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Pushing Past the Language Learning Plateau Posted by on Feb 3, 2016 in Archived Posts

Itchy Feet: Mystery Solved

I gotta admit, lately I’ve been feeling a little out of the language-learning loop.

With a new job, my marriage coasting well through its second year, and a cat that gets bothered when I move any furniture around, I feel like I’m settling into a routine. Sadly, that routine doesn’t really involve any new languages.

I live in Berlin, capital of Germany, yet I feel like I have very few opportunities to practice German in my day-to-day. My new job is at an international school based out of England, so the office language is English. With the few German-speaking co-workers I do have, I ask them if I can speak German and they always agree, but it’s never gotten past office small talk. I excel when talking about my weekend plans, but…isn’t there more to it than that?

When watching a TV show on Netflix, I always try to see if there’s a German-dubbed version, but I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t think I’m learning anything new. Everyone on TV talks about the same stuff, more or less, and I feel like I’m understanding it at the same level I was a year ago. I went and saw the new Star Wars movie again, but dubbed into German, just because I was dying to hear something different for once (“lightsaber” is Lichtschwert. Wow!). Like the poor fellow in the comic above, I don’t feel that I’m really gathering any new information.

My wife is Italian, sure, but 90% of the time we speak English together, unless we’re in Italy. Even then, like my work environment, it’s just small talk (except instead of being about weekend plans, it’s about food, food and more food). Am I learning anything new? I’ve started trying to learn the Venetian dialect spoken by my wife’s grandfather, just to add a bit of spice and variety to my Italian day. Surely I haven’t exhausted my Italian learning opportunities?

I know what the problem is. It’s not that I’m out of the loop. It’s that I’m plateauing.

Egads! I’m now past conversational and trudging my way up Mt. Fluency. But it’s not a steep cliff, where every step is rewarded by visible progress. It’s a long, slow, boring hillside; it’s like Mt. Kilimanjaro, whose slopes are so gradual you just walk up. It’s not easy, but it’s no Everest, either. I’m in the language-learner’s doldrums, stuck in an endless routine of everyday conversations and unbearable chitchat. I’ve lost my forward momentum, dawdling here in a linguistic eddy while everyone else seemingly rushes down the river to fluency.

My step-father is a guitar instructor. He’s been playing guitar since he was ten years old – so nearly 55 years. He still spends four hours a day practicing, and he says plateauing is the hardest thing he has to deal with. How does he know, after so many years, that he’s still learning anything? He maybe be considered the greatest blues guitarist in his home state, but he still doesn’t feel he’s as good as his idols. How can he be sure he’s making any progress?

He can’t. But he still practices, because he knows he’s always learning something. And that’s the trick.

There’s only one way to get past the plateau, and that’s to keep walking forward. I may not notice that I’m learning, but I am. Sure, I’m not reading medieval poetry, but I’m holding conversations, and every conversation has new words, new phrasing, new ways of thinking about structure and grammar. I’m watching, I’m listening, I’m trying things out. I’ll never be 100% fluent, because that’s not a measurable thing. I just have to keep going, keep moving forward, and trust myself. Although the progress may not seem impressive, I’m still improving. I’ll always be improving, and so will you.

What about you? Do you feel you’re stalled in a language, not making any progress? How do you deal with it?

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About the Author: Malachi Rempen

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian wife and German cat. "Itchy Feet" is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.


  1. Clive:

    I would suggest you keep a notebook and write down those new things – make it into a journal if you like. It will give you a record of your progress and a place to go to when you want to revise and review. The plateau you describe is very normal for all of us so we need to create a way of measuring and monitoring progress. You can also select a topic that you want to work on (eg some grammar point that you are not confident about, study it, thinking about how you can apply the knowledge in your conversations and then do it. Notice the successes and the mistakes so that you can monitor your performance and progression. Measuring your progress is the best way get past the plateau.

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Clive You know what’s funny – right as I read your suggestion here, I remembered that I’d recorded myself having a conversation back when I was getting into intermediate German, and I haven’t yet listened to it. That was years ago! Oh man, I bet this’ll be good. Now if only I can find it…

  2. Hugh:

    Nice post. I learned a lot from you experience. What is evidently missing from your activity description is immersion in everyday German cultural stuff. I read about you watching TV, movies, etc, but didn’t read about your shopping or recreation encounters with regular Germans. How about going to local playgrounds and hooking up with some soccer folks or whatever game you play. How about a visit to a local church where you can meet with local folks and strike up friendships. I think one way of putting fun your language learning is to just go ahead and have fun with the language in regular everyday activities with the locals. In no time, the destination will arrive, but you may be too busy to notice it.

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Hugh You’re definitely right. I have far too little opportunities to speak German in my work and home life, so I should be a bit more adventurous!

  3. Jana:

    Thank you for your wonderful Itchy Feet cartoon on towering Mt. Fluency. Regarding your plateau, perhaps having some independent an activity/class with Germans and in German would be helpful. There are cheap classes offered at the VHS – perhaps a drawing class or literature or something. You would be immersed in German while learning something you are genuinely interested about. It may motivate you to keep working at it. I suspect a structured activity may help you more than just hanging out (though that can be fun too!). Being in an environment in which you may have to struggle to follow everything, but are motivated to understand and participate may motivate you to keep working at it! Good luck!

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