"But it seems like we don't improve as quickly as before," a student said once to me, upon noting that his level was not increasing as quickly as it used to. "It makes me feel stressful."
"When we started learning English, we got better so quickly and now...I think I have to fight to remember every word and I forget the things in class so quickly."
Quotes from students, and I know it's not me - my students have a good time, they do improve (just not as quickly as they did when they were beginners), they renew and the dedicated ones push on towards more advanced levels.
I've noticed something about language learning, though - it came first with these expressions of frustration, as well as my own observation, of my students and later, I began to recognize it in myself. At the moment, I'm at the bottom of a nasty little valley when it comes to Chinese learning, the same sort of pit that English learners across Taiwan and language learners worldwide, I suspect, find themselves in. I've started calling it the Learning Loop.
The idea has been around forever - I certainly didn't discover it myself, I've simply started observing it. You simply don't improve in language learning at the intermediate levels as quickly as you do at the beginning levels. At the beginning, everything is new, and you don't have so many words or grammar points of that language crowding your head - it's easy to remember "I'd like coffee with cream, no sugar", "Where are you from? I'm from Taiwan", "My name is Sandy and I I'm an engineer at Intellitron" or "There is a post office in my neighborhood" when those are the only things you know how to say.
It's not so easy to remember words you use far less frequently - when you get to the point where you're learning phrases like "off the top of my head", "feel overwhelmed" and "be taken aback", you are far less likely to remember them, well, off the top of your head - especially if you, like my students, do not live in an immersion environment. You not only have far more "stuff" to remember regarding sentence structure, grammar, common errors, vocabulary, pronunciation etc., but you're also learning words that you use far less frequently so it's harder to ingrain them into your memory.
It's perfectly natural, and yet so discouraging.
So what happens? Students of foreign language notice the dip in the speed of their learning, and notice that it's stopped being fairly easy and started being a slow, fingernail-scraping crawl uphill with lots of fits and starts, lots of sliding back and very few footholds. As you claw your way up, words like chunks of soil and bits of rock become dislodged and tumble down into the abyss of forgotten vocabulary, and you make simple mistakes in grammar that you thought you'd conquered long ago (you did - you just need to keep using it so you won't forget it).
There's also the fact that students at that level, unless they've all taken the same class with the same people since they began, will know different things, and need to work on different things - this is where differences in skills and abilities becomes clear, and ever harder to fix. There are a lot of tiny, easily forgotten little "things" to learn at the intermediate level, and I can see why a student would be frustrated by a seeming inability to remember and use them. I would know - when it comes to Chinese I am that student!
At that point, I'd say, is when most students get discouraged and quit. I take it as a testament to my enthusiasm for teaching that my students do seem to press on more than average students might - though of course I haven't done a rigorous scientific study to prove this!
Or, almost as bad, they quit for awhile and then come back to learning, only to feel a quick bit of gratification when forgotten nibs and knobs of language come back to the forefront of their mind and then get discouraged again - they're still facing the valley of slow progress and still haven't figured out how to deal with it without getting discouraged. The best students press on. Others quit again. And come back. And feel good for awhile before getting discouraged...and find themselves in a never-ending loop, at the intermediate to high intermediate level, never getting any better.
It looks something like this, except Excel was being a pain and I couldn't get the graph to look all fancy with arrows pointing out the motion of the loop:
The x-axis is clearly level, the y-axis is my own approximation of learning speed (so not scientific). The red indicates where students get deflated and quit, rejoin, get deflated again, quit again, and rejoin...
...and never make it beyond the intermediate to high intermediate level. Then, they wonder why.
I wouldn't be writing about this issue as in-depth as I am on my personal blog, except I'm starting to notice it in myself. I'm at a level in Chinese where I'm learning some more esoteric words - it was easy back in the day to recall how to say "transfer money" (something I do every month) or "lemonade" or whatever it is I wanted. Now that I'm on things like "五十步笑百步" (basically, "the pot's calling the kettle black" though it doesn't translate directly), it's simply harder to remember right when I need to say it. It's more complex, there's a lot of other stuff crowding up my head and I don't use it anywhere nearly as frequently as I'd need to in order to really cement it in there.
And y'know, yes. It is discouraging. I've written before about my feelings on Shi-da, and how I never quite took to the methods used to teach Chinese in most schools - that's related, to a degree, but I'd probably feel similarly discouraged anywhere. It's fairly well-known among friends that I'm on "break" from Chinese - still learning passively (I'd be doing that anyway, living in Taiwan and all; I am and always will be a "languages person" so I can't help but learn what's all around me) but not taking classes at the moment.
Previously, I thought that was mostly due to my issues with the Mandarin Training Center as well as trying to save money first for our wedding and now for our trip to Turkey later this year.
Now...I'm starting to think that somewhere, deep down in that place where I hide things I don't like to admit, that it may be because I'm subconsciously frustrated by the slow pace of improvement at my level - in terms of reading and writing more than speaking. Regarding speaking, I'm fairly advanced on a good day, high intermediate on a bad day (and we all have our bad days - which would be a great topic for another post). Reading and writing-wise, however, I'm at least a full level lower. I can type a decent e-mail, chat on MSN, Gchat or Facebook in Chinese, write basic notes and even simple letters, and read normal stuff I come across in my daily life. I cannot scour websites in-depth or read books, and the "newsy" Chinese of news articles utterly defeats me.
It's here where I think my discouragement lies - as much as I practice I feel like I never improve in writing. I know that this is natural, even more so when it relates to Chinese: it's easy for an English learner to have a reading and writing level on par with her speaking level. If you're learning Chinese, that is absolutely not guaranteed. That said, I can't help but wonder if my mind, when it comes to writing Chinese well, has decided it'd rather be an immovable brick rather than a lovely, porous sponge.
I know, I know. Perhaps if I blogged less and studied more, I'd see more improvement. :) And I would, just as intermediate students of English who persevere do improve. It's the speed of improvement at my level - just as it is for those students - that is so aggravating.
Ah well. Press on, press on.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel to make me smile, though. Clearly some of my mannerisms are rubbing off on students. On noting that every election cycle, Lee Teng-hui makes noises as though he's considering a run for the presidency again, one of my students replied "But...he's like 200 years old!"
Exactly. And exactly as I would say it!
How about you - did you encounter this slow-down? Did it discourage you? Did you quit? Did you come back? Are you currently stuck in the vicious cycle of quitting, restarting and never improving? Did you get out of it? What's your story?