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Help! I’m stranded on the intermediate plateau...

After spending a few days in wonderful Paris and attempting to get by on my schoolgirl French, I realised that I feel like many of our students; I know quite a lot but really struggle to use it on the spot and I know that my level won’t improve without a lot of hard work. We English teachers even have an expression for this situation – you are on ‘the intermediate plateau’. Progress seems slow because you’ve learnt all the basics and now getting to advanced level is an uphill struggle.

Read my descriptors below to see if you too are ‘stuck on the intermediate plateau.’

1)  You wonder if you’ll ever improve.

2)  You wonder if going out with an English person will improve your English, but you just don’t find them sexy.  Lookswise you prefer Americans and find American English much easier to understand but you love The Beatles/have seen Notting Hill over twenty times/really like Manchester United/once had tea in The Ritz and you really want an English English accent.

3)  You can understand most of what you read and can chat in English for hours with your (non-native speaker) friends but when a native speaker asks you something, you don’t understand/become completely tongue-tied/feel like a total idiot and want to sink into the ground.

4)  On a bad day, you actually feel that your English is going backwards.  You blame your teacher.

5)  You can't imagine that you’ll ever master prepositions/articles/tenses.

6)  You wonder why you’re bothering!

Does this sound like you?

First of all, rest assured that all of this is a completely normal stage of language learning and nothing to worry about.  Your English is definitely not going backwards, it just feels that way because you’re learning more, and so you're noticing what you don’t know and what you get wrong. 

Don’t worry about finding a native-speaker partner!  They’re very unlikely to want to correct your mistakes or explain why something is right or wrong.  They probably don’t know themselves.

Finally, some areas of English are harder for non-native speakers than others.  The vast majority of learners struggle with prepositions, articles and tenses.  You're not alone!

How can I climb higher?

Here are my top tips for escaping from the intermediate plateau.  They're not rocket science, just basic advice gleaned from my teaching experience.

1)  Don't give up! 

2)  Keep expanding your vocabulary.

This means reading a lot and learning how words collocate (go together in semi-fixed expressions).  Doing this also helps with your grammar.

3) Excavate your 'fossilised errors'!

You know those little mistakes that you make over and over again?  If you've studied with us you probably have a collection of 'You said... You should have said...' error correction slips.  Make sure you understand why your errors are wrong and make a concerted effort to change!

4)  Immerse yourself in the language.  Do something in English every day.

5)  Pursue your interests in English!  If you're into philosophy read philosophical works in English.  This will keep you motivated.

That's all for now, I'd love to hear your tales of clambering off the intermediate plateau.  I'm off to read about design, in French of course!

By Laura


lookswise (adv.) - when speaking of appearance

tongue-tied (adj.) - unable to speak fluently because you are nervous or embarrassed

to want to sink into the ground (exp.) - to be so embarrassed that you feel as if you want to disappear into the ground

to rest assured (exp.) - to not worry

to glean (v.) - to gather/collect

to excavate (v.) - to dig something out from the ground

to clamber (v.) -to climb with effort

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