The more languages we learn, the more difficult it can become to devote enough attention to these languages to maintain them. What if we lose these languages, forget them? This is sometimes referred to as language attrition. What can be done to avoid language attrition?
Even people who’ve only learned one foreign language may lack the opportunity to use it, and therefore may well worry about how to maintain or improve those language skills. For people who have learned more than one language, it can be an even bigger problem. In studying my 18th language, Arabic, I am of course not in a position to work on languages that I already studied. Do I forget them? I don’t think I do, but I am aware of slipping in them.
Can We Maintain Our Level in a Language?
The last time I visited Berlin some while ago, I was very conscious of the deficiencies of my German. Yes my German friends insisted that I was doing just fine. So to some extent we tend to be sensitive to our own shortcomings, whereas other people, especially native speakers listening to us, are more inclined to give us credit for what we can do. They’re less aware of the fact that we’re frustrated because we can’t do as well as we would like to do. To some extent we are too hard on ourselves. Often we struggle at first but with a little interaction regain the level we had before. To a large extent how well we do depends on how well we know a particular language.
In my own case, with French and Japanese, I can turn them on whenever I want and I really don’t miss a beat. That’s because I lived in France for three years and Japan for nine years. There’s absolutely no question that the more you have spoken a language, the better you can speak it. I say this again and again, even though I am a proponent of input-based learning. You need to build up your vocabulary and comprehension, which provides you with the base you need, the potential to speak well. In order to speak well, you ultimately have to speak a lot but without this base, you can’t engage in enough meaningful conversations to really bring your language skills up to comfortable fluency. Once you do achieve comfortable fluency you are less likely to experience much slippage in your skills.
The other language I can probably turn on, although I am aware of slipping in the language, is Mandarin Chinese, a language I’ve spoken a lot of over the years.However, if I really want to make sure I do well, I spend a little time refreshing in the language. For example, in Vancouver whenever I was invited to participate in television programs in Mandarin, I would typically spend a few hours during that day reading or listening to audio in Mandarin, just to kind of refresh my memory, something I wouldn’t have to do in French or Japanese. That’s not to say that I couldn’t improve in French and Japanese – I would love to. Whenever I have listened to audiobooks in French or Japanese I have found that it definitely elevates my language skills. Without doubt, listening to interesting material is always a way of refreshing yourself in languages, even for languages you already speak well.
Spanish is another language where I don’t slip much but like to refresh at LingQ before making a video in Spanish for example. The same is true for Swedish and German, but there I have gaps and more problems. Once I reach further down into Italian, Portuguese, not to mention the languages that I’ve learnt more recently, then it’s just not that easy to get myself to a level where I can have a conversation comfortably. In Russian, for example, before I participated in a language conference in Moscow, via Skype, I spent a good two weeks going over my lessons on LingQ, working with material from Ekho Moskvy, looking up words. I also had online discussions with our tutors too, so when I came to make my presentation I had kind of revved myself up to a comfortable level, maybe even better than I ever was.
Rediscovering a Language
If I have to do a video now in one of my weaker languages I know that I have to spend at least two weeks reading and listening a lot in those languages. I would also include five online discussions with native speakers during the period. One thing I have found when refreshing myself in a language is that the more I have spoken in that language in the past, the less I need to practice actually speaking. Just the input activity does it for me, and when I start speaking I have little trouble. In the weaker language, more speaking practice is necessary in order to “hit the ground running” when I need to.
Speaking is always good practice. It helps you identify your gaps so that in your listening you can deliberately try to notice those areas where you have a weakness You always hope that you can avoid these weaknesses the next time you speak, but there are no guarantees.
It’s not realistic to expect that people who have learned a second language, or speak several languages, can just turn them on at will. This is especially true if they haven’t had the opportunity to live in a country where the language is spoken. However, whatever effort has been put into learning a language remains with us, I find. It is always enjoyable to go back and engage again with languages that we learned in the past. This enables us to refresh in the language, but more than that there is the satisfaction of rediscovering an old friend, and finding that with a little effort we regain our previous level and even improve.
As long as we don’t worry about how well we perform, we can feel comfortable in the knowledge that languages we have learned remain with us. There may be short term slippage, but there is no really language attrition.
Just Go For It!
So if you are going to be in a situation where you want to do well in a language you have learned in the past, just put a little effort into getting back into it. Depending on your level, input activities alone, just plain reading and listening, or even watching a movie, can be enough. If you have the opportunity to practice speaking, go for it but it is not an absolute necessity. Just talk when you need to. Even if you find that your level has fallen off, after your renewed engagement with the language you may find that you’ve taken the language up to another level.