Speaking English fluently: Breaking the intermediate plateau

Are you stuck at the intermediate level, feeling overwhelmed and frustrated, and not sure how to make progress? Are you over-complicating things, hopping from one English learning resource to the next and getting nowhere? Are you tired of not feeling fluent?

Feelings like these at the intermediate stage are very common. They lead to frustration, and learners often end up over-complicating things and getting even more frustrated. At worst, they give up.

language learning mastery curve
Getting stuck in your language learning is normal. But it still doesn’t feel good.

Improving your English fluency past the intermediate level doesn’t have to be complicated. It doesn’t have to be frustrating and overwhelming. You can do it on your own, even without a class or a teacher.

Try this simple 6-step system for one week. Look at it as a 7-day experiment. You are going to test something new and see how it works.

If you commit to the process and put in consistent effort for 7 days, you will be amazed at how much your fluency improves.

But even better than that, you will have learned a simple and effective system you can use to keep improving your English for as long as you want.

This is “teach a man to fish” turbocharged.

Your 7-day English fluency goal

Your goal is simple:

To be able to speak fluently* about a specific topic for at least 90 seconds.

For the next 7 days, you will work exclusively toward mastering this specific task.

S.T.A.R.T.R — a 6-step English fluency system

I’ve broken the fluency-building process down into 6 steps. It’s even got an easy-to-remember acronym: S.T.A.R.T.R. It’s pronounced “STARTER. The letters stand for Select, Test, Analyze, Research, Train, Repeat.

How to use the S.T.A.R.T.R English fluency system

Choose a topic that excites you
Your topic should make your feel like this.
1. SELECT an interesting topic
Choose a topic that feels interesting and exciting. It should be something that you can look forward to working on for the coming week. It makes no sense to choose something you would never need to talk about, or something that bores you. Can you feel excited about it for a week of study? If yes, then it’s a good topic.

2. TEST your current fluency
What is your starting point? It’s time to find out. Do a self-test before you study or prepare anything. This is so you’ll have an audio snapshot of where you are right now with your fluency.

Record yourself talking about your topic in as much detail as you can for at least 90 seconds. Recording yourself is crucial. You will record yourself again at the end of the week for comparison. Hearing real evidence of your progress is a great motivator!

Note: Even if conversational English fluency is your goal, you don’t need to have a real conversation with another person for this test. It’s perfectly OK to talk to yourself. Just imagine you’re talking to a friend.

3. ANALYZE your language gaps
The self-test in step two shows you what you’re missing. It might be vocabulary. Maybe it’s grammar or pronunciation. If you’re like most intermediate learners, it will be a combination.

Write down the things you need to learn to be able to speak more fluently about your topic.

Be as detailed and specific as possible. It’s perfectly OK to write these notes in your own language. Seriously. You can’t write down English vocabulary words that you don’t know yet, but you can write them in your own language and translate them later. Just get it all down on paper.

This will be your road map for moving forward.

become a mad language scientist
Unleash the mad scientist within
4. RESEARCH the language you need
You’ve identified what you’re missing. Now you need to fill those gaps! It’s time to put your scientist hat on and do some research. Here are some examples of what you can do:

  1. Look up the vocabulary that you need, and get it into some kind of review system (Anki, Quizlet, etc — whatever you like) so you can really LEARN it.
  2. Identify, learn, and master at least one key grammatical pattern that is causing you trouble.
  3. Find out how to pronounce language that is difficult for you, and organize it so you can practice it

You can do this research for free (Google is your friend). There are countless free resources available online.

I love free resources as much as anyone, but relying on “free” has its drawbacks. It costs a lot of time and energy to search for, collect, and organize all the information you need. It’s much more efficient to book a few lessons with a tutor or teacher on a language learning site like italki. Getting qualified help to fill your English learning gaps can save you a ton of time and energy.

5. TRAIN your brain
Training your brain to do new things is the most important step, and where you should spend most of your time for the week.

When you’ve done your research, start practicing your new language. Practice it until you master it. Get your language-learning hands dirty and really dig into the messy details. This is not a time to settle for “good enough.” This is a time to really push yourself toward the brain-melt zone.

This kind of focused, purposeful practice is called “deliberate practice.” It’s a tough workout for your brain, but it gives BIG results.

You’re trying to make difficult things feel easier, so you can expect it to feel challenging. It’s just one week. You can do it.

speech mri
Speaking involves a lot of moving parts that have to work in concert
A practical example
For example, let’s say that your test and analysis show you that pronunciation or other speaking mechanics is your biggest problem. You know what you need to say, but your mouth just won’t cooperate. It’s not so strange if you think about it; depending on who you ask, there are 70-100 muscles involved in speaking. Those muscles need exercise just like any other muscles!

Looping tiny sections of a model audio file and doing “listen-and-repeat” practice can really help your pronunciation. You’re training those speech muscles to lift the heavy weight of a new language.

During your research phase, write short text or dialog about your topic and ask a native speaker to record it for you. You can do this for free on Rhinospike.com. A professional teacher, tutor, or free language partner can also do this for you. You might also need to find a good looping audio player and learn to use it during your research phase. (Speater, AB player, etc.).

With your model text and audio looping skills ready to go, use your training phase mainly for intense, listen-and-repeat or shadowing practice with your audio. Try to match the sounds you hear perfectly. Focus on improving the pronunciation weaknesses you’ve identified. If you have LOTS of them, pick whatever you feel is causing you the most trouble and work on that.

6. REPEAT the process
After a week of research and brain training with deliberate practice, it’s time to check your results. REPEAT the same test task that you did in step 2: record yourself talking about your topic for at least 90 seconds. Then compare this to your original recording.

How did you do?

celebrate your success
Make sure to celebrate your success!
If you were consistent and put in a solid effort during the 7 days, you should notice a huge improvement. It’s OK to enjoy feeling like a badass at this point. In fact, I encourage it. You’ve earned it! High fives!

Of course, your progress will depend on the amount of time and effort you put in. If you don’t have (or make!) much time for your English learning, your results will reflect that.

However, not having a lot of time doesn’t mean you should do nothing. No matter how much time you have, the basics of the 6 steps are the same. Even putting in 5-10 minutes of quality effort per day can make a noticeable difference if you do it consistently.

What’s the next step?

After your first 7-day experiment you evaluate your progress and plan what to do next. If you want to keep working on the same topic, repeat from step three with a new analysis. If you are satisfied with your progress, you can go back to step one and choose a new topic.

I love this method because it’s simple, it’s flexible, and it gives you relevant language that you can actually use. It is a process, a system, that will take you where you want to go if you follow it consistently.

Fluency is a feeling – and it feels AWESOME.
In the real world of you and your unique experience, fluency is a feeling, not a score on a test or a certificate from a course. If it’s a struggle for you to talk fluently for a couple of minutes about the things that are important to you, then you will never feel fluent.

When you can successfully talk about your personally important stuff, at length, without too much effort, that’s when you’ll enjoy the sweet feeling of fluency.

Harness the power of self-directed learning. Focus on one personally-relevant thing at a time and master it. Lather, rinse, and repeat until fluency. Be an action-taking S.T.A.R.T.R.

It doesn’t have to be more complicated than that.