Tips for maintaining languages at an advanced level
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Olly: You know, one of the things I often ask myself, is if I could go back to my student days, how would I do things differently, and one of the things that I often think to myself is, would I choose to do something different at university itself, and as it happens, I did music, I studies jazz piano for four years.
But I often think how cool would it have been to do languages at university and to spend four years studying two or more languages and to get the chance to go and live in those countries as well. All right, it sounds so cool, and you learn them when you’re so young, and you get the rest of your life to learn more languages and so on, and I often think about that. And I am very envious of people I meet who are doing languages at uni. I often meet people at the Polyglot Pub actually, which is the event I run in London who are at uni and doing languages, and I am so envious of them.
So this question is a little bit related to that, comes from Eleanor, who has just done a degree in Spanish and is wondering how to keep it up. Before we get to her question I would like to thank the sponsors of the show who conveniently make it very, very easy for you to keep up multiple languages by offering tuition services in different languages wherever you are in the world, by ITalki, and you get a free lesson by going to www.Iwillteachyoualanguage.com/Freelesson, I highly recommend you do that. Now, let’s get to today’s question from Eleanor.
Question: Hola Olly, ¿qúe tal? Hi, my name is Eleanor from the USA. I was wondering what you think the role of studying should be in language maintenance.
So, just to give you some background, my specific situation is that I recently graduated from university with a degree in Spanish language and literature, as a result of which I was using my Spanish nearly every day for reading, writing and speaking, and largely in a classroom context.
I also have studied Korean in university courses and I would like to move to Korea to teach English soon, however I am also interested in learning some Mandarin Chinese right now, since my best friend in Chinese.
And I just wonder if – what you do to maintain your languages at an advanced level if they currently don’t play a role in your life, you continue to study, your vocabulary, or what you do with that. Thanks so much, love the podcasts.
Olly: Hey Eleanor, thank you for getting in touch, and thanks for leaving a message. It’s a great question and one we covered before, actually, in similar ways in Episode 47 which I now believe actually, if you scroll back in your iTunes feed, you can’t get that far back, it’s a restriction that iTunes places on podcasts for some crazy reason that I don’t understand.
You can find it on the blog though, all the previous episodes are on the blog, and Episode 47 was about how I maintained my level in multiple languages. So I think with this, with my answer here, and I am going to give it a particular spin, which is to your specific situation having just been through college, spent four years, I imagine, three or four years immersed in Spanish and now you kind of deciding to think okay what’s next.
And I can’t blame you, after four years of doing one language, yes, I bet you are ready for something else, and you are thinking about Chinese and Korean, which is super exiting and I highly recommend you go for it, because it will – it takes you to the other side of the world. It’s the start of a totally different adventure, one that I have followed myself, I went to Japan and spent three and a half years in Japan, learning Japanese, and I highly recommend it, so very excited for you to see what you are going to do with that.
The question is then, if you have learned a language to a high level, in your case Spanish, what do you do to maintain it after you leave?
So let’s start with a couple of quick definitions. What is the difference between learning and maintaining a language? Well for me, learning a language is when you are going through the process of learning the language, learning the basics, you learn the basic vocabulary, you are understanding grammar, you are building your confidence in the language. That starts at zero and goes on for quite some time.
Maintaining a language, for me, is what happens when you already speak it, you already use it, in meaningful situations, and you don’t want to lose the ability to do that.
Now, I am going to be very, very honest in this episode, because I have quite specific personal feelings about the need to learn and maintain languages. For me, I think probably because I never grew up with languages, I only started learning languages when I was 19, I don’t feel any particular attachment to a language in – as it relates to me as a person, so I have never had the desire to keep up my languages after they stop being useful or meaningful, or relevant to my day-to-day life.
So for example, Arabic, a couple of years ago I learned Arabic, I was living in Egypt, my Arabic got to a conversational level, it was quite fun, but then I left Egypt, went back to the UK, Arabic just stopped being a meaningful part of my life, and I have neither the time nor the inclination to spend a lot of time maintaining it, just for the sake of it.
It would be for the sake of pride if I spent a lot of my time maintaining Arabic, and I just try to be very realistic with myself and very honest with myself, and say hey, that’s just not at where my life is heading, I can’t see a need to use Arabic in the future, so let’s just move on. It’s been fun but it is time for something else.
Now I always find that there is a point at which you will lose a language if you stop speaking it, and a point where you will not lose it if you start, if you stop speaking it.
For me that is around about upper intermediate or B2 level. All of the languages of mine that I have got to an upper intermediate level, I managed to go for long stretches without ever really forgetting them, or even losing much of the level. I might lose a bit of sharpness, you know quick reflexes, maybe a bit of a sense of humour, or something that really kind of sharpness that you get, the real kind of sharpness that you get when you really learning, speaking a language consistently for a long time.
You might lose a bit of that sharpness but in general, the languages that I have got to that level, the B2 level, I don’t find that I forget them very much, providing that I use them to talk with people every now and again.
So, the case in point, to me, really is that my Spanish and Portuguese that I used for a long time, and then I moved to Japan and stopped and from about 2009 to 2015 or so, last year, I actually hardly spoke Spanish or Portuguese for that whole time, so for over six years, and yet I don’t feel that it affected my fluency at all. I have forgotten a few words here and there, but it doesn’t matter, I can still do it, I am still perfectly proficient in those languages.
Similarly with Japanese, I left – I was kind of at an okay-ish upper intermediate level in Japanese, left Japan, went to the Middle East, didn’t speak it for a few years, and now I use it very often in London socially, so because of that, the way that my life has worked out, is that the languages that I really care about, I speak well. Because I care about them and I speak them well, I tend to use them in my daily life. Not necessarily on a weekly or even monthly basis, but every now and again, fairly frequently, and so I don’t find that I forget them.
Now I do live in London which is a good place to be for languages, but I do also have genuine friends in those languages who I do speak to in those languages. So my life is kind of set up in a way where I use the languages I care about.
Now, it’s very difficult for me to say how that would apply for someone else. Now let’s take Eleanor, your situation is that you have an understanding, you speak very good Spanish, you have been studying it for years. Assuming that you have actually spoken a lot of Spanish and you are very comfortable speaking, which is not always the case for people who studied languages at university, a lot of people go to uni and they have a very good academic knowledge of the language but don’t necessarily speak it very well. I am going to assume, for the sake of this answer, that you do speak Spanish well and are very comfortable with it.
I wouldn’t be at all worried that you would forget it, as long as you use it every now and again, and you take the opportunity to have conversations with people when the opportunity arises, you won’t forget it. I really wouldn’t worry about that.
The time that I would be concerned, is if you feel you are not that confident speaking, and then you have to make that difficult decision. Now this is really what I wanted to talk about in this episode.
If you are someone who has learned a language to an okay level, but you are not quite over the edge, you are not quite over the hill yet, and you can’t really use it confidently, and you’re not very like, you don’t feel like you own it yet, you’re not quite comfortable in it.
If your situation changes, like in Eleanor’s case potentially moving to South Korea, you have got to be very honest with yourself about what is coming, because are you really going to move to a different country and then actively study the other language. Are you going to move to South Korea and actively study Spanish on a regular basis in order to keep it up, whilst also trying to forge a life for yourself in this new country.
If it were me, no way, I wouldn’t do it, that is why my Italian has kind of slipped, that is why my Arabic has slipped, because I just feel like if I move to a place, I am all in, in that place, I give it everything I’ve got. I don’t want to be stuck in Japan reading books, reading text books in Portuguese just for the sake of maintaining my level. I am just not like that, I am too reliant on my whims, I am too weak like that, it is just the way that I am.
So I think you have got to be realistic, if you feel that you really do, and you are passionate in maintaining or still improving the language, then the same rules apply. You simply have got to keep studying it and keep using it, as you did before, and so that’s – being honest with yourself in the short term really is going to save yourself a lot of heartache in the long term.
And I know people who have agonised for years over these questions of like, “Oh I have – the sum cost fallacy, oh I have put years into learning this language, so I have to spend the rest of my life doing just the same thing.”
That is debatable, you know, I don’t know. Let’s say, Eleanor, that you are going to move to South Korea, and let’s say you put your Spanish on hold for say five years, let’s be really pessimistic. Let’s say your Spanish goes on hold for five years, and then you move back to the States, you are not going to lose that much, you’re really not, you’re going to come back and after a few weeks of conversations with locals, Spanish people, you are going to be back, like languages stay in your brain once they have got to a certain level.
But more to the point, that kind of scenario is much more complicated, it makes much more sense for your life. When you do get back to the States, and you get back to Spanish, I think that you will do so with a renewed sense of interest and passion for it, because it is something new, you know, you are coming back. That, for me, is what gives me energy.
Now, let’s take a more positive approach, and let’s say you are moving abroad, you want to maintain the language, you love the language and so you are looking for ways to maintain it. Here are the kind of things that I do do myself to maintain these languages that I am passionate about.
First of all, read books in the language, so take – think about, I always say, think about what kind of books you read in English, and read them in Spanish or whatever language; so read books for pleasure.
Next, do the obvious thing, of watching movies, watching TV, listening to podcasts, you know, again if you base it around your interests it will be fine.
Go to events, so if you go to somewhere like Korea, for example, look for the local Instituto Cervantes, it is the local Spanish Institute. Look for Spanish events, cultural events, and go to those, attend those, get out, go to things, get yourself out of the house and put events in your schedule. Meet friends, use websites like www.conversationexchange.com, www.mylanguageexchange.com, www.meetup.com, find people who speak the language and hang out with them.
A few more, kind of ninja tricks, if you like, I quite like studying other things in a language, so I would often look at MOOCs or other courses in Spanish for example, because it is a great way to learn something else using that language that I am trying to maintain.
I often do language exchanges where the language that I am exchanging is a foreign language for me, so because my Spanish is quite good, I would often do a language exchange with someone who wants to learn Spanish, so I will speak to them in Spanish and they will teach me their language, Cantonese or whatever; quite a good way to keep practicing it.
And lastly, which is kind of related to this language exchange thing, look for opportunities to teach that language. That doesn’t have to be formally, it can be informally, either through private tutoring or through a language exchange arrangement or something like that.
But when you have to teach a language, then you really up your game. I am doing that right now with the Fluent Spanish Academy, which is a Spanish community that I run. Because I am in a position now where I have to teach Spanish, it really makes me concentrate and focus and think about the language, and I am improving my Spanish as a result, really refining difficult concepts and things like that, because I have to convey those.
So those are lots of ideas there, lots of practical things that you can do. I am going to put a list of all of these in the show notes which will be at www.Iwillteachyoualanguage.com/Episode164.
Now, in my Language Learning Foundations course, I have an interview with a good friend of mine, Richard Simcott, who is a language genius and speaks – a large number of languages, let’s just say that, and when we have delivered workshops together before, he often talks about his approach to this, and in the interview that is included in the Language Learning Foundations course, he talks about his approach, which is very different to mine, but what he says is that he has a system of really using every available minute of his day to consume content in different languages.
So as he is eating lunch he will watch a YouTube video in Armenian or something, and as he is doing the ironing he will listen to a podcast in Spanish, and as he is walking his daughter to school he will sing her a song in Macedonian or something like that. Like he is very, very devoted, Richard, far more than me, and he really just, he uses all these little opportunities, pieces of dead time, to get exposure to the languages that he wants to maintain.
That’s a level of commitment that I can’t personally do, I find myself I am too scatter-brained for that, but if you are someone that is more like Richard in that sense, and that might work out really well, you know, it speaks to the point of if you want to maintain the language you have got to do stuff with the language as much as possible.
All right, so we are going to put a link to all these ideas in the Show Notes, a link to the courses I’ve mentioned, and the tips and websites and all those things as well. If you would like to ask me a question, please go to www.Iwillteachyoualanguage.com/Ask in order to do that.
Now at the end of every episode I like to leave you a resource of something at the top of the show, and you know I did a little bit of searching on the internet, and there is not much out there written on this topic, and so, I am going to give you three things to do, if you would like to find out more about this.
First of all, go back and check out Episode 47 of the podcast, because that is on this kind of topic.
The second thing is, you might be interested in my Language Learning Foundations course, which is basically it is the course where I show you my method for learning languages, but there are bonus interviews and things in there, including the interview with Richard that I mentioned, as well as a ton of other interesting master-classes as well. I will put a link to that in the Show Notes.
And lastly, there is a blogpost I have, where I put some videos of me speaking different languages, so you actually see me speaking to all these languages that I speak on video, and that, along with each of those videos, I kind of give a bit of a commentary about how I learned it. So it might just give you a little bit more of an idea about how learning and maintaining multiple languages actually can fit into one’s life and one’s lifestyle. I’ll put a link to all of those in the Show Notes, along with the complete transcripts to this episode as well, which you can find at www.Iwillteachyoualanguage.com/Episode164.
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