Keeping up with your languages

I recently received an email from a former student, Eric, who asks an interesting question, which I thought would be a good topic for this blog.  Here’s his question:

Like a lot of students around here, I studied Spanish for a good while before feeling comfortable enough with it to start focusing on Portuguese.  After spending last semester focused exclusively on Portuguese, I’m at the point where I feel moderately comfortable with both languages, but have plenty of room for improvement with both.  I’ve yet to really hit upon a strategy that allows for steady improvement in both languages over the long term, without favoring one at the expense of the other.  Currently, I’m thinking about switching the language on which I focus in monthly intervals (ie, Spanish in February, Portuguese in March, Spanish in April, etc.).  I plan on going to Law School in the Fall of 2010, and want to have a good command of both languages by the time school would start.  Do you think this strategy would be effective?  Do you have any other advice with this type of thing?

So, here are a few of my thoughts on this subject:
1.  Accept that you will be rusty. Even if you are a native speaker of a language, if you are away from it for a an extended time, you get a little rusty.  How often have you seen international students in college whose brain happens to be in “English” mode, making it hard to speak their native language? In other words, we have to admit that we are going to be a little rusty with our foreign languages when we’re away from them for a while.  That’s the “bad” news.  I assume this is no different from athletics when we train for football in the fall, then move on to basketball in the winter, and then baseball in the summer.  Different muscles are used.  Even when I’ve been playing lots of basketball, I get sore muscles after swinging a baseball bat for the first time in the spring.
2. We bounce back quick. Whenever I travel abroad I notice how it takes a few days to get back into the flow again.  The “good” news is that we seem to get back to our old best pretty soon.  Vocabulary that we thought we forgot starts coming back and we start to pick up the pace a bit too.  I’m not saying that you don’t lose ability over time, but it does come back quicker.  I’m also not saying that you’ll all of a sudden speak better than you ever did before, but you will bounce back to your old self once again.
3. A little bit of practice seems to go a long way. I recently had the experience of trying to speak some German, basically out of the blue without having been reviewing it.  It was a disaster!  So I decided to start listening to some German podcasts, just to refresh my memory on German a bit.  I probably listened to 3 lessons a week and this went on for a few months.  Then I found myself in a situation where I got to speak German again.  I was amazed at how much easier it was, even though I hadn’t really been doing any heavy duty studying. I recently had a similar experience with Italian and the results were the same.  Even a little bit of practice seemed to help a lot.  Notice that my student’s strategy is to go one month with Spanish and the next with Portuguese.  I actually think that a little of both at the same time might serve better than a total focus on one at the expense of another.
4. Your overall proficiency is a factor. Over the years I have noticed that Portuguese, as my dominant foreign language, suffers less from attrition than my Spanish does.  In other words, when I’m away from Portuguese it gets rusty, but doesn’t seem to drop as much as my Spanish does when I am away from Spanish.  I have had to accept the fact that my Spanish will always need more of a refresher than my Portuguese does.
If anyone else has suggestions for Eric, it would be great to hear from you too.
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One Response to “Keeping up with your languages”

  1. Tommy Says:

    If you are talking about vocabulary, I suggest studying them simultaneously (like in the Ta Falado podcasts) as part of a larger study of Latin, which might be helpful for Law School anyway.

    Most of the “fun” vocabulary and ways of speaking probably don’t come directly from Latin, so my recommendation is to sit back, relax, and watch tv shows, movies, and listen to music (all of which is abundantly available on youtube – let’s use it for free while we can!).

    I would say that since you already have the basics down for English, Spanish, Portguese, etc, you might find yourself speaking a fusion of all these languages at the same time all the time. In other words, I suggest synergy, rather than balancing your languages as opposing forces. This sounds really philosophical, but human memory isn’t infinite and we have to work with what we have.

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