Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

How to get past the intermediate Chinese learning plateau

Something I hear learners ask about often is the so-called learning plateau. There is no standard definition of this, but it usually involves intermediate students who say that they are no longer making progress and are worried that they are doing something wrong. The lack of apparent progress is also demotivating and discouraging.

The number of people asking about this and the severity of their perceived problems merit a closer look! There has to be something going on here.

And there is, although it might not be what you think. In this article, I will discuss what I really think is going on with the intermediate learning plateau and what you can do to overcome it!

I’ve recorded an audio version of this if you prefer listening instead of reading:

How to get past the intermediate Chinese learning plateau

Before we discuss possible solutions to a problem, it’s worthwhile to verify that there really is a problem. It’s the old “ask if before you ask why“. In this case, I think this is very important, because in most cases, the plateau is an illusion and a natural effect of how learning and progress in a language work. It’s still a problem, but not the kind of problem mos students who ask about it think it is.

When you start learning, everything you learn is a significant addition to what you already knew. In your first 100 hours of learning, you go from not knowing anything to being able to say things about yourself, knowing the basics of pronunciation and Chinese characters, having some idea about grammar and so on. Every word opens new possibilities for communicating; learning Chinese is awesome and life is wonderful.

Fast forward until you have studied maybe a thousand hours or so (this number is very hard to estimate, some people encounter the plateau earlier than that, some much later).

The situation is now completely different. You know maybe two thousand words, even if you don’t know how to use all of them yet. If you’ve practised speaking, you can probably have everyday conversations, even though listening is likely to be a big challenge.

If you’re interested in reading a more detailed account about what the frist thousand hours might look like and what can be achieved in that time, please read this article about Scott Young’s 100 days of learning Chinese.

How to reach a decent level of Chinese in 100 days

At this level, if you spend another 100 hours learning, you might not notice much difference. You still find it hard to understand what native speakers say and you still lack words when you try to say things. Reading is slow and there are so many characters you don’t know. If you wrote a progress report for every 100 hours from 1000 to 1500 hours spent learning, they might look almost the same in terms of how you feel about your learning.

You’ve stopped making progress: you’ve reached the plateau

This is the dreaded intermediate learning plateau. It may occur earlier or later than the numbers I’ve given here, of course, but at some point, most learners feel that they simply aren’t making much progress anymore.

This is not a problem that goes away, of course. I have no idea how many hours I’ve spent learning Chinese in some way or form, but it’s certainly many tens of thousands of hours. If I spend another 100 hours learning, I will notice absolutely no difference whatsoever.

For example, I’m currently listening to an audio version of 刘慈欣’s 黑暗森林. It’s about 30 hours long. I also listened to the first book 三体, and if I then continue with the third book, 死神永生, I will have listened to roughly 100 hours of Chinese. Will my listening have improved noticeably over those 100 hours? Almost certainly not.

You are making progress; there is no plateau

The fact that once you have invested a significant amount of time into a learning project, and that subsequent time yields less noticeable progress is of course not unique to language learning, it happens with any project.

For example, in the first few hours of learning to unicycle, I went from not knowing how to stay on the damn thing for more than a split second to being able to ride it for 25 metres or so. If I go out and ride for a few hours now, it will make no noticeable difference to my skill.

The point is that progress is still being made, even though  you don’t notice it. If you really did write progress reports every 100 hours, it’s unlikely that they would show much subjective change. You don’t notice the improvements because they happen slowly over time, just as you won’t notice the shadow of a tree moving across the ground as the sun travels across the sky if you stare at it for some time, but yet if you put a mark where the shadow is now and return an hour later, the difference is easily noticeable.

Benchmarking progress in Chinese to stay motivated

So, even though I believe the learning plateau to be mostly a cognitive illusion, it’s still a real problem that many students struggle with. Feeling that you’re not making progress is a real problem. Some even give up and quit learning because they feel frustrated!

One way of alleviating the problem is to benchmark y our progress. This involves regularly doing objective assessments of your Chinese that you can compare over time.  You will then see that you are making progress between each benchmarking. A very simple but common way of benchmarking is to take a standardised exam and see how your score improves over time. Keep track of measurable things, such as how many words and characters you know, how much you read and listen, and keep recordings of your spoken conversations.

An added benefit to benchmarking is that you will be able to verify if your progress really is plateauing or not. As I’ve already said, I’m convinced that most students who describe this problem are still making progress, but that is not always true. Want to find out? Benchmark! I will not discuss benchmarking further here as I have dedicated an entire article to it here:

Benchmarking progress in Chinese to stay motivated

Forget about the goal and enjoy the journey instead

Another way of coping with the plateauing of noticeable progress is to care less about progress and trying to find things you enjoy that will lead to progress.

Listening and reading are by far the most rewarding activities in this regard, so if you can find thing to listen to or read that you really enjoy, not making noticeable progress needn’t be that much o a problem. As long as the activities you enjoy are aligned with your general goals for learning, you will get there sooner or later.

If you reach the plateau, you are by definition no longer a beginner, so the options for listening and reading are numerous. Maybe it’s time to find another motivation for learning than the exhilarating feeling that you can do so much more this week compared with the previous.

Limit the focus; don’t try to improve everything at once

Yet another way of making progress more noticeable is to focus on a small enough area. If an intermediate learner spends 100 hours spread out over all areas of learning, there might not be that much noticeable progress, but if she spends 100 hours only on pronunciation, there will certainly be a noticeable improvement. The same goes for character writing, grammar or reading speed.

This is one of the ideas behind Hacking Chinese Challenges, where we focus on one topic every month and strive to improve that topic in particular. Most people will not be able to clock 100 hours in one challenge, but the idea is the same. The challenges are free and anyone can join here:

Hackiing Chinese Challenges

No, seriously, I’m not making progress, what should I do?

If you have tried everything mentioned above and you really aren’t making any progress, even though you are investing time, something must be seriously wrong with the way you are learning.

I have so far never encountered a student who can’t learn or who can’t improve, including  in areas that are notorious for being harder to master as an adult, such as pronunciation. I’ve taught many students who are well above 60 years old, and who have made great progress with pronunciation.

While it’s far beyond the scope of this article to try to diagnose every kind of problem you might have with the way you learn, in general, some problems just require more time and energy thrown at them (this is what I call horizontal difficulty; read more here).

Is Chinese difficult to learn?

Improving listening and reading ability are prime examples of this. Other problems require a qualitative change (this would be vertical difficulty, then), so just doing more of it will not necessarily help. If you pronounce the third tone incorrectly, you will probably still do so even if you speak Chinese for 100 additional hours. You probably need help to fix issues like this, or at least change the way you are doing things if you don’t notice any progress even if you invest a lot of time.

If you find yourself in this situation, please leave a comment detailing your problem, what you have tried to do about it and what results you saw (or the lack thereof). I can’t promise I will be able to solve your problem for you, but since I do believe this situation is quite rare, it would be interesting to hear from people who find themselves in it!


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18 comments

  1. Cody says:

    Hey Olle,

    Great article. I can say from experience that this plateau (and all of the plateaus of learning that we encounter!) are quite demotivating.

    One thing that has helped me through my plateaus is to shift my focus to habit change rather than straight learning. There is a lot of time during the day we waste looking at phone when bored or want to distract ourself. We can instead use those bites of time to improve our Chinese by shifting our habits.

    For example, I take the train to work every day. I used to read reddit during this 30 minute trip. Over time, though, I have slowly changed this habit to practicing writing characters on Skritter instead of reading reddit. At first it was difficult: I would do 3 minutes of skritter and 27 minutes of Reddit. As that became easier, I would increase the time. After some time (it was not an easy habit to break completely!) I managed to replace the habit completely with Skritter learning, chinesepod listening, and extensive reading, depending on my goal for the day. I effectively created a habit of studying chinese just a little bit each day.

    The best part of this habit is that I do it each day even if I am feeling demotivated. The train trip just doesn’t seem right if I don’t practice some Chinese. In this way, even if I feel like I am in the plateau, the habit pulls me through it.

    Thank you for all of your articles, I have gained so many insights from them!

    P.S. if anyone is interested in getting a rough idea of how many characters they know, they can try out my free personal project hanzishan com. Enjoy!

    1. Paddy O'Connor says:

      Yes. I would like to know where I’m at with hanzi.

      1. Olle Linge says:

        He posted a link to his project, so you can check it out there. There’s another character estimator here: https://wordswing.com/how-many-characters-do-you-know/instructions

    2. Olle Linge says:

      Yes, that’s an excellent point: focus on building solid habits and you’ll reach your goal eventually. That’s probably a discussion worthy of an article. On the one hand, focusing on goals is important because it tells you what activities are actually helpful, but on the other hand, obsessing about goals and progress in themselves don’t really bring you closer to your goal, but developing good habits does. Maybe it’s a matter of scope, so it’s worthwhile to be conscious of long-term goals as those determine the really important things (such as how much you should focus on writing, if at all), but maybe we’re better off focusing on the process in our day-to-day studying.

  2. Nadav says:

    Thanks so much on the effort of making the audio version!

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Glad you like it and it’s good that you write a comment about it, too. It takes about an hour extra to produce the audio version and if no one really cares, I won’t do it. I can check basic stats about how many play the files, but hearing directly from people who appreciate the effort is welcome!

  3. Scott says:

    I completely agree. Going from intermediate to advanced or native-level fluency is quite challenging because you need to master an increasingly long-tail of low-frequency words, phrases and cultural concepts.

    However, at the same time, I think some of the intermediate plateau can be related to the fact that your level is likely sufficient for many of the things you’re investing time into. In the beginning, everything is so difficult and hard that you really need to learn.

    As you get to higher levels, you don’t improve as much because you’re able to express most of what you want to express or understand the gist of what most people are saying. Maybe you struggle more with some media, but you still do “okay”.

    I think the challenge of intermediacy is often the inverse of the beginning learner. In the beginning, the problem is that normal usage situations are too hard. In the middle, the problem is that they’re too easy.

    Still, observing this isn’t the same as fixing it, and I find myself stuck more often than climbing due to the same problems, especially no longer residing in China.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Yes, that’s a good point. I thought of bringing it up in the article, but thought it was already too long. Staying on your toes, leaving your comfort zone and always challenging yourself, can be a very good method to prevent stagnation. I wrote an article about this particular issue a while back, which I totally forgot about, but will try to work into the current article. This is not exactly what you’re saying, but I think it’s close enough. Here’s the article:

      Learn Chinese faster by leaving your comfort zone

  4. 学到老 says:

    Thanks for the article.

    I’m looking for advice on how to go from advanced to native level fluency. I’ve studied and used Chinese extensively since 2010. I got C2 in every category except listening (C1) on the TOCFL (much harder than the HSK, which IMHO is a joke). I can read anything in Chinese,
    and generally have no problems with pronunciation, but still find it is difficult to express precisely what I mean to say. I can’t always find the words. My native English isn’t perfect in that regard, but I want my Chinese to reach that level.

    Do you have any advice in this regard?

    Thanks again.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I think when it comes to advanced speaking and writing (getting it exactly the way you want and not just understandable), vast amounts of input is the only thing that really works. English is not my native language and I have never been more than a week in an English-speaking country, but I attribute my current proficiency mostly to truly vast amounts of listening and reading. I haven’t really been able to do that in Chinese, but I’m working on it.

      When it comes to speaking specifically, it can help to limit your focus a bit. When in grad school in Taiwan, I talked about language learning and linguistics in Chinese every day for two years. When I first started a course in a specific subject, say phonetics, communication was slow and imprecise. Maybe I knew many of the terms, bun couldn’t use them properly, but when you’ve seen and heard them in context a bunch of times and have an environment where you need them, they start popping up, often in the right places. This is hard to replicate at home, but trying to find people do discuss things you care about is still possible. You can easily find reading and listening material online, then supplement that with discussions.

      You (and I) are in the very long tail end of the learning curve where spending hundreds of hours has nearly no effect whatsoever. I’ve stopped caring about progress in terms of “how good is my Chinese” and instead try to do what I wrote in the article. I try to maintain vocabulary using various apps, I focus on specific problems when I encounter them, and, most importantly, I just try to read and listen as much as I can to things that interest me. Currently, I don’t do this nearly enough to ever reach a level comparable to my English, but it’s time and motivation that stops me from doing this, not doubts about what works!

      Not sure how much this actually helped, but perhaps you found something useful!

  5. 嘉玲 says:

    I’m starting a B 2.2 level course at my university where I study Asian Studies. I took a B 2.1 level course and passed it two days ago. I took this course twice and took the exam four times before barely passing. We study by a book Developing Chinese Intermediate Comprehensive Course I and starting II, including Speaking and Listening books. The problem is, these books have HSK 5 and HSK 6 vocabulary but on the exam, we have HSK 4 level listening. I only pass the course thanks to listening and speaking. Because we get topics ahead. For me and all the other students have the same problem. We can not write 150-180 words, we all struggle with the writing and remembering vocabulary. We were unable to understand a short text that we had. Our classes are Monday to Friday every morning from 12.15 to 13.45 and we get homework too, usually learning 15-20 words, grammar exercises. One chapter has like 6 grammar points and 50 words and we need to learn them by the end of the week. We never come to what we have learned because there is no time. we feel like the teacher’s goal is to finish the book by the end of the semester. The problem is that I feel stuck and unable to learn anything. Even when I take time to prepare the exam like last time, I used Skritter so I could remember the vocabulary, but still, I could barely understand. And I did write 150 words but it was like a very very simple. I´m worried that by the end of next semester my writing and vocabulary is not enough. I did HSK 4 level test and I didn´t pass it. I was 3 points short. But the book we are going to use is already HSK6. I have no idea how to fill a gap that I have. I can´t just start taking slower, that is not how things work at the university. But I feel no progress. I do have confidence in speaking because I volunteered at the local library and teache Chinese for beginners. After failing so many times on my B2.1 level I have lost motivation because I don´t really know how to help myself in this situation.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Aiming to finish the book no matter how much students learn is, unfortunately, rather common. I do of course understand the need to have goals for how much to progress in a given semester, but students’ learning should of course be in focus!

      It’s not clear from your description how much you’re actually spending on learning Chinese. You mention 90 minutes of lessons per day, which is a good start, but depending on what you do during the lessons, it might leave very big holes in what you need to do. Based on what I know about other students, my first question would be how much you spend on listening and reading to things you mostly understand, i.e. extensive listening and reading? Graded readers? Audio versions of them? Learner podcasts? That kind of thing.

      1. 嘉玲 says:

        After school it takes around 2 to 4 hours to finish the homework, it includes reading and listening. We have three classes of comprehensive, one listening and one speaking class per week. I also like watching Chinese series on Netflix or Viki and listen to some Youtube videos like ChinesePod or Chinese Zero to Hero, I have taken an HSK 4 level course on Zero to Hero. I try to include as much as I can into my daily life. Sometimes I understand better by listening than reading because I have heard the word before but if I have to read I might not even know that the word I´m looking at is something I already know. I have noticed that happening when taking the HSK 4 sample test. I listen, I understand and then look the words in front of me and they are not familiar and then when I later hear the word that I didn´t recognize I feel kind of stupid. I took music classes when I started learning Chinese so I could hear tone differences better and wouldn’t make mistakes with my own pronunciation. It really helped with listening and understanding what is said. And it did make that part easier. But now it feels like going from HSK 4 listening (and the level I´m trying to get better at) to HSK 6 writing where there is a huge vocabulary gap. I have a week to figure out how to plan my studying so I can follow the course and catch up on the missing part and not feel overwhelmed doing that.

  6. Ean says:

    Hi Olle

    Thank you for another interesting article. I just wanted to ask you, how are you currently listening to an audio version of 刘慈欣’s 黑暗森林? I would like to find such audiobooks myself. I have read the text versions and really liked them. I have seen the Audible US has a new Chinese section, but they still don’t have much content.

    Best regards

    Ean

    1. Olle Linge says:

      A little bird told me that maybe what you’re looking for could actually be available on a major, free video platform near you.

      1. Ean says:

        Ha! I never thought about that possibility! Thanks Olle- you have expanded my listening material greatly!

        Best regards,

        Ean

  7. Cabu says:

    Thanks for your articles, they’ve helped me a lot with my mindset and i’ve used a lot of the materials you’ve suggested in the past.

    I had a strong feeling a few months ago that I was in this plateau, but by reading a novel and doing some reading and listening everyday I’m feeling more positive. I also noticed when I went back to more joyless textbook style materials i’d been using before I felt an improvement in my reading fluency.

  8. Essie says:

    Hi Olle,

    Agreed! I especially like how you said to focus on one thing (or a few things) and not try to improve everything at once. Personally, I’m more focused on reading/writing than listening/speaking, so my focus is on expanding my character recognition ability.

    Also I agree with you about listening: just because you listen for hundreds of hours doesn’t mean you significantly improve. One thing I’m trying to do is keep a notebook with me when I do my favorite Chinese-learning activity: watching Chinese Youtube. Then, when I come across a word I don’t know, I look it up and write it down immediately. Then I have an organic vocab list of words that actually mean something to me 🙂

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