Unlocking the Riddle of Language Maintenance

Reading at Sacré Coeur

Reading at Sacré Coeur

Language maintenance is not an issue for everyone. If your spouse speaks your target language, for example, or you live in a country that speaks your target language, you likely won’t spend a lot of time thinking about how to maintain your language skills. However, most people don’t find that their newfound language skills integrate smoothly into their everyday life – and they worry that their language ability will slip away with time.

This problem is particularly acute for people like me who speak more than one foreign language but who live in their native country.

I wish I could say that this is a problem I’ve solved completely, but it’s not. It is a problem I have struggled with over the years – and seen other people struggle with as well. I’m going to share some of my techniques for language maintenance. It’s not really that complicated, though. You need to continue interacting with the language, and the more actively you interact, the better. So the question is not really what you need to do: The question is how.

Use your language at work

If you can find a way to use your target language at work, you’ll have a much easier time maintaining it, because most of us spend an awful lot of time at work. How easy it is to integrate your target language into your work depends a lot on what your profession is and what your target language is. It also depends, to a certain extent, on where you live.

When I lived in New York City, I worked as a foreign-language tour guide, giving tours of the city in Spanish, Russian and German. This was an excellent way to maintain my language skills, because I spoke and interacted with people in these languages on a regular basis. In my experience, speaking skills are the most difficult to maintain, because you need to have someone to speak with. Speaking fluently also doesn’t allow you to stop to think about a word, which is what happens to me if I don’t speak the language often (reading, for example, doesn’t dramatically help my speaking fluency).

Of course, if you can only integrate reading in a foreign language into your work, not speaking, that is still better than nothing. Which brings me to the second point.

Read For Pleasure

If you can’t practice the language at work, obviously you’ll need to find ways to integrate it into your spare time. Reading in your target language – for pleasure, of course – is an excellent way to do this, especially if you really like to read, like I do. While reading doesn’t give you as much high quality practice as speaking with people, it’s a lot better than nothing and will continue building your vocabulary.

Watch TV / Movies

Television and movies can be a major part of any learning strategy, and they are also an effective way to maintain your language ability. Although with movies and TV you’re practicing listening, not reading, they share a problem with reading: You don’t have to produce the language at all.

Find Opportunities to Socialize

If you can find friends who live in your area who are native speakers of your target language, you should hang out with them as much as possible. It will both improve and maintain your language level, and won’t feel like a chore.

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Even if you read in your target language, watch TV, socialize in your target language and even use your target language at work, you will likely lose some fluency, especially if you aren’t actively studying anymore or if you are returning from being abroad. This might be unavoidable, and it even happens to people in their native language. I remember my German teacher in high school mentioning that she forgot words in German (she was Austrian, so German was her native language) because she wasn’t in a German-speaking environment. There were also words she didn’t know in German because she never encountered them when she lived in Austria. She did not know, for example, how to say “faculty meeting” in German.

Regardless, if you go from actively focusing on improving your language skills to “maintenance mode,” you’ll likely see a slight drop-off in your fluency. That’s ok.

For long-term language maintenance, I think this last step is probably the most important:

Commit to Periodic, Intensive Study

The best way to maintain your target language is to accept that it will periodically slip, but to commit to a periodic, intensive effort to revitalize it and to improve your skills. I find that a month is enough time for me to both feel like my language skills are back to their peak and even to improve a little bit. These efforts are most effective if they’re done in a total immersion environment, but even committing to a month of intensive work at home can do a lot for your language ability.