Breaking through a plateau

For those who’ve been learning a foreign language past the beginner stage, you might have heard of plateauing. It’s that dreaded time when you seem to not be getting anywhere, stuck at one level. The most common stage of plateauing happens at the intermediate level and it’s frustrating because you feel like at that point you can get by in the language, but fluency seems just out of grasp.

I’ve been through two plateaus in the past four years studying Chinese. The first and, I would venture to say, the one that took the most effort to break through, to keep studying despite not feeling like I was getting any closer to fluency, was the intermediate plateau. I’ve previously talked about how I broke through that plateau. The second one though, that’s the topic of this article.

The upper intermediate plateau

After breaking through the intermediate plateau I was feeling confident. I could talk just about anything, and even if my vocabulary wasn’t very vast I didn’t need to use English to be understood or understand. Sadly, that confidence in speaking was constantly challenged by trouble I had with either reading newspapers and books or listening to podcasts. I would have a class on italki and feel really good about my level, then I would open up a New York Times article in Chinese and not really be able to comprehend more than 40%. Or even worse, I subscribed to a podcast that talked about current events and would get lost time and time again. Yet again, fluency seemed just out of reach.

That was about a year ago. What happened since then and how have I broken through?

Living with the language

I’ve often heard Olly say on his podcast that after reaching a certain level in a language he makes it part of his life. If you want to continue improving you have to do more than keep using the same language over and over. For me, it meant breaking out of my new comfort zone of speaking with my community tutor on italki in such a casual way and gloss over my mistakes. So what was my game plan?

Well, it was kind of a trial and error thing. I first got my HSK 5 book and started going through it. But it turned out that I’m not very good at just studying a book full of tables of collocations.


I tried doing some transcription work with one of the podcasts I used to listen to, but it was such a chore and I was on my own, so I had no way of knowing if my transcription was correct.


I tried reading and building my own vocabulary list, but I was reading material that was too hard and my vocabulary lists were too complex.

Then, something started to shift when I changed my computer and phone to Chinese. Google would spit out results in Chinese, if I needed to make any changes to my settings I had to do it in Chinese, and all the apps including Uber were all in Chinese. This, with time, started to have an effect, which was that I was pretty much reading a little bit of Chinese every day. Then, I cleared my Skritter pile stopped adding new words from italki because I suspended the classes for a bit and renewed the HSK 5 list to continue to add words. I also started checking my Twitter more and within a couple of months started realizing I could read most of the headlines for the Chinese news.

Around the same time I heard Olly’s podcasts about comprehensible input and his chat with Stephen Krashen. Those podcasts have changed the way I approach Chinese dramatically.

In October, I joined Hacking Chinese October Reading challenge. I put to practice Olly’s and Stephen’s advice, went ahead and read a little everyday without worrying about studying new words. Funny enough, I’ve stopped studying and have improved quite a bit.

Screen Shot 2017-12-21 at 8.16.19 PM

Also, more recently, I’ve gone back to my italki lessons, but now I put them to a different use. I have two or three lessons a week with two different teachers (mostly for schedule reasons). At the same time though, I also schedule lessons that I use so that they can help me transcribe a podcast episode. It’s really awesome because I’ll do the transcription on my own as much as I can, then, my teacher corrects it and continues a little bit more. I read it for comprehension, re-listen to that bit a couple of times, and whatever I find interesting or don’t understand I ask my teacher. We repeat that process until I’ve covered the whole podcast which can be around 30 min or so (I end up doing around a quarter of the transcription, but that’s enough for practice). I’ve found that my comprehensible input threshold is about 95% with the transcript even though I might not have that level of comprehension while listening. That means that my listening needs to catch up with my speaking and reading abilities!

Nice try...

So, that’s my game plan.

What’s your strategy for overcoming plateaus?

And now, it seems I might have to use Chinese in my future job, so I have another motivation, work related. That really kind of scares me and pushes me to get better at the same time.

We’ll see how that goes. But for now, Merry Christmas and see you soon.

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