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Once you can make yourself understood, you grasp the basics, and you feel comfortable, how do you keep advancing in a language?

I arrived in Cusco four months ago. After a month of classes, finding a local boyfriend, gradually saying goodbye to all of my English-speaking friends, holding a job that required me to speak and understand Spanish shouted over a blaring rock band and fighting my way through the intricacies of contracts and business plans in my second language, my Spanish improved faster than I’d ever hoped.

But for all this, for days passed entirely in Spanish, about a month ago I realized that I wasn’t rocketing upwards anymore. I’d plateaued. I suppose this is an entirely natural stage in the language learning process – when you are working from a broad base of knowledge, the chunks that you gain each day necessarily form a smaller percentage than they used to.

But I miss the rush of daily improvement, so these are the steps I’ve taken to bring my learning back up to speed:

1. Back to basics

I took my last Spanish class about two months ago and hadn’t glanced since at all those notes that have been uselessly clogging up my hard-drive. The knowledge was there, I figured, it was just a matter of practice, practice, practice.

But you can’t expect to continue to improve on something without a firm foundation, so each day I review a few topics, then hit the web to find as many exercises as I can. The result? Turns out I’ve been messing up the imperfect and preterit tenses again (and nobody bothered to correct me, see #6), but a quick review and a few hours of practice and I’m feeling good.

A fraction of the web’s free grammar practice offerings for Spanish learners:

* Trinity University, Texas has an good collection of Spanish grammar exercises
* Spanish Language and Culture with Barbara Kuczun Nelson is pretty and helpful, with four modules on the dreaded imperfect and preterite
* Study Spanish provides a fairly comprehensive amount of free material – you’ll need to join to gain access to anything beyond the preliminary grammar exercises, but the tutorials are quite informative and verb drills helpful if you’re struggling with conjugation

A quick Google search will turn up a wealth of resources for students of any language.

2. Dig out the flashcards

I’ve found myself reaching for a few words recently, gesturing frantically at objects that I’ve known the name of since early on in my Spanish learning, but that I don’t use much in daily conversation. It’s embarrassing and disheartening. I’ve worked too hard to acquire this vocabulary to let it slowly trickle through my fingers, so it’s back to the flashcards – five minutes a day, just to keep everything fresh.

A great, open-source program for flashcards is Anki. It keeps track of how easy or difficult each card was for you and spaces it out accordingly, letting get the most out of a minimal time commitment.

3. Read, read, read

It’s perfect for building vocabulary and reinforcing grammar, and a great way to immerse yourself in the culture. Diving into the daily newspapers or the glossy magazines is good for the Spanish and for impressing local friends with your familiarity with current events and pop culture.

As for books, there’s such a wealth of incredible South American literature that I’m a little giddy every time I look at the growing collection of unread treasures on my bookshelf. Finishing Love in the Time of Cholera in its original and beautiful Spanish was a tremendously rewarding experience, and One Hundred Years of Solitude was one of the reasons I started to learn Spanish in the first place. My lovely commemorative edition sits by the bed, waiting until I have the free time to do it justice.

4. Flirt with another language

I used to think there simply wasn’t room in my brain for another language at the same time as Spanish, but language acquisition is a skill best developed through challenge and through taking a step back, looking at the overall shape and structure of a language, not always burying yourself in the nitty-gritty of tenses and sentence structure.

I’m playing with Portuguese at the moment, a half-hour or so on Rosetta Stone when I get the time, and the process of starting anew is helping me to see more clearly the patterns and logic of Spanish. It sharpens my language acquisition skills and keeps me interested and engaged in the process, while the inevitable comparisons and contrasts between two such similar languages reinforces my knowledge of Spanish while I’m learning something different.

5. Set a goal

I can read a book, hold a conversation, toss in street-cred-earning bits of slang. This was about as far as I hoped to reach when I started learning. I need something new to shoot for, something more than just a vague “to speak better”.

So I’ve set a few new goals, a few more stars to shoot for. Number One: a new and shiny exercise book on Advanced Business Spanish to be completed (and won’t it be a joyful day when I finally understand offhand all the jargon my accountant spits at me). Number Two the plan to sit for my DELE later this year, and all the frantic study that entails.

6. Keep those free teachers honest

Now that I can communicate just fine, a lot of the helpful corrections from my circle of friends and the boyfriend have tailed off. I understand them, I’m able to get my point across rapidly and easily, and nobody wants to break the flow of the conversation to pick on my choice of tenses or mangled pronunciation.

So I’ve had to remind them all that I don’t just want to be understood, I want to be fluent – and how they hell did they all manage to let my blatant overuse of the imperfect tense slide?

Language Learning


About The Author

Camden Luxford

Camden lives for long, uncomfortable journeys and dreams of the Trans-Siberian Railway. From hitch-hiking in Europe, through Asia by bus and boat, she has found herself in the Peruvian Andes, where she relishes the colors of the festivals, the warmth of the people and the hearty flavors of the soups. When she's not exploring her new home, she's studying politics by distance and writing for her blog, The Brink of Something Else, or as a regular contributor to Matador Abroad.

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Here’s another vote for Anki! I used to think flashcards were for babies, but it’s revolutionalised my study approach :) I’ve got it on my Android phone and study it on public transportation. Works on the iPhone, Mac, Windows, Linux etc. Can’t complain :D I got to interview to its developer to understand how it works. Great guy!

    Loved the post, I agree with what you’ve said! Which level of the DELE are you going for? I did the DELE Superior myself and having that high target forced me to improve my Spanish tremendously. Am doing the same C2 level on my German right now. Exam is in one week – eek!!!!

    Maybe you could include links with this articles? You mentioned a tonne of fantastic resources but people might get sidetracked to the wrong places when trying to search for them. I’ve linked to a lot of what you’ve mentioned on my own site.

  • Kate

    Thanks for this. Especially the website recommendations.

  • Camden Luxford

    @Benny – Yay for Anki, it is amazing, no? I’m going for the Superior, just to give myself a real challenge. I like being hard on myself! I did include links, looks like they’ve accidentally been left off the article but I’ve just sent them through to Sarah so hopefully they can be added. Good luck with the German!

    @Kate – thanks for stopping by and sorry the links weren’t up! Shouldn’t be too hard to track down the websites though.

  • Anne M

    Great advice! I’m sure it speaks to all language learners. My plateaus come a lot sooner than yours; once I can direct a taxi, order food, and engage in small talk, I tend to get lazier with studies. You offer great advice! I agree with using exercise books – they may seem tedious and the language may feel unnatural, but you need a balance between technical practice and conversational practice. Very wise.

    I’m off to check out Anki…

  • Camden Luxford

    @Anne – you won’t regret it! Like Benny, I was never a flashcard fan till I checked out Anki. Good luck with the studies!

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  • http://abdelhameed64 Abdel hameed Muhamad Sadiq

    That is really a good experience,you have to continue learning decent English.

  • Hannah

    I love #4!

    I’m the kind of language learner (perhaps there’s more than just me out there?) that learns a language, studies it in its native land and then returns home to let it trickle away into the land of Forgotten. It’s happened with Spanish, German and is slowly happening with my French.

    These days I’m living in Turkey and learning Turkish, and I’m amazed with each new language I learn at the things I discover about the ones I think I’ve forgotten. My French is holding strong even though I’ve been away from France for a year now, thanks in no small part to my new knowledge of Turkish!

  • Nikki

    Wow! Thanks for the advice! I have not reached the plateau yet, I’m still learning the basics in Japanese, French, and trying to pick up Italian. Sadly I have not visited Japan since money is an issue for me. Anyway, once I have plateaued (although I hope it won’t be as bad as mixing up tenses) I will use that flashcard website you have so generously recommended!

  • Camden Luxford

    @Hannah – weird, isn’t it? I remember when I was starting out with Spanish not being sure if there was ROOM in my head for two languages, never imaging how they would build on each other, and how it becomes easier with practice. Now I’ve got a whole bucket list of languages to learn!

    @Nikki – tough to do it out of country so good luck with the Japanese. And French. And Italian! Try Anki out before you even plateau, it truly is a wonder.

  • Ali

    Great article & great advice! I took 8 years of Spanish thru high school & college then did almost nothing with it for 8 years. I’m just now starting to re-learn it & I’m amazed at how much I’ve remembered…and how much I still forget!

  • Camden Luxford

    Thanks Ali – good luck with the relearning! I’m sure you’ll hit a groove and it’ll ALL start flooding back.

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  • BruceW

    The best way to break through that plateau is with a private teacher.  Mine talks about what I am interested in, and we go on field trips to see museums and factories and landmarks and such.  Yesterday we went to Hermosillo (provincial capital, where he grew up, toured some sights, looked at bookstores (he wanted some specific books, and had me try to get them) and discussed art at the cultural center with the docents.  On the way back I got stopped by a police and had to talk my way out of a ticket.  There is no way I could get these experiences in a classroom.

  • Elizabeth Angel Lopez-Hayward

    very good tıps! Usually after about 3-4 years of studying a language (as well as immersing myself in it) I become conversationally fluent and I totally hit this plateau. I do consider learning the business or political types of my current language but I don’t want to take it that furthur. My goal is jsut to be conversationally fluent and make friends and be able to socialize. Once I am comfortable in the target language the challenge is gone and I get bored. Then I usually move onto another language. All of your tips are spot on!

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