The “plateau” effect in language learning

Sol Tovar
2 min readFeb 2, 2020

If you are a language teacher, or a language learner, you must be very well acquainted with that feeling of being stuck in the learning of a language. There is nothing wrong with you (or your students!) if you feel that there es absolutely no progress going on. In fact, this situation is so common, that it has been studied for years by language learning specialists, receiving the name of “plateau effect”.

Sometimes learners feel like hamsters trapped in a wheel

Most people are very motivated to learn at first, and great improvement can be seen in little time. However, since learning is a gradual process, progress is not continuous or steady, and sometimes we get stuck or even seem to retrogress a little. This supposed setback should make us reflect on our mistakes, build up strength, and move forward with our learning.

In Moving beyond the plateau, Richards (2008) identifies five reasons why students reach this plateau, namely:

  1. A gap between their ability to understand language and to produce language
  2. A lack of lexical and grammatical complexity yet a high fluency
  3. A limited vocabulary range
  4. An adequate though unnatural language production
  5. A presence of persistent, fossilized language errors

These issues need to be addressed in order to go past the barrier and further develop the students’ language ability.

One of the strategies to overcome this plateau is to focus more on output than on input, as Mirzai, Zoghi, and Davatgari (2017) maintain. This can be done through roleplaying activities and other types of activities that require students to produce language at the desired level. Such activities push learners to use more complex lexical resources and grammatical structures.

It is also important to guide students in the use of appropriate learning strategies that will help them overcome the learning plateau (Mirzai, Zoghi and Davatgari, 2017). Just learning vocabulary lists by heart will most certainly not help the process. However, a more hands-on approach to learning, in which students experiment with the language and put their language to test will result in a more positive outcome.

References

Mirzaei, M., Zoghi, M., Davatgari Asl, H. (2017). Understanding the Language Learning Plateau: A Grounded-Theory Study. Teaching English Language, 11(2), 195–222. doi: 10.22132/tel.2017.53188

Richards, J. C. (2008). Moving beyond the plateau: From intermediate to advanced levels in language learning. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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Sol Tovar

Teacher of English as a Foreign Language. Profesora de Español como Lengua Extranjera. Linguistics Enthusiast.