Going from Intermediate Level to Advanced in a Language

You want to overcome the intermediate plateau so common in language studies? Why this wall between intermediate and advanced language study exists and what to do to overcome it!

This article is about how to go from intermediate to advanced language

I. Introduction

Now, let’s address the crux of the matter. Progressing from intermediate to advanced language proficiency presents a significant hurdle, and numerous individuals find themselves stagnant at this stage. This is why it’s commonly referred to as the intermediate plateau, which can be quite demoralizing.

Kungfucius is your sherpa to guide you through this tough time! 

The journey from intermediate to advanced language proficiency can be both challenging and rewarding. As language learners, we often find ourselves stuck at the intermediate level, struggling to bridge the gap between being understood in basic conversations and engaging with native speakers on a deeper level. This article aims to provide insights, tips, and strategies to help you push through the intermediate plateau and reach advanced proficiency in your target language.

II. Overcoming the Intermediate Plateau

The intermediate plateau is a phenomenon many language learners experience. It occurs when progress seems to slow down, and learners find it difficult to continue advancing their skills. To overcome this plateau, it’s crucial to maintain motivation, set realistic goals, and employ effective learning strategies, such as immersing yourself in the target language, finding a language exchange partner, or taking advanced language classes.

“Many language youtubers are stuck in the intermediate plateau, but they overpaint it with increased fluency and speed of expression. It is still the intermediate plateau! The first point in overcoming it is realizing it.”


III. Fluency vs. Intermediate Language

Fluency is often described as the ability to communicate effortlessly and accurately in the target language. In contrast, intermediate language proficiency is characterized by the ability to handle simple conversations but struggling with complex topics or nuances in the language. The distinction between fluency and intermediate proficiency depends on the learner’s goals and the specific contexts they wish to use the language. It is clearly not the opposite. An intermediate language student can be fluent as well as mentioned above. In this Youtube Video, Oriental Pearl exposes fake language youtubers, that rely on fluency and video editing to create the image of a language expert

Matt vs. Japan called it the fluency illusion! Kungfucius thinks the same.

IV. What Demotivates Intermediate Language Students

Intermediate language students may face various struggles that can lead to demotivation. Whereas motivation helps proper a student’s desire and increases a student’s focus on language learning, demotivation is usually seen as clear distinguishable external factors that make language learning less desirable. Hence, it is not just the absence of motivation. 

In terms of the intermediate plateau or the intermediate language gap, both absence of genuine additional motivation and presence of demotivating external factors play a role. 

Common challenges include feeling overwhelmed by the complexity of the language, lack of progress, or difficulties in finding suitable learning materials. Most of all, many situations can be navigated almost as well by beginners which seem to make the extra effort of the last 100 or 300 hours almost seem a waste of time and effort. At the same time, the gap towards advanced language proficiency still seems very wide. 

Besides, think about other external factors. Like social isolation when you make the transition to a full immersion learning environment. 

The WOW Factor 

Let’s talk about the WOW-Factor. In a world that is dominated by social media like TikTok, Insta and Youtube, the most clicked language related videos are wow-Factor videos. “Girl shocks everybody by speaking Swahili” and similar videos. The point is: These “wow” reactions in China are inflated. In the 1990s it was enough to say NiHao to get a wow, and in the 2020s beginners can still impress native Chinese speakers and even more Chinese learners showing some beginner level fluency and skills. 

The demotivation follows at the intermediate level: You still get the same “wow” from random people like beginners that have nowhere near your skills and at the same time you can’t engage in the meaningful conversations that happen among native speakers. So especially in China, the wow-factor and the negative affects on intermediate level language learners are a problem.  

V. What are the specific barriers moving from Intermediate to Advanced in Chinese or Japanese


One of the primary challenges faced by intermediate Chinese learners attempting to advance their language skills is the complexity of the writing system. The Chinese language has thousands of characters, each with its own unique meaning and pronunciation. As learners progress, they will need to memorize and recognize an increasing number of characters, which can be daunting. Going from a beginner 300 characters to 1000 characters is a major step in terms of effort, but still not sufficient to read a book or newspaper. 

Additionally, written Chinese encompasses a variety of writing styles, including formal, colloquial, and classical, each with its own set of rules and vocabulary. Mastering these diverse writing styles is crucial for advanced Chinese proficiency.

Another significant barrier is the regional variations in pronunciation of Chinese. China is a vast country with numerous dialects and accents, which can pose a challenge to learners striving to improve their listening and speaking skills. The same standard Chinese is pronounced differently in Beijing, Harbin, Shanghai, Sichuan, Guangzhou, Taipei and Singapore. These differences are rather small and very simple to distinguish and understand for native speakers, but for non-native speakers, these small differences can be major challenges especially as Chinese is a language that relies on very few syllables. Most common Chinese words use just about 1200 syllables, while about 4000-6000 are used in European languages like German, French and English. 

Overall, Chinese and related languages like Vietnamese are quite complex and mathematically distinguishable from European languages as Yoon Mi OH showed.

Have a look at what Kungfucius thinks about learning Vietnamese or Chinese.

The tonal nature of the Chinese language further complicates matters, as slight differences in pronunciation can change the meaning of a word entirely. To overcome these obstacles, learners must invest time and effort in understanding the nuances of regional accents and mastering the tonal system. But more importantly to master the context. Given the different pronunciations in different areas, knowledge of tones is not sufficient to gain a deeper understanding. Plus: It is difficult to use dictionaries if it is not clear which word you just heard. 

At an advanced level, knowledge of idioms becomes important. Kungfucius clearly argued against learning Chengyus, but for real advanced knowledge, you might need to master at least the most common 100 idioms and chengyus. 


In the case of Japanese, one of the main challenges for intermediate learners is navigating the intricacies of the language’s politeness levels. Japanese has multiple levels of politeness, each with its own distinct grammar rules and vocabulary. The appropriate level of politeness must be used depending on the social context and the relationship between the speaker and listener. This adds a layer of complexity that can be difficult for learners to grasp and apply in real-life situations.

Another hurdle in advancing one’s Japanese skills is the writing system. Similar to Chinese, Japanese has a complex writing system that combines three different scripts: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. While hiragana and katakana are syllabic scripts with a limited number of characters, kanji is a logographic script borrowed from Chinese, consisting of thousands of characters. Mastering kanji is essential for advanced reading and writing proficiency in Japanese.

Additional challenges faced by intermediate Japanese learners include the extensive use of honorifics, idiomatic expressions, and the subtle differences between similar-sounding words. To overcome these barriers, learners must immerse themselves in the language, practice regularly, and engage with native speakers to gain a deeper understanding of the language’s complexities.

In conclusion, both Chinese and Japanese present unique challenges for intermediate learners attempting to advance their language skills. By recognizing these barriers and working diligently to overcome them, learners can successfully transition from intermediate to advanced proficiency, unlocking a world of opportunities for communication and cultural understanding.

VI. What are the 5 Levels of Language Proficiency (ILR)

The Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) scale is a widely-accepted measure of language proficiency, consisting of five levels: Elementary, Limited Working, Professional, Full Professional, and Native or Bilingual. Intermediate proficiency falls within the Limited Working and Professional levels, where learners can handle routine social and work situations but may struggle with more complex language tasks.

Kungfucius thinks this is not entirely clear to really understand the intermediate plateau. More about this later.

VII. What are the Four Domains of Language Proficiency

The four domains of language proficiency are Listening, Speaking, Reading, and Writing. To achieve advanced proficiency, learners should develop balanced skills across all domains, employing strategies such as listening to native speakers, participating in conversations, reading authentic texts, and practicing writing in various contexts. 

Advanced language skills means that you are well versed in all four domains. At least in a way to participate in daily life similar to a native speaker. That creates a special case for Chinese: It is ok if you can’t handwrite! There are more and more Chinese that partially forget this skill after a while and they are still perfectly integrated into the labor force. In a modern world, it is enough to be able to write using a computer or smartphone. That is true for many languages but really makes a difference in Chinese and partly Japanese! So, you can take that shortcut to not be able to handwrite Chinese, but if you really want to reach a C1/C2 level or in China a HSK5/HSK6 level that opens up academic and professional life for you, you have to be able to read! 

VIII. What are the 6 CEFR Levels of Language Proficiency and What Counts as Intermediate

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) is another widely-used measure of language proficiency, consisting of six levels: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, and C2. Intermediate proficiency falls within the A2, B1 and B2 levels, where learners can handle most situations encountered while traveling and discuss familiar topics but may struggle with more abstract or specialized language. 

In terms of European languages, B2 might already allow you to engage in conversations that take place among native speakers. Yet, many issues are outside the reference framework.

The most significant wall that exists is between conversations engaging language learners and natural conversations in natural speed among native speakers. The difficulty is a mix of the following: 

  1. Speed of speech: native speakers often speak much faster among themselves. 
  2. Abbreviations: extensive use of abbreviations. 
  3. Slang: This is a major aspect. Intermediate students might have relied mostly on classroom and traditional resources. That makes it difficult if you are not well versed in current language usage. That goes from “un mec” in French to all kind of emojis and numbers. Very simple, intermediate level test. What does the Chinese “520” mean in English? And what does the English “420” mean?  
  4. Interruptions and complexity. A conversation among native speakers is often characterized by many interruptions. Especially among friends after having some beers…
  5. Use of specialized, domain specific vocabulary and the quick switch of topics. In a friendly conversation a topic might jump from makeup tips, to how to chose the best school to new mobile phones.

In terms of Chinese, the intermediate plateau starts somewhere around HSK3 that is already a bit more advanced compared to beginner level Chinese but still very limited. From there, it is an uphill battle. Still, HSK5 or even HSK6 alone is not sufficient to reach the advanced level you need to be really effective. You have to complement it with knowledge of slang, accents and practice listening to material outside the classroom. 

Find more tips on how to ace HSK exams here.

IX. Bridging the Gap from Intermediate to Advanced Language Proficiency

Engaging with native speakers in native-like interactions is crucial for transitioning from intermediate to advanced proficiency. This allows learners to improve their listening and speaking skills, understand cultural nuances, and become more comfortable participating in conversations with native speakers. 

Advanced proficiency opens up new opportunities and connections, enabling learners to expand their social and professional networks in the target language. The main step is really to start engaging with predominantly target-language speaking friends and colleagues. And engaging with them in meaningful conversations. This will create an advanced-language acquisition flywheel that will propel your own language level forward. 

On the way, you have to prioritize content that is targeting native speakers instead of school content and engage with native speakers in a helpful way. 

For the first strategy, use Youtube as much as possible and listen to resources that are targeting other native speakers instead of language learners. In addition, complement this with newspapers, books, and TV series. 

In terms of engaging with native speakers: Go to language exchange meetups. For example via couchsurfing, meetup.com or similar apps. Besides, there are many language exchange groups on Facebook. You can also have a look at italki for a tutor to help you engage in conversations until you bridge the initial gap and start having friends with whom you engage in meaningful conversations in their native language and your target language. 

At the same time, you can continue with typical language learning apps and resources to finesse your language skills. Find a list of apps and review of apps for Chinese learning here.

Having a strong, intermediate foundation on the target language allows you to step into a full immersion language training that will not have you completely isolated. Hence, after having an initial, maybe 100-500 hour training, you are ready for such an intense practice. 

Find some of the best places and schools to study Chinese here. 

In this list, we introduce some of the best places and schools to study Japanese. (to be updated)

And if that is not enough, find this review of the best places to study Vietnamese! (to be updated)

X. Conclusion

Moving from intermediate to advanced is a major step in language learning. The difference of these levels is not in fluency but in the ability to engage with a group of native speakers in a meaningful conversation that is driven by native speakers. It is also about consuming and understanding material made for native speakers ranging from Youtube to newspapers. 

Achieving advanced language proficiency is a rewarding experience that can open doors to new cultural experiences, friendships, and professional opportunities. It allows learners to engage in meaningful conversations with native speakers, understand complex texts, and fully immerse themselves in the language and culture of their target language. Overcoming the intermediate plateau and transitioning from intermediate to advanced proficiency is indeed challenging, but the benefits gained make the journey worthwhile.

Obviously, it doesn’t mean you understand everything. But you will not interrupt the flow of conversation, you will not press stop on a video or look up too many vocabulary in a newspaper article, but just understand due to context and might look things up later on. This will open up a new, much faster learning trajectory! 

To successfully navigate this linguistic journey, learners must be persistent, patient, and dedicated to their studies. 

Seek out resources, engage with native speakers, and immerse themselves in the language as much as possible. It is not just time and effort. By confronting the unique challenges presented by languages like Chinese and Japanese and investing the necessary time and effort, you can break through the intermediate plateau. But this requires first and foremost a switch and prioritization from classroom material to material that is focussed on native speakers! 

That is the necessary step you have to take and the jump into the deep end to achieve the advanced language proficiency you desire. Make sure you know about demotivating factors. This can range from bad sleep to food to too much stress. Try to address these points as much as possible.

One thing for sure! Accomplishing advanced language knowledge will enrich your life! It enhances your global understanding and intercultural communication skills, ultimately making the world a more connected and diverse place and making the world your oyster!