The Intermediate Plateau and Mindset

Staying motivated in the Intermediate Plateau


Do you feel like your English learning has slowed or stopped, even though you’re still making a lot of effort? That horrible feeling of getting to an intermediate level, and then not improving, is often called ‘The Intermediate Plateau’ and in today’s article I’m going to explain what it is, why it happens, and how to fix it.

Learning and forgetting curves

I want to start by showing you a chart. This shows the language ability of people learning English over a period of 60 years. As you can see, people’s language ability increases quickly at the beginning, and then starts to flatten over time.

Years of experience vs accuracy

But here’s the thing, the shape of the chart is exactly the same for native speakers. In other words, this is something that happens whether you learn a language as a baby, or as an adult.

So, the first thing to know is that the Intermediate Plateau is a normal and unavoidable part of language learning. A big part of the reason is the way that language works.

Vocabulary in all languages follows something called Zipf’s Law, which states that the most common word is twice as common as the next word, and that word is twice as common as the next word, etc, etc.

It means that a tiny number of words are used very frequently, but the majority of words are very infrequent. Just 100 words make up 50% of most English, but to get to 98%, you need 10,000 words.

The curve of Zipf’s Law looks like this: 

Zipf's Law


Do you notice anything? Let’s put Zipf’s curve next to the learning curve:

Learning curve vs Zipf's law


Zipf’s curve is the exact opposite of the learning curve.

But why does that matter? Well, to be able to use a word, you need to be able to remember it, but unfortunately our brains are really, really good at forgetting.

In 1880 the German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus started an incredible series of experiments to test the way that our brain forgets information. For 5 years he meticulously tested his own memory using more than 2000 nonsense words that he created.

The end result of his work was the Forgetting Curve, which has been confirmed by modern neuroscience. It showed that our brain quickly forgets almost everything, and the only way to stop it from forgetting is with repetition.

And this creates a problem, because to remember and use a new word you need to have multiple repetitions of that word, but because of Zipf’s law, most words are rarely used, and this has serious practical consequences.

This research estimates that to have enough repetitions to learn 1000 words per year, you would need to read for just 21 minutes per week in the first year, but in the ninth year you would need to read for more than 6 hours per week.


In other words, to continue increasing your vocabulary in a linear way, you need to increase your effort exponentially.

Now, so far we have only been talking about individual words, but we almost never use words in isolation, we use them together to create meaning, and to understand another cause of the learning plateau we need to talk about pendulums.

Dji-Lih Kao experiment with Christian Saunders

Don’t learn language in pieces

In 1931 the philosopher Dji-Lih Kao conducted a series of simple but brilliant experiments using a pendulum. This is a basic recreation of how it worked.

The experiment tested three different skills. The first skill was timing. The pendulum was released, and the participant had to hit it at exactly the right moment to knock over a target.

The second skill was direction. The participant had to hit the pendulum towards a target at a particular angle.

The third skill was force. The participant had to hit the pendulum with just enough force to stop in a specific place.

Now here’s the genius part of the experiment. The participants were divided into two groups. In the first group, they learned the three skills separately, and then had to combine those skills into a single action at the end.

The second group learned to do all three skills together, as a single action, from the beginning.

And guess what? She found that the first group, which learned the skills separately and then tried to combine them, had long learning plateaus, and the second group didn’t have any.

But this doesn’t just happen with pendulums. Recent research has shown that the same thing is also true for language. Learning the skills of language like grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation separately results in worse learning.

This is one of the reasons why many courses, workbooks, and exams are so damaging, because they divide language up into little pieces in exactly this way, and they rarely give you the opportunity to use all your language skills together.

Please don’t underestimate the consequences of this evidence.

If you are waiting until you have more input or better pronunciation, or waiting until you know more vocabulary or grammar, before you start actually combining those skills and using your English to communicate, you are creating the perfect conditions for a learning plateau, which will make the learning process slower, and longer.

The reality of language learning

And this brings us to the most important part of this video: the reality of being an adult language learner.

You might not like to hear this, but the truth is that you will probably be in this plateau for a long time. For years. Maybe decades. And some of you will never escape the plateau. But that doesn’t mean you’re a bad learner.

During this article I have shown you how linear growth in your English ability will require exponential effort, and it’s time to ask yourself if that’s actually realistic.

Adults generally have a lot of responsibilities, like work, family, and friends. All of those things take time, focus, and energy. You probably don’t have an unlimited amount of time to spend on your English.

Now’s the time to be really honest with yourself, because there’s nothing that will destroy your success faster than unrealistic expectations. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the most important aspect of successful language learning isn’t study, or practice, it’s mindset.

But this is not a negative moment. You are probably so focused on improving that you haven’t stopped to realise how amazing you are. The plateau that you are travelling in is an amazingly beautiful place. It doesn’t mean that you should stop moving forward, but you should not ignore the beauty of your surroundings.

If you can understand this article, that is a remarkable achievement. You can understand another language. You can do something that most people only dream of. If you can communicate in English, even if it is only in a basic way, that is a gift, and a superpower that you should be proud of.

Language ability is not something you can buy, you have to earn it, so please take a moment to congratulate yourself for all your hard work.

We live in a world of more, more, more, where we are surrounded by people and promises that make us feel like we are missing out on something. We are always looking up, and imagining that the people up there are happier than us.

But I promise you that they suffer from the same anxieties and fears as you. It’s OK to be intermediate. It’s enough. Remember that the only important measure of language ability is successful communication.

Don’t be afraid of being stuck in the intermediate plateau, be afraid of wasting the gift of language in the search for more.

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