why being an intermediate sucks!

Being an intermediate sucks because you have spent years learning your target language, and you know you still can’t speak it properly. You are painfully aware that natives are having to slow down, repeat themselves and use simple sentences so that you can understand them.  You know that if you listen to an audio book, watch a film without subtitles you can’t follow the plot. You can’t understand news bulletins. According to your LingQ statistics, you know more than ten thousand words (and that’s got to be a lot, hasn’t it?) yet you still need to reach for a dictionary to explain how to make custard.

How is it possible, you ask yourself at least once a week, that I have worked this hard and am still utterly incompetent? Will I ever understand Wallander in the original Swedish, or will I die of old age and boredom first? Wouldn’t it be more sensible to give up, do I really need to make myself feel inadequate on a daily basis?

Being a beginner felt better because you felt OK about your incompetence. You hadn’t yet invested hundreds of hours of your time in listening to people talking about restaurants in Japanese. You felt proud every time you understood a whole sentence. It doesn’t take much to make a beginner feel good.

Reach intermediate level and your frustrations soar. It is the fact of  your increased competence that makes you aware of how far you still have to go. Now you are good enough to try to chat with natives (did you have conversations with natives as a beginner? I bet you didn’t!) You have started to compare your progress with other people, and starting to worry that they have discovered the secret of learning without frustration. Maybe they have. Maybe they feel just as rubbish as you do.

In practical terms this is something you have to just get over, like the measles. No-one has ever got to advanced 1 who hasn’t chewed their way through intermediate 1 and 2. Some people take decades to get through the intermediate stage, because everytime they feel rubbish, they give up for a few months. How good do you think that makes them feel about themselves?

Playing mind games helps. You keep searching for new material, new podcasts on iTunes, new audio books (maybe there’s one that’s a bit easier than the others?), new websites. Doing some learning every day, or at least every week, really helps too. LingQ statistics are great for  giving you a reason to learn just one more word, create one more LingQ, read through a lesson just one more time. It’s nice to see those daily and weekly columns fill up.

Slowly those known words will go up, a thousand words here, a thousand words there.  You probably don’t even notice the improvement. Your tutor will notice it, and will point out to you that now they can speak more quickly, use more idiom, and repeat themselves less in your conversations.  Maybe they will comment on the fact that you are posting on the forum in your target language. Or note on your written work that your style is sounding more natural.

If you keep reading and listening to lessons, learning new words and watching your statistics go up a little more each day, then I can promise you one thing: you won’t spend decades playing at being an intermediate, giving up again every time you feelthat you aren’t making any progress.

Eventually your tutor will say (at their natural speaking speed), “You shouldn’t call yourself an intermediate any more! You are advanced now. Have you watched Wallader lately?”


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6 thoughts on “Why being an intermediate sucks!

  1. hp

    I am proud to be an "Intermediate" – maybe for years. I see progress every day. "Intermediate", "Advanced", "Newbie" are only labels.

  2. Steve Kaufmann

    I agree with Hans Peter. We are, in fact, as language learners, always intermediate, always coming across words we do not know. Being an intermediate and enjoying it is a part of language learning. Helen, our humour writer in residence, I suggest you are just pulling our leg on this one.

  3. skyblueteapot

    Yes I’m pulling the collective LingQ leg. Nevertheless I do get a lot of students expressing their frustration at their difficulties with English. A quick glance at their profile page shows that they are almost always Intermediate 2. I reassure them and explain just how good Intermediate 2 proficiency actually is. In many cases I also point out that they have, without even noticing it, reached advanced proficiency.I’ve been an intermediate in German for 15 years now, due to never having had the motivation to improve further.

  4. Seriph

    I think it was Khatzumoto who gave the analogy that being intermediate is similar to being in an aeroplane flying in the sky and a beginner is like taking off. The take off is fast and new, and you feel the progression/speed alot more. But when flying in the sky it’s like you are just sitting there and going slowly, when in actual fact you are travelling faster than you were on the run way, you just don’t realize. Just a positive way to think about it I thought.


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