While starting learning a new language is usually fun (if you do it right), maintaining and improving the language you already know is the harder part. In this article you’ll find some tips for intermediate and advanced learners, e.g. how often you should practice, what is the plateau and how to overcome it, whether language certificates make sense, and why imitating somebody is a good thing!
If you’re stuck with a foreign language and you don’t know how to progress or maintain it at the desired level – don’t worry, we’ve all been there. I bet you started it still in school and it wasn’t necessarily your dream to learn it, or it was – but the goal and the plan to achieve it got lost throughout the years that you learned it. So first, please read how the beginnings of learning a new language should have looked like. I believe that all of those points are valid when you master a language, too. So in this article I will point out only some problems typical for intermediate and advanced learners.
While at the start of learning a foreign language you should practice every day, at the intermediate stage it is sufficient if you study about 3 – 4 times a week, but your general exposure to the language should be more extensive than at the beginners’ stage. It is a natural process and a rewarding experience: you can actually use the language and make it a part of your life.
So if you use this cheap excuse that you have no time to practice, here’s a trick: do what you do now, but in the target language! Watch your favorite TV shows or the news in English, listen to the radio, read books, magazines or browse news on the internet in the language you want to improve! You can switch the language of your phone, and use the target language as the default language in apps or portals. Still, a part of your learning experience should be „structured” learning, where you set yourself clear goals and monitor progress (whether it’s a teacher-led course, private classes or a self-study textbook + audio course).
It is only natural that if you don’t maintain your language skills, you will forget the language. So make a conscious decision how you want to maintain your language and how you can improve, and make time for this.
Should I do a certificate?
Unless you want to study abroad or have a job in the public sector, chances are you won’t need a certificate of your language skills. I don’t think I ever had to show my certificates to anybody. They look good on your resume, but I wouldn’t go to all the pains just to add it to my curriculum. Having said that, I must say that I am a big fan of certificates, and particularly of the courses preparing for them. Why?
First, at intermediate or advanced level we tend to focus on one or two skills only. There are people who only read books, or those who only speak a foreign language at advanced level but have trouble with writing. The skill I usually neglect is listening comprehension. The official exam verifies all four skills plus grammar, so when you prepare for it, you practice all the skills and undoubtedly you’d need to cover any gaps that you have in any of these areas.
Second, taking a language exam makes a perfect, very tangible goal, and you already know that having a clear goal before you is absolutely crucial. Passing the exam and getting the certificate acts as a great motivator: you’ll know what is your „official” level (as defined by the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages – CEFR), and by looking at the results you’ll also know at which skills you were the strongest and which need some improvement. It’s a great starting point to set yourself new goals and get to a higher level.
Work on your accent
At this stage you should focus on pronunciation and intonation. Now you can easily interact with native speakers, and so, imitate the way they speak. Make sure you know how to pronounce phonemes in the target language, repeat new and difficult words. Most importantly, though, imitate native speakers by saying entire phrases like them, with same intonation, rhythm, and even body language. Remember their natural reactions in different situations and do it the same way.
Of course, you don’t need to have a native-like accent to be fluent or even proficient in a foreign language. But if you use natural responses spontaneously, it means that you went beyond learning just textbook language. You made the effort to understand how the language actually works as a communication tool in a given community.
The infamous plateau
Almost every language learner hits the plateau at some time – it means that after the initial enthusiasm of taking up a new language, and seeing a lot of progress when you go from zero to communicative or advanced level, you start to feel that you don’t progress or that you cannot progress even if you try much harder than in the beginning. You can even feel that, despite the effort, you language skills are deteriorating.
It is a natural process, and obviously at this stage more effort is needed to progress. To stay motivated and really improve your language skills, you need to get out of this stagnant period as soon as possible. How to do it?
Basically you need to get out of your „comfort zone”, for example by breaking one of your habits, doing something new, exciting, and a bit frightening (hence leaving your comfort zone). It could be finding yourself a tandem partner, starting hanging out with native speakers, or getting a job where you will really use the language. A great spur in reaching a new level in the language is obviously going to the country where the language is spoken. After even a short stay there, you will notice your progress and get a motivational kick.
Dear learners, what are your greatest challenges?