You’ve come this far in your English learning journey... Where to next?
In many ways, learning a language is like being in a love relationship. At the beginning, everything is exciting and new; it’s easy to see the changes and growth happening from day to day. You’re excited to put in the work, and it’s even more exciting to see the impressive results that you earn from all of your effort. You also have a lot of support at the beginning; it’s easy to find information, resources, and people to help you through the early stages. Everything is fresh and new, and you grow quickly.
But as high as you’ve climbed, you may begin to feel as though you’ve hit a plateau. The day-to-day changes in your progress aren’t as noticeable. You find yourself in your comfort zone; you feel stable and content.
It becomes harder and harder to challenge and push yourself, because you feel like maybe where you are is enough. And even if you did want to push yourself, there aren’t as many resources or support available.
So how can you push yourself past this plateau? Here are 6 tips for advanced learners who feel like they’re stuck in their comfort zone and want to break out of it.
1. The first tip is simple: Relax!
The more you worry and stress about not learning enough, the more frustrated you’ll feel. Try not to put so much pressure on yourself to make noticeable progress every day. If you’re proud of the work you’re putting in, then that’s great. And don’t forget that learning a language isn’t linear; if we drew a graph of language learning it would be all over the place!
A realistic graph would probably have ups, downs, lines looping backwards, steep lines, turns, and shallow lines – a more accurate representation of the journey to learn a language.
2. Record yourself speaking in English
When you get to a point where your pronunciation is at a high level, you may not be able to hear your own small mistakes. By recording yourself speaking, you’ll have the ability to hear errors and fix mistakes.
Another great benefit is that you’ll have a record of your own improvement. When you feel like you aren’t progressing, compare an older recording with a new one, and see if you can hear the difference… You might surprise yourself!
Tip! Find one of your favorite books that is also available as an audio book. Record yourself reading a paragraph, paying attention to any tricky words to pronounce. Then, listen to the same paragraph being read in the audiobook. How did you do? Be sure to slow down and practice any troublesome words that you come across.
3. Expand your vocabulary range
This is really important. I spent a few years learning Spanish and living in a community that talked a lot about nature, the outdoors, sports, and other similar topics. I felt great talking about these things; I was fluid, confident, and comfortable with the grammar and vocabulary that I needed to take part in the conversations. But if I found myself in a situation where I was asked a question about a different topic that I wasn’t as familiar with, I would get stuck. I, quite literally, didn’t have the words to say.
Push yourself to learn vocabulary from completely different categories. You never know when you’ll need to talk about politics, medicine, plants, or babies, for example. Make it a goal to study lists of words that are completely different from your normal interests and routines. Look up keywords to a variety of different topics, even topics that you don’t expect to need to know.
Another great way to expand your vocabulary is to read more! When we speak, we use a pretty limited vocabulary; we use the same common words and expressions in most casual conversations. Writers, on the other hand, use a much wider range of words. They use a variety of words to make their writing more interesting to read, and they search for unusual words and expressions to sound more poetic or to paint a powerful mental image. You’ll come across a very different language in written English that you might never hear in everyday conversations.
4. Start living in English
Don't worry, you don’t have to go to an English speaking country to do this!
One of the reasons why traveling to an English speaking country is so beneficial to learning, is because it forces us to be constantly thinking, listening, and speaking in English.
We are forced to live, breathe, eat, sleep, and dream in English. But you can actually replicate this from the comfort of your own home!
Think about all the things that you listen to on a daily basis: music, movies, podcasts, your friends, etc. How many of those can you change into English? Most of them!
You can listen to music, movies, and podcasts in English. And you can ask any family members or friends who might also be interested in learning English to speak to you only in English. The same goes for writing and other visuals in your daily life; change your phone setting to English, read the morning news in English, and re-read your favourite books in English. Write your to-do lists and shopping lists in English. Make it so that everything you write and read is in the target language.
Finally, see if you can challenge yourself to think in English. Be aware of the thoughts passing through your brain, and see if you can re-think each one in English.
When I was learning Spanish, my brain was doing something like this: “It’s really hot out right now. Ok, how can I think that same thought in Spanish? Hace mucho calor. Ok, that was an easy one. OK, eso fue fácil. Wow, my brain is tired. Mi cerebro está cansado. Maybe that’s too literal, it sounds funny to me. Puede ser que eso fue demasiado literal, me parece raro. Let’s try again. Otra vez…"
You get the idea. Once I started “thinking” each thought in both languages, I could continue like that forever. It can be very challenging, tiring, and requires a lot of self-discipline. But it’s an extremely effective way to learn another language.
Create the benefits of being in English speaking country (without having to leave your home) by simply flooding your entire life with English!
Tip! It can be overwhelming to go a whole day “living” in English. If you feel frustrated or overwhelmed just thinking about this, try setting a goal that is more realistic for you. It doesn’t matter if your goal is to “live” in English for one hour or a whole weekend; remember that you are more likely to reach your goal if it feels exciting and attainable rather than a goal you set out of obligation or guilt.
5. Get familiar with different accents
It’s a horrible feeling when you put so much work into your language learning, you’re feeling confident with it, and then you find yourself speaking to someone that you absolutely can’t understand.
Different accents and regional dialects can completely change a language. Changes in vocabulary, slang, and pronunciation can make it so that you feel like you’re trying to speak an alien language, and not one that you’ve been studying for so long.
To avoid this frustrating situation, make sure that you expand your learning and speak with as many different people as you can.
If you get too familiar with just one person’s English (like your teacher), or just one accent, you’ll have a harder time using English in real life, where you’ll be faced with different accents from around the world (both native and non-native speakers).
This is actually one of the principal ideas behind Hey Lady! Searching for English classes with native speakers is great, but the reality of the multicultural world that we live in, is that many of the people you’ll speak English with won’t be native speakers. By chatting with ladies from all over the world, you’ll familiarise yourself with many different accents. You’ll train your ear and drastically improve your listening skills.
Tip! Sometimes it’s hard to understand conversations with ladies who have different accents than you might be used to. You may be tempted to just nod your head and pretend like you are perfectly following what is being said but strategy often backfires when you are asked to give your opinion on the topic at hand. Remember that it’s (almost) always appropriate to ask someone to repeat themselves and to check your understanding by paraphrasing and using our comprehension checking questions to make sure you’re catching the most important parts of the conversation.
6. Write to different audiences
A high level English speaker feels comfortable in everyday conversations. An extra advanced English speaker feels comfortable in formal conversation with their boss, informal conversations with friends, silly conversation with children, etc. Being able to change tone, formality, and vocabulary to fit specific situations is a really advanced (and useful) skill to have.
A great way to practice this is to write to different imaginary people. Imagine writing a letter from the voice of a grandparent to their grandchild. How would you address an email to the president of a company? What would your voice be like in a text message to your best friends?
Learning how to not only communicate, but to address different audiences is another great skill that advanced learners can focus on to push their English to the next level!
If you’re feeling like you’ve had amazing progress in your English learning journey, you should be very proud. But don’t let yourself get frustrated if you feel like you’ve hit a wall and can’t continue to progress. Progress at an advanced level is, in many ways, harder to see and achieve - but it’s absolutely possible!