One very common phenomenon in language learning is the “plateau” — the stage where a learner’s progress starts to level out. When anyone first starts learning a language, they will learn a lot very quickly, and they make huge gains at the beginning. As they progress, the learning becomes more complex, feels more challenging, and lots of hurdles can start to get in the way (like pronunciation for example) so it doesn’t always seem like they are learning as fast as they did when they started.
Part of the reason for this is that people, especially adults, seem to want to default to the “I’m not very good yet” attitude and they will try to stay at a level they are comfortable at, rather than pushing themselves to keep moving forward. So it’s easy to keep signing up for the beginner level intro course over and over again instead of moving up to a more challenging level. Even though you might not feel ready for it, that extra step is going to provide a learner with a lot more information that will ultimately help in better understanding the beginner level material.
As a linguist, I’m very aware of this phenomenon, and didn’t really think I’d get caught up in that mentality. Imagine my surprise when, at the Gaelic Weekend, I was bumped up not one, but two levels! I didn’t want to do it. I thought there was no way I’d be able to participate or interact with the “Intermediate 2” speakers, that I wouldn’t be able to hold my own. That’s exactly the kind of attitude that gets you to the plateau stage. So I went for it, thinking that I’d just sneak into the other class if it was too much for me. But it wasn’t!
To be fair, I had a really fantastic teacher – probably one of the best – and he wasn’t teaching at an “intermediate” level, I don’t think. Or at least, I didn’t notice much difference in his teaching style/method from the other classes I’ve taken. And two other students were bumped up just like me. But what really surprised me is that some of the other people in the class, who really were at an intermediate level, seemed to struggle with the same things that us “beginners” did.
It’s oddly comforting to see that more experienced speakers have difficulty with some areas – to see that the people you think have it all figured out are really still learners themselves. At the same time, it’s somewhat discomforting to see that even after making it to the next level, it’s going to continue to be challenging, although maybe in a different way. But I think one of the biggest challenges is for a learner to overcome that desire to be comfortable by pushing themselves to the next level anyway, even though it is intimidating. I think it’s probably one of the best rewards though, to get to that next level and realize that you actually can do it. And maybe you should have yourself a little graduation party while you’re at it.