms and sports terms that have made their way into the everyday vernacular.
  • Maybe some other contexts I have not thought about.

In our native language, we gradually acquire pretty much all of this in-depth specific knowledge during childhood and early adulthood. It actually takes us a very long time, but because the expectations of children and adults are entirely different, we don’t feel the pressure when learning this content. When we learn another language later, we hold these adult expectations. Kerstin Cable actually speaks about this in an episode of her podcast “The Fluent Show.” She mentions that when she arrived in England as a native German speaker with academic near-native fluency in English (C1 level in the European framework), she felt really out of her depth for quite a while. Segway: Check her podcast out, I really recommend it.

What can be done? From my experience and listening to that of others, several things can be done so we don’t fall off the wagon. Simple! Find motivation wherever you can get it and set short-term realistic goals that can be sustained over the long term. At the intermediate stage, motivation is really at risk unless the motivation is there, and the goals are realistic it will be a struggle. There are two types of motivation “extrinsic” and “intrinsic.” Extrinsic motivation is generated by our environment and community, some examples are:

  • Acceptance or inclusion by peers.
  • Necessity, work, education, travel, survival.
  • Cool content that is only available in that language.
  • Fame, money, prestige.

Intrinsic motivation may be harder to cultivate at this stage, some people tend to have more of it naturally, people who answer the question “Why learn that language?” with “Cos I can!” likely have this already. Intrinsic motivation could be stuff like:

  • A dream to someday buy a house and live in that country.
  • Prove to themselves that they can do something hard, the thrill of the hunt.
  • Genuine interest in language itself.
  • Boredom

Some of the above motives could be a mixture of both types of motivation, and indeed a healthy combination of both has to be present in my opinion for long-term progress. If the extrinsic motivation is weak, then the intrinsic motivation must be higher, this means it MUST BE FUN. Your expectations MUST BE REALISTIC. If extrinsic motivation is high but not the internal than you only reach the standard required by your environment and you probably won’t progress much further, Think of the little old Italian lady who after 50 years in “English speaking country X” still can’t speak native level English. She speaks precisely the standard demanded by her environment and nothing more, and her completely fluent children can bridge any gaps for her (Sorry little old Italian ladies, you are purely hypothetical in this example, and I am not some kind of “ist” who has a prejudice.)

Remember small wins over long periods will bust this plateau, after all, it is the 80% part of the journey. If anyone doubts that the devil is in the final 20% of the detail? I built in a test for you to pass, If you are older than 40 years old I highly doubt you will understand why my title is “Indigo Plateau” instead of “Intermediate Plateau” (I have added a picture to assist in finding out.)

Language learning is a logarithmic curve, and it gets harder to know what you don’t know the more that you know. Boom! Incepted!

*Images – no copyright infringement intended, probably copyright of Nintendo.

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