English is a global language useful for travel, work, and socializing. This makes English language learning a critical skill for those that want to gain fluency.
Once you reach an intermediate level in English, reaching fluency feels like a distant destination.
In some ways it’s easier to learn at this level. You can begin learning more from content that wasn’t written specifically for English language learning.
Sooner or later, however, you’ll hit the “intermediate plateau”. This is a point where language learners begin feeling like progress is harder to find. All of the easy vocabulary has been learned so to say. You can have a conversation in English, but you feel that you can’t express yourself in a dynamic way.
Now is the point where you have to buckle down. In some sense, you have to be more serious about English language learning. On the other hand, learning can be much more fun at this level.
Let’s go over five steps that will get you out of the intermediate plateau on a path to fluency.
Evaluate Your Abilities, Not Your Skill Level
When people describe their proficiency level in English it’s common to give an arbitrary descriptor. The most common descriptors being A1, A2, B1, etc. These descriptors come from the Common European Framework for Languages (CEFR).
A more accurate way to describe your skills in a language is to say what activities you’re capable of. Can you hold a conversation with a native speaker? Does the native speaker have to be a tutor with experience talking to foreigners? Or do you feel comfortable talking to all native speakers?
Other examples are being able to watch movies in English without looking up words. To me that’s a sign that you’re at a fairly high proficiency level. At least in terms of listening.
Don’t get me wrong, the CEFR template is a valuable resource. It’s much easier to say that you’re a B2 level in English than explain in detail what you can and can’t do.
However, when you’re evaluating your skills to look for places of improvement it’s better to be detailed.
Certain gaps in your skill level could be holding you back in other areas.
For example, let’s say you can hold a conversation with a native English tutor. But you have a lot of trouble understanding movies in English. This is probably a sign that you wouldn’t fare so well in a conversation with a native speaker on the street.
Practicing with a tutor that’s a native speaker can be very valuable for building confidence. It can sometimes give us a false impression of our abilities also.
Maybe you can understand American movies, but you can’t understand British films very well. This could be a general sign of weakness in your English level. Native speakers can typically understand British English through context.
Of course, a quick fix to this would be to consume more British content. But it could be a sign that your understanding of English is lacking in depth overall.
A typical inconsistency that people have in their English is only knowing vocabulary in one area. This is common for people that use English for work. You may only know IT or supply chain vocabulary if those are the only areas you use English for every day.
Once you understand what gaps you have in your English language learning you can take targeted action to improve your proficiency faults.
Set Actionable Goals for English Language Learning
Targeting a certain proficiency level in English can seem like you’re aiming at a moving target. As mentioned before, descriptors like those from the CEFR can seem arbitrary.
You never know the exact moment, day, or even month that you hit a certain English level.
Avoid the uncertainty in when you’ll reach a proficiency level by creating actionable goals.
What I mean by this is simple. Decide on a challenge or task you want to try in English at a certain date.
For instance, say you’ve been studying English now for 6 months. You took an online English language learning course. Now you’re searching for new methods to learn English.
Make a goal to schedule a class with an English language tutor on italki or another platform. The initial goal might be to first schedule one conversation class then one class monthly. Later you could increase it to once a week if you’re comfortable with it financially.
Setting daily goals is also important. Set aside 30 minutes a day to study. Personally, I complete my daily goal on LingQ for the languages I’m seriously studying. This takes me anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes depending on what language and content I’m going through.
Even for someone that’s serious about English language learning it’s not necessary to spend 3 hours a day studying to make progress.
Generally speaking, the higher your level, the more time you’ll need to make noticeable improvements. Emphasis on ‘noticeable’, as not seeing obvious progress doesn’t mean it’s not happening. Trust in the actionable goals that you’ve set for yourself.
Other examples of actionable goals are watching an episode of a Netflix series that you like once a week.
How you study matters because there are more efficient ways to study. Don’t get too hung up on this though. Exposure to the language and actually engaging with English are important first steps.
Start practicing and improve your processes as you go. You can find a lot of articles here on my blog that can help you to improve those processes.
A good place to start for intermediate and advanced learners would be my article on using Netflix to study a language: A Guide for Language Learning with Netflix
For those already at an intermediate or advanced level this step is important.
To gain a high proficiency, you need to consume a lot of content. Through content you grow your vocabulary and deepen your cultural understanding of the language.
These things are important for improving your conversation with native speakers. Subtilties in the way people use vocabulary can be challenging. Knowing words alone sometimes isn’t enough.
Languages often have heavily used words that don’t translate well. As an English tutor, my students often say this about the word get. It’s used so broadly that its definition is difficult to translate.
I get it – I understand it
let me get the phone – allow me to answer the phone
I’ve got to go – I have to leave
In Brazilian Portuguese the word ficar is another good example. According to the dictionary it can mean to stay, to become, and a host of other things.
Words like these you simply need to internalize. There are so many potential “definitions” that it’s not practical to translate them in your head. Absorbing content is one of the best ways to learn how to use these words.
At a beginner or intermediate level, it’s best to be deliberate in the way you go through content. Look up words while you’re reading, watching, or listening when it’s practical.
There are a lot of great tools that can help you learn a language in a direct way. LingQ and Kindle are great tools for reading.
Kindle is such a great tool that I wrote an eBook designed for English language learners.
Learn more about the the book on my eBook page.
You can look up words on both Kindle and LingQ as you’re going through content. This means less time spent opening up a dictionary to check meanings of words.
YouTube is a great source of content for just about anything. I’d recommend using it as a casual learning tool as much as I would as a deliberate one. You can read my article Passive Language Learning with YouTube for more insights.
Language Reactor – previously Language Learning with Netflix – now has a plugin available for those that want to learn languages through YouTube. The caveat to this however is that finding a channel with human written subtitles might be a challenge.
For advanced learners it’s much easier to learn through context. Being deliberate is still useful but not as important.
Talk with Natives
This step is an extension of the previous step in some ways. Talking with natives serves a unique purpose. It also plays the same role in terms of learning how to use vocabulary.
I always prefer to practice a language with native speakers. Natives will have the best insight into how people in a given country use words or expressions.
You can learn how to use tricky words like get.
Ultimately, speaking with natives will be necessary to gaining genuine fluency.
One of my favorite examples to express this point is the phrase “bom trabalho” in Portuguese. Literally translated it means good work.
The first time I heard this expression was at a taxi driver in Brazil. It resonated with me as being something condescending, like the driver was being told he did a good job driving the car.
In practice it’s something like “have a good work” like you would say “have a good morning”.
This happened when I was abroad in a Portuguese speaking country. Living abroad is a great way to find opportunities to speak with natives.
Finding native speakers to talk with may seem like a challenge if you don’t live in an English-speaking country. However, it’s easy to find natives to talk with online. This is especially true if you’re willing to pay for a tutor.
You can find great tutors on online platforms like italki. Rates for English tutors can vary tremendously. Rates depend on the country the tutor is from. Professional teachers also typically charge more than tutors.
Expect to pay around $10 an hour for a community tutor on italki for an English conversation class.
Find a Language Coach
Learning a language is a long-term project with a lot of ups and downs.
One day you feel on top of the world after having a great conversation with a native speaker. The next day you can hardly understand what people are saying in an English movie. You feel like your progress has gone backwards. (It hasn’t.)
On top of this it can be difficult to know if you’re truly approaching English language learning the best way possible.
I have been studying foreign languages for 8 years. I’ve spent a lot of time listening to valuable advice from polyglots on YouTube. It has been critical to my progress. Despite this, I still find myself discovering new ways to improve my own methodology. Each language I study teaches me something new about the learning process.
A coach can be a great help for improving the way you study. They can help you improve your methodology through their own experience.
Additionally, coaches can give you more personalized guidance. This can greatly fast forward the evolution of how you learn.
It took me 5 years to reach conversational fluency in German. During those 5 years I tried to learn it every way possible. I took university courses, read books in German, watched German series, etc. I even did a study abroad in Germany.
My progress was slow. If I had had a coach guiding me and giving me feedback, in hindsight, I could have made that same progress in a year. Learning Portuguese, my second foreign language, to the same level in a year is a testament to this.
A language coach can help you evaluate your abilities, set actionable goals, help you choose content that’s right for you, and give you advice on how to approach time spent with native speakers.
You can learn more about my coaching services on my Coaching page.
Closing Comments on English Language Learning
Learning English to fluency is a long-term challenge. These steps will give you the structure needed to continue moving forward in your English language learning.
Steps 1 and 2 should be repeated on an ongoing basis. You need to reevaluate your abilities in English to find areas that need improvement.
If English language learning content is too easy for you then find something more difficult. Content should be adjusted for your skill level. This is the case until you’re watching movies, series, and reading literary novels in English.
Once you’ve hit an intermediate level, take advantage of all the opportunities you have to talk with natives. Those conversations will be important to long-term fluency.
Lastly, consider getting a language coaching. The less experience you have learning languages, the more valuable it will be.