Language Learning and the “Plateau” Metaphor

“I think I’ve started to plateau”

So here’s another one of of those metaphors that people throw around; that language learning is an ascent. I think there are implications about stamina and soreness, energy and fatigue. I think people imagine walking a long road uphill, rather than scaling a cliff face; people don’t usually think of language learning as dangerous or perilous, although they do sometimes talk about “back sliding.”

“I’ve hit a plateau” means that the speaker is no longer making upward progress; that they are stuck at a level.

I’ve certainly felt this feeling before. When I came home from studying abroad in France, I found myself back in French class, and somehow my French was worse than when I began. I was rather dismayed. I thought about all that money my parents had spent on me, and what I had done; I traveled that money away, and i still talked French like some kind of sea pirate with aphasia. I’d turn the TV on to TV5 Journal and understand absolutely nothing. Why wasn’t my French better?

I had hit a plateau.

I have felt the same frustration in all the languages I’ve studied. The most maddening is Tagalog, as I can’t seem to figure out how to have more than one person in a sentence.

The thing about plateaus is that when people feel like they’re not making vertical progress, they despair and think about giving up. “I feel like I’m not getting anywhere,” they say, and then confide in me about their lack of talent as language learners.

As a fat man with a trick knee, I like plateaus. Bring on the plateaus, I says, all this continuous climbing is some bs.

What are we supposed to do? they ask me, we seem to have plateaued, they wail.

What do you do when you feel you’ve reached a plateau? You keep moving forward. Plateaus must be crossed.

Maybe further ahead, at the end of the plateau, the climb resumes. Or maybe the plateau is the summit, and the rest of the progress will be coasting downhill. You don’t know until you cross that plateau. Keep moving forward; plateaus must be crossed.

Don’t worry about the plateaus on your language pilgrimage; think of it as a respite for your trick knee. Just because you’re not feeling the burn of an uphill journey doesn’t mean you’re not making progress; it just means that the journey is easing up for a stretch. You won’t be able to make vertical progress by force of will; the shape of the road doesn’t rise and fall according to your exertion. You can’t “get angry” like the contestants do on Biggest Loser or The Voice.

One final thought about this plateau metaphor… if language learning is a journey, then it seems silly to walk it alone. Why not walk with a partner, or walk in groups? You can encourage each other, share snacks, maybe even negotiate for group pricing…

2 thoughts on “Language Learning and the “Plateau” Metaphor

  1. My public speaking skills (Toastmasters) have probably plateaued. These things we study, languages or other skills, require constant use and practice if we’re not to get rusty. It’s easier to quit, but it can be more rewarding to stick with it.

    That said, quitting can also be the best move, as the dedication & energy may be better used on another endeavor! Cheers. — Elena


    • But, ya know, LEARN LANGUAGES by all means, even if you’re on a long slow haul. 🙂 It’s the small successes and the quirky uniqueness of each language that make language-learning fun and rewarding too. And definitely being able to be funny in your 3rd or 4th language is HUGE. 😀


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