You’ve reached the intermediate level in language learning. You have been at this level for a few months and feel that you are not making any progress. You are still investing the same time and energy, but your return on investment looks like it’s dwindling.
Welcome my friend to the common foe of every language learner. You’ve reached the intermediate plateau.
Everybody wants to be ‘fluent’ in the language they are learning but first, let’s define the term.
What do they mean by being fluent?
Being fluent is having the ability to listen, speak, read and write in a language without much difficulty. You will also find people defining fluency as having complete dominance of the language, at a level comparable to native speakers.
When you are at an upper intermediate level (B2) you are expected to know between 5 000 and 10 000 words in the language you are studying. So, you are considered fluent. But, complete mastery (proficiency) is reached at the higher levels (C1 and beyond).
The transition from intermediate to advanced levels can be frustrating.
Making the transition from intermediate to higher levels (upper intermediate and advanced) oftentimes can be frustrating. Several problems seem to be causing it.
One important hurdle is the noticeable difference between input and output.
Learners’ listening and reading comprehension (receptive competence) is high, but on the other hand, their speaking ability (productive competence) is still deficient.
Jack C Richards explored the problem learners face transitioning from lower intermediate (B1) to upper intermediate (B2).
He remarks that all language users – even native speakers – understand language more than what they can produce. Someone might be able to read a linguistically complex novel and understand it, without being able himself to write something similar.
when learning a language it is easier to understand it than speaking it.
In language learning, learners might recognise the meaning of words when they hear them or read about them, without having the ability to incorporate these words in their conversations. In other words, their passive vocabulary is much higher than their active vocabulary.
He proposed a solution to reducing the gap between receptive and productive competence, and these are by noticing and focused output.
Paying attention to new words and expressions help memorise and use them faster.
For learners to memorise new vocabulary from the language they hear, it is necessary for them to notice such forms in the input. (Schmidt 1986,1990)
Paying attention to these forms can constitute a trigger which activates the first stage of memorisation. Only by noticing can learners’ language ability grow.
Schmidt pointed out the factors that contribute to learners noticing the new forms:
According to Schmidt the frequency that learners find these items as well as their own aptitude for language learning, and strategies used to help learners focused on them, will contribute in making these new forms more remarkable and thus more likely to be memorised.
One way to encourage noticing activities, when teaching listening and speaking skills, can be for example to listen again to a recording in order to complete specific instructions given for an exercise.
To be considered successful at language learning, both are necessary: comprehensible input and output, meaning that the language produced by learners should be understood by other speakers of the language.
Speaking with proficient speakers help being aware of the language gap and triggers improvement.
When learners notice the difference between the way they express themselves and the people who are proficient in the language, they are more motivated to fill the gap and thus this promotes their second language development.
The use of tasks and activities that require certain target-language forms to help ‘stretch’ language learners’ knowledge, should be encouraged.
It is necessary for learners to practice the new language forms they encounter so that they can improve their knowledge of the new language. In other words, the more you practice, the better you become. This will help improve your fluency because the use of language becomes more automatic.
Next week will talk more about how to face the challenges of the intermediate level.
If you're not sure about your level, take the language skills self-evaluation test.