How I maintain languages!

If you follow me on social media or YouTube then you’ve probably already noticed that I’ve recently been jumping between quite a few languages and that I haven’t really stuck to a language for more than two months in a while. Why is that?

I honestly just get bored from time to time and want to see what else is out there. Yes, I’m still talking about languages. This post isn’t going to be about relationships and commitment issues…. it’s going to be about LANGUAGES and commitment issues! YAY!

My motto is that language learning should be fun, so when a language gets boring I drop it and move on to a language that interests me more. I don’t learn languages for professional reasons, so I have the luxury to do this. Unfortunately, not everybody has the luxury to do so. If you’ve just moved to Canada from Japan, you’ll have to learn English or French if you want to communicate with most people. Fun isn’t necessarily part of the equation. Anyway, that’s beside the point.

You’re probably here because you want to me to tell you about how I maintain languages because they must whither away if I jump between languages so often, right? Here’s the disappointing answer that you probably weren’t expecting. I don’t really put that much work into maintenance. I really should, but I don’t really invest that much time. “What?” You’re probably asking yourself. “You don’t maintain the languages you speak?” These are normal questions, but allow me to elaborate a bit more!

The critical level

If you learn a language to an upper intermediate level, then you can probably drop it for a while without forgetting too much. You could probably start learning an entirely different language without much interference! You could even use the acquired language as a source for learning more languages. The language is now in your long time memory. It takes a long time for things to fade from your long term memory…well other than my home phone number during a nervous job interview a couple years ago… but that’s irrelevant. Anyway, some scientists even now claim that you actually don’t ever forget anything that enters your long term memory, you’re just unable to actively retrieve the information. They argue that the information is still there, but as long as you’re unable access it, it’s pretty much useless. With the correct prompting the information can, however be retrieved. So to summarize, I try to learn languages to an upper intermediate level because then I don’t have to spend as much time actively maintaining them. This is what I’ve done with German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan, Mandarin Chinese and to a lesser extent Italian and Dutch and to and even lesser extent Danish. I hardly get to use most of these languages in my day to day life, but because of the level I’ve reached in most of them, I’m able to maintain them without too much effort.

Conversely, Turkish, Korean, Hebrew, Swedish, Russian and many others are all languages that I dropped early on. I never reached the aforementioned critical upper intermediate level in any of these languages, so I forgot most of them pretty quickly. Yes, it would be pretty easy to pick up where I left off, but without active study, I can’t reawaken the neural networks.

Languages are like children

This may sound a little bit dark, but I feel like this may make all of this make a little bit more sense if it still doesn’t. Languages are like children in the sense that children can’t fend for themselves. They rely on their parents until they reach adulthood and are ready to move out. If you’re tired of changing your baby’s diapers and pack its bags and tell it that it needs to move out, it wouldn’t know what to do or how to fend for itself, but conversely, if you tell your 32 year old son and daughter that you want them to move out, they’d be able to fend for themselves and would honestly most likely be fine. It’s the exact same thing with languages: If you drop the language before you reach a certain level, you’ll end up forgetting most of it because it can’t fend for itself in the treacherous territory we call the human brain.

What do I do once I’ve reached the critical level?

Once I’ve reached the critical level, I tend to just watch videos or series in the language, talk to people and read. The language is ingrained in my mind at this point and my only real goal is to enjoy myself through the language and also to slow down the forgetting process. This may sound fun, and it mostly is, but if you speak more than five languages, it can be hard to get input or exposure to every language every single day. It honestly is possible, but you might have to forgo sunlight and social activities while you invest all your time into getting sufficient input.

If you’re a busy person that doesn’t have the time to stay home and study all day, then you will have to just accept the fact that many of your languages will simply go dormant. This is a completely natural phenomenon and shouldn’t cause you to worry and let me explain why.

The Sleeping beauty analogy

How many of you have seen Disney’s sleeping beauty? I haven’t… Come to think of it, I haven’t seen Harry Potter or Game of Thrones either… Alright, I’m fully aware that 97% of my readers just stopped reading right there, but if you’re still reading, bare with me. Although, I haven’t seen the movie, I’m slightly aware of how the story goes. The princess lies in a dormant state until she is awakened by the prince. Although, she was dormant, she was still there in the castle and was still alive… probably not in the healthiest of states due to the lack of food and water over a long period of time, but the important thing is that she was alive and after the prince awakened her, she was able to return to regular life and live happily ever after.

The same goes for dormant languages. If you don’t speak Italian for a long period of time, you’ll probably notice that you’ve gotten very rusty the next time you try to speak it and that will probably annoy you. It seems like all your hard work was for nothing and like you’re struggling with concepts that you once had no problem with. This happens to me all the time, but once I expose myself to the language a bit more frequently or I just force myself to speak it with somebody, it eventually comes back. Sometimes it comes back quickly and sometimes it takes longer. You just have to stimulate your mind a little bit to make the language go from dormant to primed and active. The stimulation is analogous to the Prince’s kiss.

There are two ways that I reactivate dormant languages.

    1. If I know that I’ll be using a specific language on a specific date, then I’ll generally start listening to music in the language, watching videos and just exposing myself to it as much a possible for two or three days leading up to the date. I used this technique with German to prepare for the short Radio interview that I was invited to participate in earlier this week
  1. If I’m caught unprepared which happens quite a lot, I accept my fate, explain to the person I’m talking to that I haven’t used the language in a while and then try to just push through the brain fog. I find that everything gets easier and the language generally reactivates after about 15 minutes to an hour. A friend of mine and I decided to Skype and catch up in Catalan a couple weeks ago and I struggled immensely for the first 30 minutes because I hadn’t spoken Catalan in weeks if not months leading up to that point and didn’t have the time to prepare. After the 30 minutes had passed I noticed that I wasn’t struggling as much any more and the language seemed to be flowing a lot more and we ended up talking for a couple hours.

Forgetting is the human thing to do!

Forgetting is human, so don’t beat yourself up when you forget things. I forget, you forget, Albert Einstein forgot too (And look at what he accomplished!) It’s very human. I know it can be very stressful when we feel like our hard work has faded away, but always remember that it’s natural and that with a little bit of revision and stimulation, most, if not all of it will come back. Most of the languages I speak are dormant at any given time. I’ll listen to music or watch videos in a few each day or if i’m lucky, I’ll actually get to actively use one, but most of them unfortunately get neglected and go dormant and although I wish I could use them all every day and always have them primed and ready to go, I can’t and I accept that. I guess a good analogy for all of this would be how we feel when we take our bikes out after a long, snowy Canadian winter and find that we’re a bit wobbly and that our legs get sore a lot faster than they did the previous summer. The wobbliness will probably fade within a couple minutes and the leg strength will probably come back after a couple rides. The skill was never forgotten, it was just dormant during the winter.

In summary

So, to sum everything up, I actively study hard to try and get the language to an upper intermediate level. The time it takes to reach that level varies depending on the language. Once I’ve reached that level, I expose myself to the language passively through normal activities such as watching videos and Netflix  series, reading, listening to music and talking to native speakers when I’m lucky.

I accept that most of my languages will go dormant without constant use and prime them when I know I’m going to be using them.


This picture was taken Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

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