Moving Beyond the Middle: How to get out of the intermediate desert

Moving Beyond the Middle: How to get out of the intermediate desert

Being an intermediate learner can feel like it stretches on forever, with annoying plateaus and unique frustrations. If you’re a beginner, you’ll likely become one. A large portion of us are currently intermediate in one language or another. “Intermediates” are by far one of the most widely-defined and arguably largest group of longer-term language learners. They're also one of the most inconsistently addressed group of learners, too. Intermediate-level status sees the largest number of drop-offs in terms of people giving up on a language, and it doesn’t have to be that way. In this talk, we’ll take a deeper look at intermediates, what makes them a special group of learners, what we can learn from them, and how we can use that to motivate us to “move beyond the middle” and out of the sometimes endless-seeming desert of intermediate-hood, towards steady progress and learning satisfaction.


Jennifer Geacone-Cruz

August 24, 2018


  1. 1.

    Moving Beyond the Middle: 
 How to get out of

    the Intermediate desert Jennifer Geacone-Cruz
 LangFest 2018
 Friday August 24, 2018
 Montréal, Canada Image: Sable, courtesy of Shed Works Games. @anomiseditrix
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    @anomiseditrix Jennifer Geacone-Cruz Language Technologist & Psycholinguist Japanologist (EAJS) School

    of International Liberal Studies (SILS)
 Waseda University/ૣҴాେֶ Tokyo, Japan Tokyo ⾯ Berlin ⾯ London ⾯ Tallinn
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    @anomiseditrix What is “intermediate”? CEFR B1 Threshold, or “true” intermediate

    Can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc. 
 Can deal with most situations likely to arise while travelling in an area where the language is spoken. 
 Can produce simple connected text on topics that are familiar or of personal interest. Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes and ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.¹ Council of Europe (2011)
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    @anomiseditrix What is “intermediate”? CEFR B2 Vantage, or “upper” intermediate

    Can understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in their field of specialisation. Can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party. Can produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options.¹ Council of Europe (2011)
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    @anomiseditrix Why is it called an “intermediate desert”? potentially the

    largest level-group of learners diverse needs and goals personally influenced, self-actualised stage of learning
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    @anomiseditrix Why is it called an “intermediate desert”? time investment

    can be big individualised needs = effort underserved group in terms of materials
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    @anomiseditrix What’s in this intermediate desert? receptive vs. active use

 (Krashen, 1982) fluency vs. complexity gap vocabulary limits ≈200h of study natural speech characterisation persistent “fossilised” errors
 (Richards, 2008)
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    @anomiseditrix Receptive vs. Active use Krashen, 1982 What’s in this

    intermediate desert? “…claimed that learners’ productive ability will arise naturally from receptive knowledge. In particular, Krashen stressed that meaningful comprehension rather than focused production is all that is needed to facilitate language learning.” (Richards, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2015)
 Not necessarily true! reverse translation asymmetry (Kroll et al, 2002)
 anxiety dissonance
 (Fan Yi, 2007)
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    @anomiseditrix Noticing Hypothesis What’s in this intermediate desert? Modelled on

    first language acquisition Hearing vs. Intake (Schmidt, 1990)
 “The only linguistic materials that can figure in language-making are stretches of speech that attract the child’s attention to a sufficient degree to be noticed and held in memory“ (Slobin 1985, p. 1164)
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    @anomiseditrix Focussed Output Hypothesis What’s in this intermediate desert? Pushed

    output & managed output “When learners have to make efforts to ensure that their messages are communicated (pushed output) this puts them in a better position to notice the gap between their productions and those of proficient speakers, thus fostering second-language development (Swain 1985, 2000)
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    @anomiseditrix Fluency vs. Complexity Gap VanPatten, 1993 What’s in this

    intermediate desert? “Restructuring involves processes that mediate the incorporation of intake into the developing system. Since the internalisation of intake is not a mere accumulation of discrete bits of data, data have to “fit in” in some way and sometimes the accommodation of a particular set of data causes changes in the rest of the system. In some cases, the data may not fit in at all and are not accommodated by the system. They simply do not make it into the long-term store.” Ex: Learning a new tense
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    @anomiseditrix Vocabulary Limits What’s in this intermediate desert? 2000-3000 words

    Years 3-4: Vocabulary < 250 words avg/year Years 1-2 : Vocabulary < 1,500 words avg/year (Fan Yi, 2007)
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    @anomiseditrix “Fossilised” Errors (Lightbown and Spada, 2006) What’s in this

    intermediate desert? Fossilisation Persistence of errors in learners’ speech despite progress in other areas of language development.
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    @anomiseditrix “Fossilised” Errors (Lightbown and Spada, 2006) What’s in this

    intermediate desert? tend not to affect the
 speaker’s being understood speaker may not be that
 consciously motivated
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    @anomiseditrix Which way is out of the desert? pushing through

    plateaus learning is NOT linear expectation management “On the other side of the plateaus” key goals
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    @anomiseditrix Pushing through the plateaus Which way is out of

    the desert? diminishing returns deliberate practice varied input connections and comfort zones
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    @anomiseditrix Language learning is NOT linear Which way is out

    of the desert? We don’t all learn our L1 
 the same way Do not expect your progress 
 to be linear Expect your progress to be micro-exponential
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    @anomiseditrix Identify your Key Goals Which way is out of

    the desert? Microhabits Microgoals Specific wants and needs
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    @anomiseditrix Manage your expectations Which way is out of the

    desert? Emotional Learning Inventory Clearly state your key goals Track your non-metric progress
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    @anomiseditrix Taking a look back receptive vs. active use 

    (Krashen, 1982) fluency vs. complexity gap vocabulary limits natural speech characterisation persistent “fossilised” errors
 (Richards, 2008)
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    @anomiseditrix References Council of Europe (2011). Common European Framework of

    Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment. Council of Europe.
 Krashen, S. D. 1982. Principles and practice in second language acquisition. London: Pergamon
 Kroll, Judith F, Erica Michael, Natasha Tokowicz, Robert Dufour (2002) The development of lexical fluency in a second language. Second Language Research, Volume: 18 issue: 2, page(s): 137-171.
 Lightbown, P. and Spada, N. (2006). How Languages Are Learned, 3rd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press
 Richards, Jack (2008). Moving Beyond the Plateau: From Intermediate to Advanced Levels in Language Learning. Cambridge English Research & Methodology Booklets. Schmidt, R. (1990). The role of consciousness in second language learning. Applied Linguistics, 11, 129–159. 
 Slobin, D. (1985). Cross-linguistic evidence for the language-making capacity. In D. Slobin (Ed.), The Cross Linguistic Study of Language Acquisition. Vol. 2. Theoretical Issues. Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum
 Swain, M. (1985). Communicative competence: some roles of comprehensible input and comprehensible output in its development. In S. Gass, and C. Madden (Eds), Input in Second Language Acquisition. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.
 Swain, M. (2000). The output hypothesis and beyond: Mediating acquisition through collaborative dialogue. In J. P. Lantolf (Ed.), Sociocultural Theory and Second Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press 
 VanPatten, W. (1993). Grammar teaching for the acquisition-rich classroom. Foreign Language Annals, 26(4), 435–450. 
 Yi, Fan (2007) Plateau of EFL Learning: A Psycholinguistic and Pedagogical Study. Available online at doi= (accessed December Feb 6, 2016)

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    @anomiseditrix Merci! Special thanks to my friends and colleagues who

    contributed ideas and supported me in making this, 
 in particular: Shed Works Games, @jah_fish, @nicohagenburger, @francescok, Dr. Judith Kroll, Dr. C. Ruecker, @vivien_leung, 
 @audreygrier, @atroyn, @glebmaltsev, @anafiki and the entire LangFest team and international polyglot community!