You may have started your Chinese learning journey full of enthusiasm, enjoying an initial period of rapid progress, energised by the discovery of a fascinating language and culture. Perhaps you’ve been studying Chinese for several years, have amassed an impressive amount of vocabulary, and smashed the goals you originally set out to achieve. But at some point something changed, and the previous excitement and progress trailed off. You fear the worst: you’ve hit a plateau. Though it can be a disheartening realisation, it’s neither unusual nor insurmountable. You can overcome a language learning plateau in Chinese – read on to find out how.
What is a language learning plateau?
The definition of a plateau is a state of little or no change following a period of activity or progress. Applied to language learning, a plateau basically amounts to a period of stagnation, where the learner is merely maintaining their current level rather than advancing further. A language learner may encounter a plateau more than once during their journey to mastery, and depending on the learner’s circumstances, they may not even realise they’ve hit a plateau. But when you realise that you’re not as fluent as you’d like to be, or feel you should be – despite the vast amounts of time, effort and perhaps money you’ve invested so far – that is when feelings of frustration and demotivation are likely to set in.
When and why do language learners reach a plateau?
The plateau effect in learning is well known, and language learners tend to reach a plateau at the intermediate level, for various reasons. Overcoming a language learning plateau in Chinese requires an understanding of what got you stuck in the first place.
- Inadequate study habits: Life is always busy, but excuses won’t change the fact that mastering a language like Chinese requires consistent time and dedication over the long term. Putting in 10-30 minutes each day, or even less frequently than that, might be good enough to maintain your language level to some degree; however, it’s not enough to break a plateau and push towards fluency.
- Complacency: After a gratifying period of progress and achievement of their original goals, some learners might feel satisfied that their Chinese is now “good enough” and lack the motivation to push further.
- Lack of objective feedback: If you aren’t assessing your language level via testing, and you don’t get authentic feedback from native speakers (Chinese people are reputed for being too polite to honestly critique foreigners speaking the language), it could be easy to convince yourself that your Chinese is better than it really is.
- Not getting the right kind of input: Up to intermediate level, language learners usually rely on materials designed for learners. Though useful up to a certain point, there comes a time to make the necessary jump to authentic materials. Relying on the same old materials, outdated tools and stale content can keep you stuck in a rut. There is also the issue that, unless you are in an environment where Chinese is the dominant language, you are not naturally exposed to the language enough in your everyday life.
- Lacking output opportunities: If you aren’t immersed in an environment that requires you to write and speak Chinese frequently, then it’s going to be difficult to hone those skills and smash through the plateau without significant effort on your part.
How to break through a language learning plateau
1. Assess your current level
Before selecting the right materials and tools to move forward, you need to know where you’re at right now. You might be tempted to ask for opinions from native speakers. However, due to Chinese people’s characteristic politeness, it may be impossible to get the kind of brutally honest feedback that you want; and even if they compare you favourably to other foreigners attempting to speak Chinese, you would really like to know how you measure up against native speakers, right? That should be the benchmark.
With that said, not all feedback has to be explicitly stated. When interacting with native speakers, pay attention to details such as a perplexed expression, an awkward moment in the conversation, a misunderstanding – these are all types of implicit feedback that are still valuable, and unlike explicit feedback, they are difficult to filter.
In any case, it would be inappropriate to expect random interlocutors to appraise your Chinese level, since that isn’t their job. Only a professional teacher or tutor can give you a comprehensive assessment of your level, and then only after spending some time getting to know you. In the meantime you can explore and identify where things are difficult for you. For example, if you can comfortably read and understand HSK4 articles on The Chairman’s Bao but HSK5 articles are a hard slog, that is a useful indicator of your level. However, note that your reading and listening skills are likely to be superior to your writing and speaking skills, unless you’ve been making significant efforts to develop the latter.
2. Identify your weaknesses
To identify your weaknesses, ask yourself what are the things you’ve been avoiding working on, and make those things your priorities. In Chinese, poor mastery of tones is an example of a major issue that can hold learners back. It’s possible to make considerable progress in Chinese even while neglecting the importance of tones, especially if you don’t get many opportunities to converse with native speakers, and unfortunately this creates problems down the line as you struggle to communicate intelligibly.
Another common problem could be interference from your native language, which tricks you into imposing English sentence patterns onto Chinese (a no-no). Alternatively you might be a competent yet slightly robotic Chinese speaker, unable to freely express your real personality and feelings. If you are fortunate enough to be in a Chinese-speaking environment, you may notice that certain circumstances reveal your limitations – for example, it could be a situation where you have to negotiate, give instructions, or make a complaint.
3. Step out of your comfort zone
Stepping out of your comfort zone is challenging by definition, but it is absolutely necessary to make progress in any area of life, not least learning Chinese. If you’ve been stuck in a rut for a while, a mindset adjustment may be long overdue: that means embracing challenges and discomfort, leaning into the things you’ve been avoiding (as above), and trying things you haven’t done before.
On the list of priorities, interacting with native Chinese speakers should be very high. Place yourself in unfamiliar situations where you can’t rely on predictability to see you through. For optimal learning, you want to be in the sweet spot where you are feeling challenged, but not stressed.
4. Adopt an immersive approach
An immersive approach means maximising your daily exposure to Chinese. Thanks to technology, it’s possible to replicate an immersive environment, wherever you are in the world: tune into Chinese news, podcasts, videos, and other kinds of media as much as time allows. Change the default language on the devices that you use every day, so that you’re exposed to more Chinese that way. Use Chinese language materials as your daily entertainment and information sources.
Some advanced Chinese learners, such as 威廉 Will, attribute their success to befriending native speakers and orienting their social life around using the language. The twofold benefits are expanding your social circle and accelerating your progress in Chinese (provided that your new friends are willing to speak Chinese with you!).
5. Diversify your toolkit
Just because you’ve successfully used certain tools up to this point in your Chinese learning, doesn’t mean you need to stick with them indefinitely. Some tools are more appropriate for beginners and intermediate learners. Take a critical look at the methods you’ve been using: are you using them out of habit, or because they are genuinely effective at this point in your language-learning journey? Are you relying too heavily on one method, one app, or one course, when a diversified approach would be better for you? Identify which tools you might have outgrown, and explore new alternatives or additions to your existing toolkit. This isn’t to say you need to throw everything out and start with a blank slate, but it is certainly an opportune time to re-evaluate.
6. Get serious about learning vocabulary
To master any language, you need to know a lot of words; to master Chinese, you need to learn words, tones, characters, grammatical usage, and a ton of extra details about context and nuances of meaning. You won’t succeed at that without a proper strategy. One of the most effective ways to acquire vocabulary is to learn new words in a meaningful context (reading Chinese material provides a meaningful context), and to review those words through regular, repeated exposure.
In the language learning community, “sentence mining” is an often-recommended strategy, whereby sentences are “mined” from any authentic source – a TV show, a book, a conversation, etc. – and added to a spaced-repetition flashcard app such as Anki. (More info on sentence mining here.)
Another essential practice is to make note of instances where you lacked the language to express what you wanted to say, find out how to say that in Chinese, and then add it to your vocabulary bank. Basically, you need to keep building your vocabulary bank and review it often.
What doesn’t work well, according to the experiences of myself and other Chinese learners, is downloading a set of the “most common” Chinese words and characters and studying them in isolation (i.e. without a meaningful context). That strategy may help you to get acquainted with characters and perform well on flashcard apps, but it won’t help you actually develop any kind of fluency.
7. Use authentic material
If you want to learn to use and understand Chinese like a native speaker, then at some point you’ll have to use materials aimed at native speakers. Identify a selection of quality authentic materials – such as podcasts, books, websites, news sources, and so on – that you find sufficiently interesting and motivating. Utilise them regularly, and make a habit of noting new vocabulary (sentence mining, as above) and adding it to your vocabulary bank.
If you aren’t yet ready for authentic material, easily the next best thing is quasi-authentic material that immerses you in the language. Doing exercises out of a textbook can never feel authentic, because you can’t help but perceive it as an activity designed for language learners. But reading a graded novel, or graded news like The Chairman’s Bao, those activities are immersive, because they take you out of the formulaic “I’m learning a language” mode, into the far more natural “I’m engrossed in reading something and it just happens to be in Chinese” mode.
8. Strengthen your motivation
If your motivation is weak and you lost sight of your reasons for starting to learn Chinese in the first place, it will be difficult to summon the discipline and drive required to move beyond that plateau. So, now is the time to reaffirm your reasons for learning Chinese, set new goals that are specific and realistic, and draw up a study plan that you can stick to.
When setting goals, use your imagination to visualise yourself having achieved what you want to achieve. Imagine scenarios that are specific and meaningful to you: engaging in high-level conversation with native speakers, watching a favourite Chinese show and understanding everything that is said, passing your HSK6 exam, whatever it may be. How does that version of you feel, think, and act? Bringing those feelings to life in your imagination will help boost your motivation and keep you on track towards your goals.
Further tips to get over a language learning plateau
- Bring joy back into your learning: “No pain, no gain” contains truth, but if you perceive learning Chinese as a joyless struggle then you’ll never stick with it. Yes, you should do the challenging stuff, but also do things just for enjoyment as well. If you want to give your brain a break by reading something really easy, do it!
- Take a break if you need it: It isn’t a sign of failure if you need a “mental health break” from learning Chinese. A hiatus won’t undo all the progress you’ve made so far, that isn’t how language learning works. But don’t let your break drag on indefinitely: decide in advance when you’re going to begin your new plateau-smashing study plan, and follow through with it.
- Emulate successful Chinese learners: It’s common sense in any walk of life. Identify people who have achieved what you want to achieve, find out how they did it, and implement their strategy (adapted to your unique context).
- Strengthen your habits and discipline: Make a daily commitment to your Chinese studies, and stick to it – no excuses. Motivate yourself by celebrating small wins and building in rewards at regular intervals.
Although it can be frustrating and discouraging to encounter a plateau in Chinese, it’s really not the end of the world, and it’s reassuring to know that the plateau effect in learning is a common phenomenon. As in many situations in life, we choose whether to continue coasting along, or make that extra push to get to the next level. Being realistic, yes, it can take a considerable amount of time, effort, determination and discipline, but the rewards of mastering Chinese speak for themselves.
Daisy Ward is an experienced online English teacher, writer and content creator with a passion for foreign languages and cultures. Her expertise in effective language-learning strategies is derived from many years in language classrooms, both as a teacher and as a student. Fluent in French and competent in Mandarin Chinese, she attributes much of her success in learning languages to the use of apps and other online tools.