How to maintain a foreign language |

How to maintain a foreign language

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8 December 2010

Photo by Rex Pe

Many of us have been taught a second language in school, but the level of education of these classes is highly dependent on where you live and what your primary language is.
I often consider myself lucky that I had the odds against me on this one. I was born and raised in Belgium, the Dutch speaking part of Belgium to be more precise.

Living in a small country with three official languages - Dutch, French and German - means that one needs to have at least a clue about the other languages. Living in a small part of that small country where people happen to speak Dutch - the only other places where this language is spoken are the Netherlands, Suriname and a couple of Islands at the cost of Venezuela - means that if we ever meet someone from another country, we will have to adjust, because chances are very very small that the other will speak our language.

As I said, I consider this as positive because since the age of nine I had French classes and since the age of twelve also English ones. Both on a decent level, which leaves every Flemish Belgian after graduating with at least basic skills in three languages.

If I look at my language skills now, having left school behind me for over five years, I notice that my level of Dutch and English increased a little. The cause for this is probable more experience, more reading and the need of spoken English and Dutch in general.
My level of French on the other hand has decreased enormously, years ago I could have quite decent conversations in French, now I lost so much vocabulary that a French conversation with me is not fun anymore for anyone.

Why am I able to keep speaking two languages but not a third one?
The answer is maintenance.
Languages need to be maintained, in order to keep language skills on a certain level, one needs to hear, read and speak them on a regular base.
And that’s exactly what’s happening with my English and Dutch skills, I use them daily. But I rarely read or speak French and except for the occasional chanson on the radio I never hear any French word.

Do you also have a long lost language?
Did you take Spanish classes in South America and you don’t want to lose what you’ve learned?
Have you met a Russian woman or man you’d like to impress?

Then read on, here are a couple of tips to maintain your language skills.

Go local
Certainly the best way but often also the hardest is to maintain a language in a country where it’s the mother tongue. It will be the only thing you hear and see on the streets, in the shops, in the bars, hotels, parties, public transport and the first days even in your dreams. And you’ll have to keep up, you’ll have to speak too. In the beginning this might be difficult, but sooner or later you will stop making tok tok tok sounds at the butcher but tell him that you need pollo, poulet, kip, kylling or ayam. Depending of where you are of course.
If you’re uncertain about speaking a foreign language among adults, then talk to the kids. Children are surprisingly patient and helpful when it comes to talking, they’ll use sign language if you don’t understand them and they use easier words than adults.

Go social
If you have friends or family who speak the language you’re trying to maintain, you can agree with them that every time you meet, you talk in that language. Maybe not the whole conversation but just a couple of topics or for a certain time period.
This can be very annoying for the people around you though, so if you do this make sure that you glimpse once in while to the others and then start laughing together. Fun and trouble guaranteed!

Go to school
If you don’t have friends or family, or at least none that speak the Swedish you’re trying to maintain, you may opt for Swedish evening classes.
In most western countries it’s possible for most foreign languages to take evening classes. The problem is that classes alone won’t help you a lot. Language classes are great but you need to use them in combination. School is for example a great place to meet new people with the same interest, and nobody will find it strange if two white persons are speaking Swahili to each other.
Instead of evening school you could also go to a local school. In third world countries it’s often possible to take one-on-one language classes for a very low price, you will have no idea how fast your skills will increase.

Go anti-social
If you’re not much of a social type, there are also possibilities to maintain a language on your own.
The first one is to start using only media and literature in that language. Buy an original Koran, subscribe to a couple of Arabian sports magazines, surf to Arabian blogs, watch the news on Al Jazeera and load your iPod with original belly dancing music.
Once you get used to this, you can go a step further with turning everything that has a function to choose language to Arabian. Arab cell phone, Arab MS Windows, Arab Hotmail and so on, use your imagination.
The last step will be to try to think in Arabian. Whenever someone asks you something, translate it in your head to Arab, think of the answer, translate it back and respond in your own language. This might not be a good time to participate in a quiz.
Other ways to study on your own are teach yourself tapes, also available in every thinkable language on earth and to improve your fluidity it’s good to read out loud once in a while. Do this on your own if you don’t want people to think you’re a nutcase.

Go internet
The tip I will give you now is one of gold, seriously, that’s why I kept it to the end so it would be a reward for those who read the whole post.
Let me present to you: Conversation Exchange
There are a couple of companies that provide this service around the web, but is certainly one of the best.
It’s a simple principle: When you subscribe you hand in some basic data - Name, age, country,.. -  And also which languages you master and which ones you’d like to maintain. Based on this data you can search on persons who’ve filled out the opposite of yourself and get in contact. The most used ways of communication are either by mail or by Skype. To me this is a unique way to make new friends and maintain your languages without having to move my lazy ass away from the couch.
I suggest you have a look at it while I respond to my pen pals from Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Cuenca and Bogotá.

Soon you will be able to wish me adios, auf wiedersehen, tot ziens, salut, ciao and salaam aleykum without having to use translation software.


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