The Internimable Intermediate Stage

I shall admit, right away, that this isn’t a post full of tips. Rather, it’s just a lamentation from one language learner to all other language learners. Not really a plea for help, but simply a statement to let others know that they’re not alone: I’ve been stuck at an intermediate level in German for ever now, and wow, is it frustrating and depressing.

My track record with German looks fairly abyssmal. I dislike saying “I’ve been learning German for 10 years,” because first, it sounds like I’m more or less an idiot (“wow, ten years and you still aren’t 100% fluent?”) and second, it’s not entirely true. I started learning German about 10 years ago, but there’s been vast amounts of “off” time during those years. Still, it’s a long time.

Have I made progress? Sure, lots of it. Do I feel utterly stuck, though? Utterly. I long ago reached the point where regardless of what I do with the language – reading, writing, learning new words, listening, etc. – I feel like I’m making no progress whatsoever. I feel like I’m trying to build a sand castle, and every time I finish one tower, I discover that there’s a giant hole where the keep is supposed to be, and bits of sand are sliding off everywhere. It sucks, it’s frustrating, and it’s demoralizing.

I’m not giving up by any means, but I do wish I could see some sign of progress. I recognize that as you learn more, the signposts of progress are spread apart more, since you’re not rapidly learning new, basic building blocks of the language. But damn. I feel like I’m wandering in the wild and I’ve not seen a signpost in ages.

Anyway – no real advice to be had here, I’m afraid. I clearly forgot the language blogger rule of “always be positive and act like learning a language is a piece of cake.” Back to spinning my wheels.

By |2013-09-16T16:45:46+00:00September 16th, 2013|Language Learning|10 Comments


  1. Joshua J. Slone September 17, 2013 at 4:50 pm - Reply

    I have to imagine the time off and splitting attention among multiple languages doesn’t help any one in particular you look at. Going with the sandcastle analogy, you have multiple sandcastles you’re paying varying amounts of attention to.

    • Josh September 17, 2013 at 4:54 pm - Reply

      Very true. Still, even when I’ve been sticking to German alone, and really putting in time with it, I feel like I’m spinning my wheels. I’m not really sure if it’s all in my head or if I’m just doing something wrong.

  2. WC October 1, 2013 at 10:22 am - Reply

    I often feel the same way. I’m about 5.5 years into learning Japanese and I lose motivation now and then. In fact, lately, I haven’t found time for learning it at all. (I still find some time to *use* it, though.)

    When I get really down about it, I challenge myself. I have a bookshelf with books I can’t read yet, and when I want to assure myself that I’ve been making progress, I try to read some of them. Every single time, I’ve been impressed with how much better I can read them.

    Even if I didn’t have that, reading is my best skill, and I could challenge myself by listening to various media, talking to people, writing diary entries on Lang8 or other things.

    • Josh October 17, 2013 at 10:37 am - Reply

      WC: Yeah, that’s what I try to remind myself of. I’ve felt stuck for a long time, but I will, on occasion, read some German news or watch a short video with the express purpose of noting how much I *do* understand. When I focus on that, it tends to cheer me up some. Always one to underestimate my accomplishments, I remarked to someone once that I “could get by in German – watch basic news stuff, read mid-level books and things like that.” Their immediate response was “That sounds like a lot more than ‘getting by’ to me…”

      All about perspective, I guess. 🙂

  3. Luiz Antonio Lucena October 17, 2013 at 3:57 pm - Reply

    Hey Josh. I think I’m kind of walking in your shoes, but as a beginner who is trying to break through A2 level. I’ve been learning German for 4 years now and only nowadays I feel that I’ve made some progress. Actually, I found out that there was something wrong with my approach, which consisted of focusing on grammar all the most. In addition to that, I have also noticed my teacher’s methodology is all about grammar, too. This year I’ve decided to go audio-based. Unlike English, one can’t go far by pushing grammar aside, but I think we won’t be able to speak it without trying to. Do you have a native Tandem or friends to talk to in German? That has been helping me a lot, and every now and then I can learn some new words, too. And be positive! Being a native speaker of English is an advantage for. Portuguese, which is my mother language, doesn’t help me that much at all when it comes down to learning German.

    • Josh November 6, 2013 at 1:13 pm - Reply

      Luiz: Thanks for your input! I guess the plateaus attack everyone. 🙂 And yes, I’ve had tandem partners in the past, and found it to be helpful (sometimes). I’ve lately been listening to a lot of German stuff and not getting hung up on every little word I don’t know.

      Best of luck in your studies!

  4. Robert December 10, 2013 at 4:02 pm - Reply

    Hi Josh – just came across your blog and noticed this post about German. I’ve always been interested in the language since taking a few years in high school but regretfully never kept it up.

    How are you progressing? Any update since you posted this?

    Maybe it would help to take a step back and write out all the things you’ve done so far to learn the language and then attach milestones to that timeline…maybe you can come up with correlations between learning methods and success?

    Best of luck,

    • Josh December 11, 2013 at 3:40 pm - Reply

      Hey Robert,

      My progress continues at about the same pace, but I suppose you could say my perspective has changed. I’ve kind of given up on “knowing” German – it’s not going to happen. There’s always going to be a word or phrase I simply don’t know, and have to look up. This could be conquered, I think, but the time commitment to benefit ratio is not one that interests me. So, I’m still doing the same old, same old – learning new words, phrases, reading a lot, and listening to some things, too.

      I’ve sort of made peace with the fact that I will forever be a student of my languages.

  5. conycatcher January 21, 2015 at 5:07 pm - Reply

    I kind of feel frustrated about Mandarin Chinese. I’ve been studying it almost 20 years, but I still run into words I don’t know. Often when I watch a program or listen to the radio I have trouble maintaining comprehension over a very long period of time. Sometimes everything goes great; other times I feel bad because I have trouble understanding. I guess I do hold a job that requires me to read it and occasionally comprehend audio media, so I suppose that I can’t be too bad, but I never thought at this point that I would still be having so much trouble with listening comprehension. Unfortunately though most of the time I’ve been studying for one reason or another I’ve been studying other languages at the same time and I just don’t have enough time to devote to concentrate fully on watching TV and movies for hours a day in any language..

    • Josh January 28, 2015 at 11:19 am - Reply

      I can certainly relate! One would think that after all this time, I’d be 100% fluent in German, but it’s just not the case. Too many other languages (and other hobbies altogether) grabbing my attention. While watching tons of TV, movies, and so on would surely help my comprehension, I just don’t have the time to do thaton a daily basis.

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