A mid-week language-learning rant: the B level plateau and the lie of “upper intermediate”

I’ve been doing some freelance writing lately and that took me into one of my favourite/least favourite corners of the internet: how to learn languages.

But Alicia! cry the people who know me, you love learning languages!

And I do. To date, I’ve tried to learn about 7-9, depending on how many languages you think Bosnian-Serbo-Croat is. I’ve stuck with 4 of them – though some may argue that, since English is my first language, I can neither claim to have “learned” it nor to be “sticking with it.” I beg to differ! But that’s another post – and another rant – entirely.

Learning a language via the internet isn’t what frustrates me. If that’s how you’re doing it, good luck to you, I wish you all the best! What frustrates me is the growing mountain of articles that make language learning seem like a breeze when the sad truth of the matter is that, often, it is the actual worst. It’s frustrating, embarrassing, and, worst (or best!) of all, it’s literally endless.  There are, I will admit, the few lucky individuals for whom languages are a breeeze – I know at least a couple of them and I hate and admire them in equal measure.

However, this isn’t a whiny woe-is-me-I-am-not-a-linguistic-genius post. This is a if-you’re-struggling-to-have-conversations-after-two-years-of-study-don’t-be-discouraged post. Because you are not alone. While many articles impart great, practical advice such as start speaking as soon as possible (even if only to the mirror) or immersion is one of the best ways to learn (if you can), they are also full of aggravatingly simplistic pieces of advice that make language learning seem like a 250 piece jigsaw puzzle that you’ll have done in one rainy weekend. In actual fact, language learning is more like one of those 2000 piece puzzles that are mostly sky and that sit on your kitchen table for years before a) you finally admit that you’ll never finish it or b) someone inadvertently knocks it to the floor.

I don’t want to go into the different silly bits of “wisdom” in this post – mainly because someone has already done so and I can’t do it better – but I do want to talk about expectation management. For example, in schools that follow the European framework (A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2) the Bs are considered intermediate while the Cs are more or less university level. I’ve experienced the B levels from both sides. My German and my Spanish are both B-something (my Spanish arguably more of a B1.2 and my German a B2.2 ) and I teach B2 level (or “upper intermediate”) English here in Argentina. And, yes, both me and my students can hold one-on-one conversations and struggle through a newspaper.

However, I’ve read a distressing amount of articles that claim that B2/upper intermediate is as far as you really need to go with your language. While it’s true that many language students do stop at B2, this doesn’t mean that they are fluent. The chasm between myself and my students and truly “advanced”, university-level fluency is a gaping abyss (a problem that also faces many international students coming to North American universities – but, again, that’s another post).


How you feel on a good day. Photo via the glorious meme-producers of the internet.

What all these learn-a-language-in-three-months-wow-I’m-fluent-in-17-languages articles don’t tell you is how hard it is to escape the B level plateau and how excruciating a plateau it is to be on. Honestly, being a B-level speaker means that, on a good day, you can have wonderful, spur-of-the moment conversations with strangers on topics you are already familiar with, you can make a joke – albeit it simple ones – and go out for a meal with a friend who has the patience to wait for you to perfect difficult sentences.

On a normal day, however, it means that you will misunderstand simple but unanticipated questions (especially if the speaker has a strong regional accent or uses dialect), you will miss jokes, you will not understand 30-70% of what’s happening in group situations like BBQs, pubnights, or sports games, and you will spend a lot of your time asking “Could you repeat that, please?”

On a bad day – when you’re stressed, busy, sick, or just fed up – you will get halfway through a simple sentence, realise you’re missing a key piece of vocabulary or are unsure of which tense to use, and simply say fuck this (either outloud or in your head), shrug, and walk away, leaving whomever you were talking to bemused and mildly insulted.

All of this sounds depressing, I know. And it can be. It can also be exhilerating and wildly satisfying. Things as commonplace as complaining about the weather with a cashier will suddenly feel momentous and going to a doctor’s appointment alone will become a lifelong triumph (I still remember my first doctor’s appointment in Germany and how thrilling it was when I completely understood his explanation of how shit my health insurance was – see? Silver lining!).

Basically, what I’m trying to say is that, when you are a B level speaker, you will feel like shit sometimes, and sometimes you will feel like shit a lot of the time, but that’s okay and, more importantly, that’s completely normal. Look at it this way: yes, n the Bs, you constantly have to push yourself to learn more and become comfortable listening to and using a language – but at least you don’t have to worry about losing all of the stuff you once knew, like you do when you hit the Cs!




  1. I like the jigsaw puzzle metaphor… may have to pinch that at some point 😉

    I see we see eye-to-eye on this language learning malarkey. It’s hard work, takes eons, no short-cuts (besides in-country immersion, but even then it still takes an enormous effort), and soooo worth it.

    Thanks very much for linking my post!

    1. Haha, be my guest!
      And thank you! I’ve been following your blog for a while now and absolutely love it (also very happy to see you’ve started a totally language-centric one!). It’s always good for a laugh when I get frustrated with the process 🙂

      1. Aw, thanks! The new blog is meant to have a more my-multilingual life feel, i.e. the day-to-dayness of language learning/living with languages, etc, though I’m still very much finding my feet with it.

        Another short but vaguely amusing post about German(y) coming up tomorrow 🙂 Do pay us a visit…

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