Improving your learning skills: busting through plateaus

I’ve been thinking lately about my German skills, and comparing my feelings about German to other languages. In German, there are certain grammatical aspects that I find annoying, but I’ve found ways to function without having to learn them totally precisely. I can understand everything I read in books, for example, but I’m not good enough to write these grammatical details completely correctly (although I can get them mostly right by gut intuition).

When I compare with Dutch, I find that I’m more willing to try writing Dutch, because Dutch has simpler grammar and I feel more confident because the adjective endings aren’t so tricky. When I compare to Chinese, it feels more like an adventure to try and learn thousands of characters, but in German it just feels like a chore to try and memorize thousands of noun genders, and the appropriate adjective endings according to gender and case.

Logically, German should be easier to work on than Chinese characters, but I think another thing that’s holding me back is that I’m somewhat complacent. I can read without problems (unlike in Chinese, where it’s a strain still). In some sense, I’m “good enough”, and this has led me to an educational dead-end, a plateau beyond which I won’t advance.

I think the situation is similar to learning to type, as mentioned in this fantastic article about training your memory skills. The author explains that as we start typing, we have to hunt around and think about things a lot, and it goes slowly. In the beginning, you’re just looking for patterns, and the more examples you get, the more that pattern becomes familiar to you. Then it gradually gets easier until one day we’re just typing along on “auto-pilot” without thinking about it. Conscious thought is no longer required…it just “happens”.

This can be a great feeling…juggling some balls without needing to calculate where they all go…riding a bike without thinking about staying upright…speaking without halting and searching for words. Although this is a great place to be, it’s also a plateau, an educational dead-end. People don’t improve their speed after this, even if they type for hours each day (as many of us do). If you want to improve further, you have to challenge yourself somehow, rather than continuing to type the same way you do every day. You have to push yourself until you make mistakes, and then figure out how to correct those mistakes.

I think I’m currently at a plateau with German. I read books without thinking…I just enjoy them. But I know that there are words in there that I don’t know, and grammar points that I recognize, but can’t reproduce 100% correctly. I’m not as good as I want to be, but most of the time I’m just content where I am. To break out of this, I have to challenge myself to notice new things. I have to force myself into the places where I’m uncertain, instead of letting them pass me by so that I can stay comfortable.

So, although I sometimes still want to read for pleasure, it’s no longer that much of a learning experience. To remake it into a learning experience, I need to actively search out those places where I make mistakes, and I need to have immediate correction so that I can evaluate my responses.

The first task I’ve given myself is to be able to produce noun genders correctly, as well as the adjective endings that go along with them in the various cases. Right now, I mostly ignore these as I’m reading, since I recognize just enough to get me the correct meaning, but I can’t reproduce them on my own 100% reliably. In order to really learn them, I have to make myself intently aware of them as I read, and try to state explicitly what they imply and how they’d look in a similar situation. I just try to really be aware of all aspects of these patterns in any way I can.

Then, in order to complete the learning process, I need immediate feedback. While I’m reading, I keep open a grammar table that lists the possibilities, and I double check on there to make sure my guesses were correct, or to figure things out when I get stuck. So, 3 things: intentional awareness, an attempt to produce something on my own (to build the active skill), and then double-check / confirmation. All of this ensures that I won’t read right past the potential learning experiences, and that I’m putting myself into unknown territory that will push me out of the plateau.

Another important aspect of this process is to remember that you don’t need to be perfect at the start. Don’t try super hard to do everything 100%, you just need to make those learning experiences more “available” to your mind, and they will get absorbed. I know that if I keep reading and try to recite the noun genders as I go, I may not be perfect at the start, but it will come. I don’t have to be super diligent about drilling each individual word 100 times each…I just have to make each one into a conscious learning experience, and all of those experiences will add up.

This is in contrast to the situation before, where I would just read past them. I was reading for comprehension and vocabulary, rather than grammatical perfection. Now my vocabulary is excellent…I know 99.5% of the words in an adult novel in German, but it’s time to really work on those pesky remaining grammar features.

I think this entire process applies well to other tasks, and other language features. Take, for example, the people who speak a language for a long time but still have a strong accent. I believe that they’ve become “good enough” to function, and they’ve stopped pushing themselves to watch for those subtle differences in pronunciation. They use the sounds from their native language, and haven’t quite figured out what makes the new sounds different. When you don’t consciously try to notice the new sounds, you can’t train yourself to hear them properly, and you never improve. Complacency and auto-pilot keep you at a plateau, and your accent will never improve until you really push hard to notice what’s going on in detail.


10 Responses to Improving your learning skills: busting through plateaus

  1. Rebecka says:

    What kind of “annoys” me with German is that all of those endings look… the same. I can read a text and understan it fine, but I have no idea about genders and such, it’s just a buch of -e’s everywhere 😉

    And getting off the plateau is really bothersome. I think I’m on one for Russian, and I think I’ve been on it for *quite* some time now. At the same time, is perfection always necessary? There are more languages out there after all, and unless your future job is Certified Spy, I guess not everyone is in that dire need of absolute, native-like perfection.

    • doviende says:

      It’s true, perfection isn’t always necessary. In some languages I might be satisfied with just getting by, but somehow I’m a bit more motivated with German. Eventually I’d like to take one of the formal tests, and they unfortunately focus intently on absolutely correct adjective endings.

  2. formiko says:

    The fact that you can comprehend the German adjective system is reason for praise! I can’t conjugate weak adjectives nor strong adjective if my life depended on it. It’s a good thing my life DOESN’T depend on it 🙂
    Immer weiter zu lernen!

  3. Andrew says:

    With regards to being able to reproduce the grammar, have you thought about just getting onto some German-language forums (that are about something you’re interested in) and posting? I’m presuming they’d be willing to correct you, but if your problem is producing the grammar correctly then it sounds like you just need to write a lot and therefore get corrected a lot. I’m sure there are German-language forums about language-learning where you could do this.


    • doviende says:

      The problem is that there’s a dizzying array of rules that depend on the case and gender of the noun, and whether there’s a preceding der/das/die/den/dem or an ein/einen/einer/einen/einem (or neither), which all would affect the ending that goes on the adjective.

      I’m not really sure it would help a lot to have someone say “no, here it should be ‘weniger’ instead of ‘wenige'”, because it wouldn’t really produce a good internal sense for what it should be. This is why I want the instant correction of a grammar table in front of me, but only after I’ve tried to guess it and come up with some reasoning for it myself first. This would help me build an internal sense for the rules I think.

  4. Rachel says:

    Great blog! I’m at a similar level in French– “good enough” to get by but there’s still so much more I could do. Quick question– I’ve (re)started learning Dutch; can you recommend any good bands that sing in Dutch?

  5. Aaron says:

    This idea of pushing past plateaus is really important. It seems very easy to get to a point where we are really pretty good with the language and yet still are a far cry from native like fluency. Of course, I think we are each responsible to know where we want to get and where we need to get. We will almost always settle at the point of where we need to get with the language. Since we are mostly learning for the pleasure of it, or to read or to visit the places of the language, our needs are generally quite low – survival skills+. One idea for pushing past plateaus then is to create the need to push past. Not sure how to do that outside of getting a job as a translator or something or getting a job with a national firm. Anyone else have other ideas about how to increase our need?

  6. How are you with modal particles? Words like ‘etwa’, ‘allerdings’, ‘schon’ and ‘noch’ are always good for showing me how pitifully inadequate my German is. Although I really did need to look words like that up Hammer’s German Grammar and Usage.

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