7 Tips for Hanging on to That Hard-Learned Second Language (aka How to Slow the Erosion)

Posted on 23. Jul, 2014 by in Language Learning, Trends

Remember me?  I’m the “old guy” who’s been learning French and who shared on this blog some of my not-so-secrets of how old guys – and maybe not-so-old guys – can pick up a second language.  Well, now, sadly, I have transitioned to a new phase in language learning.  I am now an old guy who is beginning to lose what I’ve learned of my second language.

Image by scott1346 on Flickr

Image by scott1346 on Flickr

Why?  Because I have no real need to use it in my daily life, AND I seem to lack the will power to keep going some form of disciplined learning process.  Tme is slowly eroding my language abilities, and I’ll bet I’m not the only one around here in that situation!

So, I’ve discovered a few ways of slowing my slide, and I’d like to share some of them with you:

1. Subscribe to an online news source.

I have, and have had for years, a subscription (free!) to the daily email newsletter from La Figaro.  It challenges me, every day, with new vocabulary, sometimes with new usage of old vocabulary, and with a comprehension test presented in the real, every-day language used in a widely-read Parisian journal.

A huge bonus in La Figaro – for me, anyway, a hopelessly enamored Francophile – is the fact that it’s chock full of really fun and interesting current news and features, with great photos, and presented from a viewpoint very different from that to be found in my local rag, or in the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal!

That’s the good news.  The bad news is that sometimes days – even a couple of weeks – might go by without me having more than flipped past the top two or three headlines!  It’s always there, a great resource, but do I really milk it for all it has to offer?  Sadly, no.

2. Sign up for a Word of the Day service.

I of course receive my daily email (doesn’t everyone?) of the Transparent Language Word of the Day in French (it’s available in 25 languages).  For a while, this daily prod (which is also a freebie) to those of us who struggle to slow the erosion of our perhaps never-too-great language competence was “too easy.”  But WotD has improved over the years I have been using it.  The words presented started out too near the “French 101” level to be of much interest to even an intermediate-level learner.  Now, however, it has moved a couple of pretty good frog hops uphill, and I regularly see useful words that I have never met before.

The WotD email message shows the word, its English meaning, its use in a French sentence, and a translation of the sentence.  But there’s more!  The message also contains two links:  clicking one evokes a native-speaker pronunciation of the word; the other, a recitation of the entire French sentence.

3. Keep a book handy.

I try to keep at least one French-language book going and handy for a quick dip into a paragraph or two as a diversion, or just to fill a free moment.  Those of you who have read my earlier blogs know that I was already an “old guy” when I started learning French, which is probably why the idea that I can now actually read a French-language book still feels sort of new.  I think it’s partly that “Look, Mom; see what I can do now!” pride that helps to keep me plugging away at Victor Hugo prose and savoring the hilarious exploits of Petit Nicholas.

4. Immerse yourself when possible.

In our neck of the woods, where we abut Quebec to our north, and where some French-flavored pre-Revolutionary history took place, I find a surprising number (surprising to me, though it shouldn’t have been) of what I consider to be “near-francophones.”  These neighbors, friends, and people in shops might speak Québécoise, or a very colloquial form of European French, or even Acadian.

As far as hanging on to my fading French is concerned, interacting with these people is of some, but limited, value.  I described them as “near-francophones” because I am having enough trouble hanging onto my “textbook” or “Parisian” French without adding the challenges presented by dialect and patois!  But those folks all seem to be able to follow well enough my attempts at my version of the language, so that is gratifying.

5. Join a club or cultural society.

A nearby French-American Society (or some such) provides a venue for periodic gatherings of some of these francophone locals, and it occasionally hosts a more elaborate soirée.  I have attended a couple of these gatherings, but – frankly – to little effect.  Maybe attending only “a couple” may not have resulted in enough engagement to help delay the fading process.

6. Find a pen pal (or e-mail pal).

I keep going, if sporadically, two or three streams of email correspondence.  My counterparties are such folks as a couple of members of our wonderful Grenoble-based family of friends, my former (and still occasional) native-French tutor and neighbor, and – even more sporadically – two of the Harvard Extension School faculty whom I once knew well.  Also on the “sporadically” list are two of the several informally-arranged tutors that we have found to help us during various Paris visits.

For me, this emailing business is a hugely important help!  It’s really the only time when I actually sit down to compose thoughtful, well-structured, as-grammatically-correct-as-I-am-able French prose.  I correspond almost exclusively with native speakers, and in some cases, with teachers of the language, so the pressure is on!

I beg these people to point out my errors, and several are kind enough to take the time to do that – and I have to confess that it is rare indeed when I manage to produce a message without at least a handful of grammar errors.  This is not, I fear, because I don’t know the rules; it is instead for the far more difficult-to-correct reason that I have not yet assimilated French grammar (and may never!) to the point at which it is like breathing – a natural part of how I think in the language.  Ah, me!

7. Listen to music and watch shows.

I am a music nut, and I find on YouTube (and there are plenty of other sources) French-language songs and musical performances that are not only very enjoyable simply as entertainment, but also are valuable exercises for my oral-comprehension skills.

Example:  the other evening I did a YouTube search for something that included the name “Offenbach.”  I was offered in the response a two-hour-plus modern staging of Jacques Offenbach’s 19th-century dynamite entertainment “La Vie Parisienne,” which kept me enjoying, laughing, and practicing French for the full performance!

Those are some of the things I do to try to slow the fade.  How about you?  What tips do you have for those of us who have no regular need to exercise our second language, but want to hang onto what we have?

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8 Responses to “7 Tips for Hanging on to That Hard-Learned Second Language (aka How to Slow the Erosion)”

  1. Paula Byas 31 July 2014 at 12:16 pm #

    I am facebook friends with one or two people who post or receive posts in other languages. I mainly just read them, but I have been known to post in another language.

  2. Phil Ashmore 1 August 2014 at 4:15 am #

    I’d endorse each of these methods, and I use several of them for my Polish, as well as for my French. Email and other interaction with native speakers is always stimulating to language retention, and – if you use Facebook – you can easily subscribe to (or ‘like’) most foreign media outlets for free on it, you can participate in group chats in your target language, plus native-speaker Facebook friends are invaluable. There are other ways too. I enjoy switching languages in Wikipedia, for instance. In the widely known languages, like French, their Wikipedia articles are not only a good, clear way to practice the language, but also some of their articles are more comprehensive than the English-language versions.

  3. shukuran sahid 4 August 2014 at 4:37 pm #

    Well in my Japanese learning, I have
    Signed up for newsletter with genki
    Japan, l have seen myself improve so
    Rapidly because every time I don’t understand I just ask, there
    Are also language games that are so helpful not to forget something in
    A particular languages …
    Well the native sounds from the Transparent language so helpful
    Though I pick my accents from soaps of whatever language am learning

  4. Salome 10 October 2014 at 3:37 am #

    Did the same thing to enhance my Bulgarian skills and I am very happy. Finding a native speaker to talk to is also very very helpful.

    • Yordanka Tzoneva 14 October 2014 at 4:53 am #

      Dear Salome, what is your native language? Mine is Bulgarian. I am glad that there are people studying it.
      Regards,
      Yordanka

  5. Anne 14 October 2014 at 4:57 am #

    I follow several non-English news sources on Facebook, and when I read an article I read it aloud. When I heard that advice I thought that was a bit daft, but I’ve found over several months that my ‘muscle memory’ inserts a subjunctive after a common phrase where my conscious mind would have gone with the indicative, and my instinctive reaction has been correct. Say something enough times (especially in a likely context) and it’ll lodge in your memory.

  6. Georges 16 October 2014 at 1:16 pm #

    LE Figaro. ;-)

  7. miriam l tharnish 21 November 2014 at 7:14 pm #

    Except it’s LE Figaro.


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