How to Break Free of the Plateau When You’re Learning English

It happens to the best of us you know.

Feeling stuck. In a rut.

We’ve all been there.

Chasing our tails. Running around in circles. It doesn’t matter how we describe it, it still has the same result: feeling like we’re getting nowhere.

It’s like you’re in a marathon but the finish line isn’t getting any closer. You’re just jogging on the spot, watching your competitors pass you by, feeling more and more tired and frustrated.

But there’s something I need to tell you.

You have arrived somewhere.

You’ve reached “The Plateau”.

What is The Plateau?

Now, if you’ve already spent some time in The Plateau, you may feel like you’re trapped there, flailing around in a thick, gloomy fog, devoid of all hope.

I know. You didn’t plan on coming here.

You just stumbled across it by accident, a bit like the dark and unsettling ghost town in the movie Silent Hill.

But, let me reassure you. It’s not that scary! It’s temporary. A sort of stop-off point.

Like a roadside diner. A place to pause and take a breather.

And, just like you wouldn’t plan on spending your summer holidays at a highway motel, you don’t need to spend too much time at The Plateau either.

In fact, you can choose to leave when you want.

By the end of this post, you’ll have your escape route planned.

Where is The Plateau?

We generally arrive at this mythical place after several other stops, which you can read more about in this article.

We usually start off in the honeymoon phase, when we’re full of energy and everything is shiny and inspiring.

But soon enough, we come up against the first few hurdles, which are higher than expected.

Our motivation starts to wane.

We go through numerous ups and downs. Sometimes we’re flying high, other times, we feel like it’s all too much.

Even so, we need to persevere and continue advancing along the learning curve in order to conquer our new skill.

As you can imagine, this curve exists in any field of learning but particularly when you’re learning a language.

Learning a language is a long-term and perhaps even life-long commitment towards getting to the most popular destination of all: Fluency City.

(This article explains the various learning curve stages in detail).

Why do we end up at The Plateau?

The main reasons are:

  1. you’ve achieved a (small) goal and don’t know what to do next;
  2. you’ve forgotten (or never had) a BIG goal;
  3. your perspective is blurred.
  4. you need to change your approach.


Now, you may be tired of hearing about goals in the performance-driven world we live in today but they’re important.

They give you direction. They give you velocity. They give you passion.

Thanks to goals, instead of flying around in circles, you’re on a direct route to your designated destination.

But don’t forget, goals shouldn’t be seen as rigid rules that stop us from enjoying life but rather like a guiding compass that helps us stay on track and avoid the dead-end alleys.

In a nutshell, goals need to be as big as possible so that they’re motivating and inspiring enough to help you stay the course.


Sometimes “being stuck” is just a story you’re telling yourself. It’s a way of not having to move forward.

Maybe staying still for a while suits you for some reason?

To analyse this, ask yourself: what is the pay-off (i.e. benefit) for me of being in this situation?

Once you’ve clarified this, move back to defining your BIG goal as big goals eat stuckness for breakfast.


Sometimes, we need to change our approach or add a new approach into our learning journey.

So as to add more meaning or just a bit of “spice” to what we’re doing.

For example, I set my clients creative writing assignments and oral/written journaling prompts as this helps them consolidate precision and extend vocabulary in a mindful and meaningful way. Find out more here.

How do we leave The Plateau?

Let’s say that it’s a 4-step process.

1/ Define your D.U.M.B. Goal(s)

To ensure that we have an energy-infusing and motivating goal, Brendon Burchard, Author of High-Performance Habits, encourages us to focus on the dream first by setting “D.U.M.B” goals:

  • Dream-driven: you dream big, using the full scope of your imagination;
  • Uplifting: your goals should inspire you to achieve them, they need to spark joy;
  • Method-friendly: you need to set up a sure-fire method to help you reach your goals, one that primes your environment for success;
  • Behaviour-triggered: similarly, you need to have goals that you’ll think of regularly thanks to certain triggers in your life.


Perhaps your Big goal is linked to living and working abroad in some way. This dream includes feeling at ease in English (NB: you would need to be specific about what “feeling at ease” means to you, what exactly would you be able to do?).

In this case:

  • Make sure this notion of what you’ll be doing abroad (and where) is clearly visualized. Don’t dream of what you think you can get, dream bigger and higher than that.
  • Now, imagine you’ve achieved this dream, feel how you’ll feel when you attain it. Create that feeling. Journal about it if you want. This is the feeling that will make you want to jump out of bed in the morning.
  • Look at the obstacles in the way of you reaching this goal and see how you can adjust, remove or overcome them. For example, obstacles can be people, resources, habits, time etc. To help you, why not make an “Avoid At All Costs List“?
  • Think about your daily environment. You’ll probably need to change certain habits or set up new ones in order to support your goals. In this article on “Mastering One Thing“, James Clear talks about creating an implementation intention to help you follow through.

“You are 2x to 3x more likely to follow through with a habit if you make a specific plan for when, where, and how you are going to implement it. This is known as an implementation intention.”

2/ Set Meaningful SMART Goals & Action Steps

Once you’ve ticked the above bullet points and defined your D.U.M.B. goal, you then need to break it down into smaller more manageable, bite-sized goals and action steps using the well-known SMART method (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant/Realistic, Time-bound). You need to know exactly what you need to do on a daily/weekly/monthly basis to eventually attain your big goal.

These stages will act as milestones on your journey so that you can see your progress.

It’s also extremely important that these action steps have meaning for you; they have to be as essential as they are inspiring. You have to know that they’re specifically helping you to reach your big dream. If not, they’re of no use.

If you miss this step, you’ll feel too overwhelmed by your big goal and how to get there. It will seem too far away.

3/ Ask yourself, what is the tiniest step I could take right now to move forward?

In other words, what could I do now that would make everything else easier?

Because, to stop feeling stuck, you first need to take some sort of “easy” action. Nothing too complex or time-consuming. Just something that gets the momentum flowing.

For example, if you want to start jogging, the tiniest step could be that you put on your running shoes and open the front door.

Perhaps your tiny step for English could be to buy a notebook and place it on your bedside table so that you think about journaling in English. Or to get some podcasts or audiobooks in English and place them on your phone screen so that you can listen to them on a morning jog, whilst cooking, during a commute etc.

Whatever works for you.

Integrate English into your routine. Until it becomes a habit. Until it works on default mode.

4/ Get support

Often, when we set goals, it’s good to tell someone about them.

Why? Because you feel even more determined to achieve them. You feel accountable.

You might also need help joining up the dots in your big picture vision or breaking down your goals into bite-sized portions.

Maybe you’d like a cheerleader, someone who encourages and supports you to ensure you persevere and arrive at your dream destination.

That’s what I do.

So, let’s have a quick recap:

To get out of The Plateau, you need to:

  1. Set D.U.M.B. goals.
  2. Break them down into meaningful SMART goals & manageable action steps.
  3. Take the tiniest step forward to get moving.
  4. Get support (if you feel you need it).

And: don’t forget to check your perspective & your approach as they may need changing!

So, what are you waiting for?


Photo: Jordan Christian courtesy of Unsplash




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