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Lost at the intermediate level: when your communication skills have plateaued

Insights on the language-learning plateau and suggestions for moving on and up.

Photo: Marius Matuschzik on Unsplash

Everyone knows English

In 2012, Harvard Business School professor Tsedal Neeley published an article in the Harvard Business Review called “Global Business Speaks English”. Neeley stresses the importance for companies operating globally to adopt a corporate language strategy that ensures good communication with customers, partners, and other stakeholders. Choosing one shared language for communication purposes – a lingua franca – can support that goal. For various reasons, which I'll discuss in another blog post, English has become the language of choice in international business. More and more companies from non-English-speaking countries adopt English as their corporate language and do business in English.

The role of English goes beyond business, though. English is also the global language of science and academic publishing. English plays a key role in diplomacy and is a working language at many international organizations. It's the dominant language on the web. It’s the language of tourism. The list could go on.

Because of its prominent status in so many different areas, many people all over the world are learning English. Estimates vary, but it is assumed that there are more than a billion learners worldwide. There are languages that have more native speakers than English, such as Mandarin and Spanish, but English outranks other languages when it comes to total number of speakers: native and non-native speakers combined.

The English skills of the vast number of non-native speakers vary greatly. Some have only basic skills. Others are highly proficient or even “native-like”. And many are somewhere in the middle.

If you are a professional whose performance on the job is closely linked to how well you speak and write English, the middle may not be enough. You need more advanced skills to be successful.

Intermediate versus advanced skills

Intermediate independence

The CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) defines six levels of language proficiency from A1 (basic user) to C2 (proficient user). The self-assessment grid available in more than 30 languages can help you identify your own skill levels for understanding (reading and listening), speaking, and writing.

Person hiking
Holly Mandarich on Unsplash

Reaching the intermediate level in any foreign language takes hard work. It is an achievement to be proud of. Being at level B1 in the CEFR means that you can speak or write about familiar topics. It means that you can deal with most situations that arise when traveling in an area where the language is spoken. You are turning into an independent language user, which is not a small feat.

Advanced proficiency

One key difference between an intermediate and advanced speaker is spontaneity. An advanced or proficient user, according to the framework, “Can express him/herself fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions. Can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes.”

Advanced language users can also distinguish finer shades of meaning. They can handle much higher levels of complexity, both in their own expression and in their comprehension. These are crucial skills when working in a corporate or academic environment where you need to negotiate, persuade, present, explain, give feedback, and much more.

Many professionals need advanced-level spontaneity, fluency, and flexibility to perform well in their jobs. Achieving such language levels can be quite challenging though. Despite best efforts, many get stuck and don’t know how to move on.

The language-learning plateau defined

Linguist Jack C. Richards describes the plateau as a typical problem that learners encounter when they move from lower-intermediate to upper-intermediate/advanced level of language proficiency. Learners “appear to have reached a plateau in their language learning and do not perceive that they are making further progress.”

The learning curve is often quite steep at the beginning. If you start out with a new language, you may feel that you are making fast progress. That can be exciting and fun. At some point, though, language development seems to flatten and become stagnant. This can be incredibly frustrating – and it can become an obstacle for your overall professional development.

Here are some signs that you may have reached a learning plateau:

  • Speaking problems in ad-hoc situations

  • Repetitive mistakes

  • Problems performing complex tasks

  • Insecurity with native speakers

  • Worries about your performance

Let’s have a closer look at them.

Ad-hoc speaking problems:

You are struggling to find the right words, especially in ad-hoc situations, where you had no chance to prepare or rehearse. Frequently, your ideas don’t come out quite the way you want them to. In certain situations, such as meetings, you may avoid speaking because of that. You have great ideas but can’t share them effectively.

Overall, your productive competence is below your receptive competence. In other words, what you can say is much less than what you can understand.

Repetitive mistakes:

You’re making the same mistakes over and over, even though you have learned the correct forms. They could be grammar errors, incorrectly used vocabulary, or pronunciation errors. Linguists call these persistent mistakes “fossilized language errors”.

It's also possible that you are repeating certain mistakes but are not aware of it. How can that be? If your mistakes don’t disrupt the flow of communication, people who notice them may not feel that it’s necessary to point them out. People may also be afraid to correct you if you are in a position of higher status or higher up in the organizational hierarchy. They don’t want to offend you.

Complex tasks:


You are struggling with more advanced tasks, such as speaking to an audience, writing effective emails, engaging in discussions on more challenging topics, or explaining complex concepts and graphs. These tasks require more sophisticated language. In addition, to be effective you may require cross-cultural skills you have not learned.

Native speakers:

You are comfortable communicating with other non-native speakers, but when a native speaker joins in the conversation, your level of discomfort rises. You may struggle to understand them. This is a common problem for non-native speakers at intermediate level. Native speakers may speak too fast for you to understand, they may use idiomatic expressions you have never heard before, or they may speak with an accent unfamiliar to you.

What’s more, you are concerned about your own speaking. You are worried that you sound awkward. You feel insecure or even embarrassed.

Performance concerns:

Overall, you feel that you’re doing an ok job, but you are not coming across as smoothly as you would like. You are concerned that your language performance reflects badly on your overall job performance. You know you could be more effective if you could only move to the next language level.

So how can you rise above the plateau?

You may feel stuck, but plateauing doesn’t have to be permanent. With the right mindset and strategies, you can rise above the plateau.

What exactly someone needs when they plateau can be quite different from person to person. There are many variables to language learning success, and they are different for each person. In addition, people have specific goals and motivations that must be considered. The way off the plateau and on to the next level must take you and your individual situation into account.

Developing through language coaching

Maybe you have stopped making progress even though you are still taking classes. Or maybe you have been at the intermediate level for quite some time, and you have no idea what to do to re-start your progress. In both situations, you may benefit from working with a language/communication coach.

Coaching vs. instruction

One of the main differences between traditional language instruction and communication coaching is that coaching uses highly personalized strategies focused on your needs and goals to help you advance.

Coaching doesn’t simply follow the path suggested by a mass-market textbook or ready-made course designed for an anonymous group of people. The strategies and techniques for your development are determined by you:

  • Your current state: where you are now.

  • Your desired target state: where you want to go or be.

  • Your situation: the environment you’re operating in, the demands placed on you, the communication tasks you need to perform, your motivation for learning, etc.

  • Your learning preferences: what methods help you advance.

Maximizing your performance

Some important goals of language and communication coaching are to

  • increase your language and cultural awareness,

  • provide hands-on practice opportunities,

  • give open, performance-enhancing feedback and clarification,

  • share insights that support your growth,

  • respond to your challenges as they arise, and

  • guide you toward self-directed and autonomous learning outside of your coaching sessions.

Climbers gearing up

It’s quite common for athletes to work with personal trainers and coaches to break through to the next level. Athletic coaches design special exercises and programs to help their coachees maximize their performance. A language/communication coach can help you reach your foreign language potential.

Embracing culture and communicative practices

Language goes hand in hand with communicative practices and cultural norms.

High fives

If you’re learning English, you’re not just learning the grammar rules and vocabulary of the English language (or a particular variety of English, such as American English). You’re also learning ways in which speakers from that language community behave in certain situations. What they do and don’t do. How they interact.

Some of the practices you encounter in the foreign language/culture may feel awkward because they are different from the practices of your first language. You may feel inauthentic speaking and acting in the ways of the new language community.

For example:

In American English, responses to suggestions and new ideas tend to be very positive, even exuberant. Americans tend to find things “awesome” and “great” and they “love it” or may even be “obsessed with it”. To people from other cultures, expressing such a level of excitement may feel awkward or even insincere. As a result, they may feel inauthentic performing this communicative behavior.

Developing new skills requires openness toward new concepts, values, and behaviors. So how you view and approach the different cultural norms and practices is important. You don’t need to adopt everything and become a different person. But you can make small adjustments that help you be more effective. This is where an experienced language/communication coach can support you.

Getting Unstuck

Being stuck on a plateau can be frustrating, but there are ways to move on and up. Ideally, they involve a clear idea of what you want to achieve and a set of growth strategies that consider your personal situation. Contact me if you feel stuck and need help getting to the next level. I would be happy to discuss your needs and goals with you.

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