Maintenance v reactivation

A post on Tim Ferriss’ blog that I came across the other day, via Confessions of a Language Addict, asks an interesting quesion:

How can you possibly maintain fluency in two foreign languages — let alone five or six — if the opportunities to use them are months or years apart?

He then explains how he reactivated his German before visiting Germany recently by watching German films, reading German manga and a German phrasebook, and also using flashcards. He reckons that once you reach an intermediate to advanced level in a language, trying to maintain it at that level could be a real struggle of you don’t have regular opportunities to use it and you may also develop bad habits. Instead he recommends that you spend 1-3 weeks reactivating and reviving your knowledge of the language before you need to use it.

What do you think? Is it better to keep a language ticking over, or to brush it up only when you really need it?

I’m trying to maintain and improve the languages I’m focusing on at the moment (Czech, Welsh, Irish and Scottish Gaelic), while practising my other languages when I get a chance to keep when ticking over.

This entry was posted in English, Language, Language learning.

8 Responses to Maintenance v reactivation

  1. James says:

    Well I´m back to my perpetual song: how can the average linguist speak more than (let´s say 3) languages properly. We all know or know of people who speak 5 or 10, but they are the odd ones. If, for example I were to need my french again I´d have a lot of retrieving to do as it is buried beneath my Spanish (and continues to influence it: I will often make mistakes which come from French, which was the first romance language I spoke). It´ll be interesting next year when i start learning Portuguese, which, I hope, is actually going to happen.


  2. Polly says:

    I have the rather remarkable ability to completely forget everything I’ve learned if I don’t use it regularly. It really is quite amazing. So, for me, maintenance is the only way. Maybe, once a week I read something in Russian or Spanish just to let my brain know that this isn’t something that can be filed too far in the back of the mem-banks. You could describe it thus: my maintenance plan is to regularly schedule a short reactivation activity.

  3. Daniel says:

    mmm . . . I guess I’m quite the opposite from Polly. I’ve found that I can go a few months without even looking over a language and being to have a basic conversation using most everything I’ve learned in that language. Also being able to read short articles is pretty easy depending on the stype of vocabulary used in it. I’ve had nice little conversations in Russian here at University and impress my Russian friends in writing the Cyrillic alphabet and can get by quite well reading Irish, though have never spoken it with a native speaker. These are the 3rd and 4th languages I have taken up, Spanish being the second in which I use here at University probably more than English (academically and not).

  4. Declan says:

    I do think that you need something to keep up your fluency in a language, but I think that need decreases with a lack of fluency. The more basic your knowledge, the less revisiting you need to do.

  5. Chibi says:

    I’d definitely agree with Polly. Although I have a pretty sharp memory, memorizing isn’t all there is to a language, but instead I think you need exposure every once in a while. Definitely AT LEAST 2-3 times a month, if not once a week.

    I’m the same way with subjects like the sciences + maths…sure, I could memorize all the stuff and then “reactivate” what I learned when I need it for a test, but that’s not nearly effective as practicing it on a regular basis.

  6. GeoffB says:

    While passive knowledge of a language stays with me for a long time, if I actually want to be able to speak I have to stay in regular touch with the language. It’s not that I forget permanently. It’s more like remembering the name of a movie or book – the words or phrasing that I needed in the moment occur to me two days later.

    I’ve been trying different approaches to keeping my main languages in my life on a daily basis and think it helps. It would work better if I had two hours a day to do so – and the attention span to take advantage of those two hours!

  7. rek says:

    It’s been 5 weeks since I left Korea and I already feel my Level 2 grasp of the language slipping.

  8. sunchaser says:

    I know French & German, and my native tongue is English. I learned French at an early age, and it has been much easier for me to retain/remember vocabulary and grammer than German. When I study German it comes back to me much slower than my French, which, after spending a week or two in France, I can have a fluid and fast conversation with a Parisian (albeit with much more limited vocabulary than would be if it were in English)

    I wonder how Ferris defines an “advanced” level? The “language layperson,” so to speak, would probably define it much differently from you lingual experts. As far as my French (which may not be “advanced” but I hope is at least intermediate), I would agree that it’s probably difficult to maintain at a higher level when not used. But I actually enjoy getting the opportunities to use both languages, and don’t see them as chores, so I kind of disagree with the premise behind his argument.

    Question for you language experts: would it be more “normal” for a native English speaker to find greater facility of retention with German than French, because they are more similar?

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