Sunday, April 13, 2008

That irritating intermediate stage

Kelly at DragonFruit is done with her move and getting back into Mandarin. She notes that right now, she's just getting past what she calls "the very irritating ‘intermediate’ stage":
I think every language learner can agree that the ‘intermediate’ stage is by far the most challenging; no matter how much you learn, you still feel like there’s so much more to learn and progress feels minimal at best.
Symptom of the problem: you can read an article on foreign affairs but can't order a pizza. That's sort of where I am with Spanish. The other day in a used bookstore, I picked up a tome on the idea of the hermeneutic code in modern literary criticism. I won't say I understood everything, but I didn't understand any less than I would have if it were in English. (Years in grad school leave me sure of this fact.) Two days later, I was trying to explain to a coworker that while I had been sick I was starting to feel better. I was amazed at how much harder the second task was.

A while back, I met with a client who wondered what it would take to achieve fluency in a language. I said it was really hard to judge. For example, I told her, there was a time when I could easily discuss the theories of Derrida and Barthes in French, but at no point would I have been able to request a monkey wrench. Nor, as I think about it, would I know how to refer to a garage door opener, the float in the toilet or a crack in the sidewalk. And yet, I speak French pretty competently. Really, I do!

When you're starting a language, anything you can manage to say is exciting. When you're fluent, talking is no big deal. The intermediate stage, though, is one big "when am I going to get there, already?"

Kelly asks if others have had the same experience. And how!

Any good ideas for working through it?


Blogger jon said...

Working with a tutor at this stage can be really helpful. Problem is it can also be inconvenient/expensive (I believe Berlitz charges north of $100/hour for tutoring). So I started eduFire as a way to make that easier for language learners looking for private tutoring. All of the learning is done from home using live video.

10:09 AM  
Anonymous Ryan said...

I guess I’m the weirdo here but I actually get excited when I’m at an intermediate stage. I hate the beginning stage because I can’t do much with it. Knowing how to say “How are you” doesn’t help me much because when the other person starts to really tell me how they are I can’t understand much less respond. Being able to conjugate verbs, memorize phrases and/or a new alphabet for a worksheet or for a test, in and of themselves, often proves only mildly useful when actually talking to people in that language.

At the intermediate stage I’m conversational and that helps me increase fluency and vocabulary acquisition because I can actually start using the language in real situations. If I don’t know a word I can just talk around it (circumlocution) until my vocabulary is bigger. Examples: Could you hand me that (because I don’t know how to say wrench yet)? How much does this cost (because I don’t know how to say granola)? Did you hear about the trouble they’re having in Indonesia (because I don’t know how to say earthquake)?

Obviously, I don’t want to stay at this level forever but at least I can start interacting with people and I know enough about the language to understand many things that are said and written that I haven’t previously learned on my own. At the beginners’ stage I find myself needing to do a lot of “dry learning.” I have two friends who have either a basic knowledge of or high level of fluency in several dozen languages. Their language learning approach is similar: they both blast through the beginners’ stage as fast as possible in order to be able to really function in the target language. Once they can function (intermediate level) fluency can come more naturally.

10:10 AM  
Blogger gbarto said...

Thanks for your perspective. What I found in my own transition beyond intermediate French - from "conscious competence" to "unconscious competence," as it were - is that there are definite high points in terms of figuring new things out and really using the language. Still, I tend to have my share of ebbs between those high points because there's a clearer sense of the gap between what is and what can be when things don't come together.

With respect to Jon's comment, note that the comments section is not for advertising; it's for contribution to the discussion. That said, Jon makes a good point about getting a tutor at this stage if you can afford one. Whether you choose to use his service or another is at your own discretion/risk.

7:30 PM  
Blogger Francis said...


Currently I'm in that stage for Japanese, and I must agree with the frustration of only being able to say things a certain way, that may not be the most naturally occurring phrase to blurt out instantaneously let alone correctly. I may able to write a paper on the conditions of the family household in Japan, but I can't tell my Japanese friend that I'm going to study abroad without pausing or blanking out...

On the contrary, I'm about to finish my first year of Mandarin, and I just love learning it because the spark is still there and the language seems approachable because the grammar is more lax.

1:51 AM  

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