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You always hear about it happening to other people.
The pain; the heartwrenching sense of loss.
But surely it could never happen to you, you who has worked so diligently at mastering multiple languages, pouring so much of yourself into them and letting them pour so much of themselves into you. Surely you will never lose one of your beloved languages.
This was how I felt until recently. Four months ago in the midst of my Mexican life I’d have told you with confidence that of course I had Spanish down pat, checked off the list, a part of my linguistic inventory forever more. But that was before four months of linguistic laziness in the States, and now I’m looking around like qué pasó?
When I skype with Spanish-speaking friends, I’m suddenly stuttering and full of umm‘s and uhh‘s again. I constantly find myself thinking I swear I knew this word before, I used to use it all the time! Watching a TV show or the news is getting really hard without turning on the Spanish subtitles. I’m pretty sure I can’t maintain a train of thought in Spanish anymore.
The reality is that getting rusty in a foreign language or two is probably the most common polyglot problem there is. Most of us aren’t good enough time management magicians to squeeze a job, school, the gym, a social life, and six or eight languages into every day. So our languages tend to get a little rusty.
Read that carefully: they get rusty. Their joints get a little stiff, they nod off for a while, but they don’t go anywhere. They’re still there, pouting somewhere in the back of your mind, waiting for you to notice how neglected they feel. All they need is a little love.
If you’ve ever struggled with reviving a sleeping language, or if you’re in the throes now, here are four specific strategies you can use to show your neglected language that you really do care and you’re sorry for not paying it enough attention.
Listening is important in any relationship, but especially one with a language.
You remember the first year when everything was wonderful and new? Back in Barcelona or Prague or Rio where you first met and fell in love? You thought that language was the most beautiful sound to ever grace your ears, and you showed it by listening for hours and hours, whether out at a party with your international classmates or just at home curled up on the couch with the remote.
Show your language you care by listening like you did in the beginning. That movie you watched together when you just knew it was love? Watch it again. Did you have a favorite series that you watched abroad and haven’t thought about since? Turn it on and fall in love all over again.
Pro tip: Memories and associations usually include all five of your senses. Try recreating the ‘good old days’ with your language with taste, touch, and especially smell. Did you sit on the floor a lot when you were learning Japanese? Does the smell of a heavy beer make you nostalgic for Poland? Try appealing to all your senses to make sure your brain gets the signal that it’s time to dig up and dust off that language.
And if you need resources for finding TV in your language, we’ve got you covered.
Along with listening of course goes speaking. Languages are thankfully a bit easier to please than the people who speak them, and you can always sweet talk your way back into their good graces.
If you got pretty decent at your language before, chances are there were people with whom you spoke it pretty frequently. What ever happened to them? Did you fall out of touch, or gradually slip back into English as your skills got rustier?
If the latter, it’s time to swallow your pride and anxiety and ask your friends to switch back to the target language with you, and to have some patience while you re-adjust. If the former, it’s 2016, so I’m betting there’s some way you can get back in touch. If a phone is too passé for you, a Facebook message or a quick Whatsapp is a good way to start catching up.
Pro tip: If you’re momentarily fresh out of native speakers in your social circle, check out one of the hundred or so different language learning apps and websites that connect speakers and learners for Skype conversation exchanges (Transparent Language even offers cuxtomized online instruction and conversation with Transparent Connect). If you’re really rusty, this might be a better option anyway, as your new conversation partner won’t have any expectations or any idea of how you spoke before you and your language began to grow apart.
Sometimes you’re not as estranged from your language as you think you are — it just takes a little quality time and a stroll down memory lane to realize how familiar you still are.
A good book that you’ve already read is an ideal way to start that refresher. Did you read any books, essays, poems, or other publications that you really enjoyed while you were learning the language? Don’t think that just because you’ve already read it it’s somehow expired — that’s still great learning material, and perfect re-learning material.
Reading about a topic you already know a lot about — whether it’s a story you know well or a non-fiction subject you’re interested in or knowledgeable about — can almost instantly reconnect all those hauntingly familiar-looking words with the meanings that you’ve gradually left scattered about on the floor in your head. Fiction is great for this purpose because it normally doesn’t have a super technical vocabulary of its own, whereas an article on financial accounting might not be very representative of the way the language is typically used. Shoot for a topic general enough that the language used to talk about it will be mostly applicable to refreshing your memory of basic day-to-day use of the language.
Pro tip: Sometimes I think Wikipedia must have been invented for language learners. Think about a topic you already know a good bit about and look up that topic’s Wikipedia page in your target language. You’ve got a good idea of the meaning before you ever even get to the words, so the connection should fall into place all by itself. If you’re not sure where to start, try one of the articles on your language’s Wikipedia homepage.
What grander gesture is there to woo your lost language back to you? To make sure you’re keeping all those words and meaning sharp and crisp in your mind, you’ll need to use them.
You don’t have to compose a series of sonnets (but if you want to then definitely go for it). Like I said before, languages are a bit easier than real people; just write something.
The best option would be to keep something like a journal in your target language. Don’t worry about beautiful writing or even being correct, but just try to jot down some thoughts, maybe a long-ish paragraph, in complete sentences. Try not to just translate your English thoughts into mechanical foreign language ones, but instead strive for native-like idioms and phrases.
If that’s too overwhelming then start out small. Write grocery lists and short notes to self in your language. Write down some notes on refreshing your language in that language (or something). Scribble down a few lines about how frustrated you are that you can’t write as well as you used to.
Pro tip: Sites like Lang-8 exist just for practice writing in a second language. You can write something — whether it’s a personal diary entry or a bulleted list of things you did today — and post it for natives to read and adjust or correct (or congratulate you on your awesome literary talents). Getting involved with a small community in this way can help you feel accountable to writing in your language regularly.
You probably noticed that these four pieces of advice correspond perfectly to listening, speaking, reading, and writing. That’s because the only way to wake up the estranged language that’s sleeping passive-aggressively on the opposite edge of the bed is to show it a little attention, to use it!
If you want your polygamous polyglot life to work out, you’re gonna need to show some love and attention to each of your languages every day. Even if it’s just 15 minutes reading the news with your morning coffee or a quick Skype session before bed. It’s really that easy.
Nothing stings quite like the loss of a language, but you’ll also never be happier than when you realize it was there all along, just taking a little nap.