Why people stop improving at the high-intermediate level.
Part 44 of the Poligo Guide to Learning a Language.
SECTION 4: This section explains how to divide the language into smaller parts and how to learn each part.
When you reach the advanced level, you are basically fluent in a language. You will be able to speak quite easily in the language in most situations. So what should you do next? For some people, this level of language is more than enough. If you reach this level, think again about your reasons for studying the language. You might find that you reached your goal. In that case, congratulations!
However, some people will wish to continue to improve and develop their skills. They will continue to work to close the gap between themselves and native speakers. If you are one of these people, it is very important to realise that it is impossible for most adult learners to reach a native level in all areas of a language. It is not impossible to have a perfect accent. It is not impossible to speak as fast as a native speaker. It is not impossible for you to know as many words as a native speaker. However, there will always be something about the way most learners speak, write or understand the language that marks you as a non-native speaker, and that's OK. The important thing is that you express yourself in the language in your own way. The important thing is that you are able to use the language accurately for your purposes.
For some purposes, a very high level is required. Examples of people who would need such a high level are interpreters, translators, some business people, diplomats, academics and people living permanently in the country where the language they study is spoken. Other people might be driven by pride, passion, curiosity or natural ability to reach a very high level of fluency, even when they do not need to be able so speak and understand the language so well. Just remember that if you have no real reason to continue to learn you may have already reached your goal. It could be time to pick up another language!
Often, people who very much want to take their language skills past the high-intermediate level get stuck. They plateau. They do not know how to advance further. There can be a simple reason for this. When you reach the the advanced level you can no longer rely on the the luck of daily conversation and usage to give you the new language you need to learn. You might come across new words and phrases, but you might not hear or read them again for a very long time. Let us take the simplest case of a new word. When you are at a low level, you hear new words and phrases all the time. That's because you don't know much. Everything is new! What's more, you hear the same new words again and again. You learn words fast at this level. However, the more advanced items of vocabulary simply do not come up in everyday life more than once every six months or a year. This means that you might encounter a word and notice it, but when you encounter it and notice it again, you will have probably forgotten the last time you saw or heard the word. Sometimes, you will be frustrated because you remember seeing the word before, but you can't remember what it means! This also happens with special kinds of language that are used on rare occasions, or to genres (e.g. of TV, stories, non-fiction etc.) that you would usually only need to understand very rarely, and so on.
It is possible for a talented learner, living immersed in a target-language environment, to get to the intermediate level without much study (but it will take longer than if they worked hard). However, when you are going from intermediate to advanced, the benefits of this kind of "picking up" of the language through daily experience are reduced into nothing, and learning stops. This is the reason that so many foreign speakers who live long-term in a country speak the language to a high intermediate level; they lack either the time, the motivation or the knowledge to to help themselves improve further in the language.
NEXT: Part 45 — Four ways to keep improving when you are advanced.