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Why you feel stuck in French
Six ways to overcome a learning plateau
I’ve seen it over and over again. People who have made significant progress, in fact, remarkable progress with their French, eventually feel stuck. They hit a plateau. The little voice in their heads starts talking, telling them that they're not making any progress, and they give up.
Feeling stuck when learning a language is very common. This relates to what I explained in my article Why your French still sucks, that each level is increasingly harder.
Getting from total beginner to intermediate is rewarding every step of the way. But getting from intermediate to advanced feels like a march in the desert with a backpack full of boulders, without water or cell phone service.
Getting unstuck is mostly about a change in attitude. It’s about recalibrating your expectations.
Everyone on the Internet promises fast results.
You’ll learn a language in sleep!
You’ll become fluent in six months. Or three months, even
While you’re at it, you can learn 5, 10 or even 12 languages, and speak them all like a native
In reality, most of these stories are jokes at best, scams at worst. Real polyglots have put a tremendous amount of time and energy into learning several languages, and they'll admit that they don’t speak any of them “like a native.”
Once you change your expectations, everything will become easier. If you don’t expect overnight results, you can relax and enjoy the process. You can celebrate minor victories. You can be happy with the progress you've already made. And most importantly, you’ll want to continue, and not just give up.
Here are six ways to get unstuck with your French.
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Be realistic about your time and energy available
I work with many professionals — doctors, lawyers, CEOs, professors, etc. What I’ve noticed about these high achievers is that they have a lot on their plates, and they often expect quick results.
But learning a language is not a “problem” to solve in a month or two. The central issue is time, and if you don’t have a lot of it available, you have to come to terms with the reality that it might take you a bit longer than expected to reach your goals.
Recently, I claimed that to learn French fundamentals, an anglophone needs to spend 700 hours learning.
Most people only have thirty minutes to learn a language every day. Which means that at that pace, it will take nearly four years to “learn French.”
Making more time available might be a good idea. But if you’re already very busy, why not stick to a regular routine and accept that it might take you a few years to reach your goals?
Learning a language is like exercising. Yes, you could be healthier and fitter by working out every day, one hour a day. But are you willing to stick to that routine? Is it realistic? Be honest about the time and energy you have available, and design a learning plan you can follow.
Stop worrying about your level
Let me tell you a little secret: language placement tests mean almost nothing.
When I get a new student on Italki, I check their reported level. I just want to know if they’re total beginners or they know some French. But beyond that, I don’t pay much attention to levels. Why? Because I often get students with a C1 who struggle with basic grammar, and students with a B1 who are pretty close to being fluent.
A placement test is a snapshot of time. It might test your grammar, vocabulary or listening skills, but it can't really evaluate how you use that language in the real world.
By focusing too much on levels, we forget to optimize our learning. We forget to enjoy the process. We also think that language learning happens linearly, whereas the reality is that it’s a rather chaotic process.
So forget about your level — B1, B2, C1 — and instead, focus on learning from material that you find interesting and enjoy!
Stop worrying about “speaking like a native” — no one cares
The promise of “speaking like a native” is mostly marketing, and everyone selling something about learning languages is guilty of using this catch phrase, myself included.
To me, speaking like a native is something we can aspire to, but never reach.
Speaking like a native shouldn’t be the goal, because most natives speak French badly! I'm joking (but not completely).
My point is that getting rid of an accent isn’t that critical, because no one cares that you can speak French without an accent. If you make a lot of mistakes and use vocabulary improperly, it will still sound bad.
I grew up in Quebec. I only spoke French until twelve. Then, I learned English, but I didn’t really use it until I left the province at twenty-one. That means all of my education was in French. My daily life was 100% in French. I read hundreds of books in French. I soaked up the culture as a child.
Could I reproduce the same level of immersion as an adult in any of the other languages I know? Impossible. Does it matter? No, not really.
I still have an accent in English, even though it’s the foreign language I know best. I’ve never viewed my accent as a problem.
Even if you gave me the magic formula to speaking English without an accent, I wouldn’t do it. My accent is part of my identity.
So stop worrying about your accent or trying to sound like a native. Focus on speaking French as well as possible! Otherwise, you can always fake it like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.
Stop worrying about translating from English
Most language learners get this idea that they shouldn’t translate from English in their heads. They should speak the language directly, without translation.
It’s true that when you know a language well, you don’t need to translate it from your native language, at least not most of the time.
But this is a result of speaking the language well, not a condition of learning it.
When learning French, it’s normal to translate from English. In fact, it’s necessary to do that at first.
When will you stop translating? In my experience, it happens automatically. You can’t force the process. So stop worrying about it.
Get smarter about the way you learn
When you feel stuck in French, you create unnecessary stress. Your expectations might be out of tune with reality. Instead, focus on making your learning more effective.
Go back to my article on How to learn French in one year. This will give you a detailed overview of ways you can optimize your learning.
Find social activities around speaking French
Finally, one reason you might feel stuck is that all of your learning takes place in a vacuum. But language is a social activity, and ultimately, it is meant to be spoken with people.
You can find French Conversation Meetup groups.
You could sign up for a group class
You could take a course at your university in French or about learning French
You could travel to a French-speaking area
You could sign up for an intensive course
You can take private lessons with a teacher
Use your imagination and find social activities around speaking French. Recalibrate your expectations. Relax and enjoy the process!