Wednesday, March 4, 2020

How to Retain a Language

A lot of diplomats study multiple languages over the course of their careers. Unless you achieve complete fluency, though, maintaining proficiency in any language is hard work. So what's the difference between someone who can pass a language test but rapidly loses what they learned and someone who becomes a true polyglot?

I consider myself an aspiring polyglot, so I've spent some time exploring what helps make a language truly stick. Since my brain typically seems to handle only English and one other language at a time, I currently struggle most with switching between foreign languages in the moment. Although I'm certainly a work in progress, I have discovered some strategies that have helped me retain conversational ability in previously studied languages. I've summarized these below:

  • Attend meetups: You can't beat practicing with native speakers in real-life, so I recommend attending meetups for the foreign languages you speak. You can search for foreign language meetups here, or check your local library to see if they have a conversation group available. If you're in the DC area, I also recommend you take a look at Conversational DC here.
  • Study one language intensively at a time: It's very confusing to try and start from scratch in multiple languages at once. I recommend focusing on one language at a time until you reach a conversational level. Then, if you want to study another language you can continue to maintain your level in the other language(s) more easily than if you were still at a beginner level.
  • Memorize how to clarify in each language: It's so much easier to stay in the zone of each language if you minimize the number of times you need to resort to English or any other language when you get stuck. It's helpful to be able to ask what a word means, ask someone to please repeat what they just said, or admit that you didn't quite understand in the same language you're using at the time.
  • Know language-specific fillers: For the same reason, it's helpful to be strict with yourself about using the correct filler words for the language you're practicing. The moment I say "um," my brain already starts shifting back to English. I've also definitely said "yani" (يعني) in Korean class, and it shifted my brain right over into Arabic.
  • Practice with other polyglots or in multilingual settings: The more you practice switching back and forth between foreign languages, the easier it gets. Something that really helped me with this was to memorize a few stock sentences of introduction for myself in every language I want to practice. That way, I can immediately say those few memorized phrases and usually by the time I'm done introducing myself my brain has successfully shifted into the correct language.
  • Mix up your flashcards: If you've studied multiple languages, chances are you have flashcards or study materials for all of them. When you quiz yourself, mix them up for an additional challenge. I also find it helpful to see a word on a flashcard in one language and then to try and think of it in all the other languages I know. If I can't think of how to say it in a specific language and I think I'll use it often enough that I'd want to know, I'll check a dictionary. (And of course, I'm going to plug my favorite flashcard app I've been using for years: Anki.)

I hope this advice has been helpful to the readers of this blog, and please let me know in the comments if you have any additional tips I missed. Goodbye! 안녕히 계세요! مع السلامة! Kwa heri! Au revoir!

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