Yo quiero ser multi-lingual.
April 8, 2009 9:04 PM   Subscribe

How can I maintain reading/writing (and perhaps speaking) competency in a foreign language while maintaining a reasonable schedule?

Over the course of my education, I have taken many years of Spanish, as well as a year of Latin. Because of my career path (I'm a PhD, about to go on the academic job market, and I specialize in Renaissance literature and culture), I'm interested in branching out and getting Italian, French, and perhaps even German under my belt, to some level or another. I'm not looking to be fluent in any of these languages, just enough to read somewhat sophisticated texts (with the help of a dictionary) and perhaps carry on a conversation with someone.

But even before I get to those languages, I need to get over my problem with language retention. I am great at learning languages, especially when it comes to understanding grammatical concepts (vocabulary is a weakness, but that can be overcome). However, I forget them very easily, especially when, in the course of my day to day life, I'm not using them personally or professionally super often. Then when the time comes for me to use my purported skills, I'm forced to relearn (granted, at a fairly rapid rate) from square 1.

So, how do I maintain some semblance of these skills on a fairly tight daily schedule? Right now I'm trying to relearn my Latin by spending about 30-45 min a day (when possible) going back through my textbook, but when I'm done with that, I don't want to end up doing it all over again in a couple of years. Are there any techniques, skills, texts, sites, or anything else that you might recommend to help keep me on track so I don't go back to being English Only?
posted by Saxon Kane to Writing & Language (7 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I talk to myself in Spanish all the time. It's kinda weird to the outside viewer, but it actually works to keep up my grammar and vocabulary.

And I suppose I already talk to myself a lot anyway, so it seems natural.

Yes, I'm a weirdo. What of it?
posted by Drainage! at 9:14 PM on April 8, 2009

Best answer: I hear you. I'm studying 3 languages right now, with Spanish fluency being necessary by June. Here's what I recommend...

  • Carry flashcards with you everywhere. Just grab a stack, put a rubber band 'round it and throw it in your bag. If you are stuck somewhere, waiting, even for a minute, go through a few. Switch stacks next time you return home.

  • Load an mp3 player with podcasts and albums and audiobooks.

  • Program your radio stations or make sure you a way to listen to a CD, mp3 player, whatever, while you are in the car.

  • Write all your notes to yourself, to-do lists, emails to yourself, personal blog posts, anything, in Latin or Spanish, or both, whatever comes easiest next to English.

  • Along with the flashcards, bring magazines, articles, or some sort of fun (or serious) reading material with you when you go out. That way, if you aren't in a flashcard mood, or are in some place where you'd feel silly with flashcards, you have no excuse to not get 5 minutes of review in. You have options.

  • If Spanish is what you want to brush up on (or French), turn on whatever tracks (dubbing or subtitles or both) are available to you when watching a movie. Netflix is great for this. Also, it's fun to rewatch your favorite movies with new information. You're familiar with the content, and it doesn't feel like you're slacking off watching the same movie for the 50th time.

  • Bring these things to your workout/gym/walk/transit-trip.

  • Set small goals for yourself. Like little mini-games. "5 minutes of reading and then I'll go make coffee." "I'll finish this stack of cards and then focus on this other task for an hour. Ok, maybe I'll do 'em twice even."

    The important thing is not just focused study. You need train your ear and become familiar with the sounds and prosody of the language. It doesn't matter if you're not paying attention 100%...just have it going on around you. It will make everything easier, including vocab and retention.

  • posted by iamkimiam at 9:25 PM on April 8, 2009 [6 favorites]

    Oh, man. I'm the exact same way with languages.

    SuperMemo, when I had the discipline for it, helped me a lot with retaining Japanese. Read over the website and you will see that the guy has studied memory very carefully and you'd basically be reviewing things right before you would forget them otherwise. This is the optimal way of remembering stuff, because the way people typically try to retain things is by reviewing it over and over again too quickly, when it's not helping any extra. The program is basically a sophisticated version of flash cards; aside from the algorithm that determines when you need to review something, there's a bit more leeway into what you can review than normal flash cards allow.

    As an academic, I think you will find it helpful for a lot more than languages. I used it for remembering the basics of books I had read.

    The only reason I fell off the bandwagon was because I had to leave for four months without a computer, so I couldn't use it. I just picked it back up recently.
    posted by Nattie at 9:39 PM on April 8, 2009

    I think SuperMemo has shown up on the green (or blue) before. There is a Macintosh program that uses the same basic memory programming trick called Genius.
    posted by chairface at 9:49 PM on April 8, 2009

    When possible:

    -Read books in that language - particularly books that you're interested in that are written in that language originally, but translations totally count. (Reading Haruki Murakami in German really improved my confidence in that language, for example - his books are great, but his sentences aren't so complicated as to be insanely hard for an intermediate speaker.) If time is tight, take them with you on your commute or to lunch.

    -Talk to myself in that language. Constantly. Whenever I realize that my internal monologue is in English, I switch back.

    -Read the news in that language (though this obviously applies more to Spanish than Latin.) I list this separately from literature because news is fast and in easy chunks, and it's full of modern vocab. If possible, pick up a physical copy to drag around with you, but at least check out newspaper websites and such.

    -For listening comprehension, podcasts and books on tape (CD, mp3, etc.)

    I haven't got a great solution for speaking; many universities (and foreign language bookstores) have language groups, and if you check out foreign languages depts., you'll probably find ads where you can effectively swap languages. However, this is obviously much less flexible than anything else, because it requires coordination with another human being.
    posted by ubersturm at 10:12 PM on April 8, 2009

    I read Japanese books and websites on a daily basis, and listen to the news in Japanese. To keep up my daily conversation, I married a Japanese woman.

    Seriously, conversation is the toughest part. I have never found a quick method to keep up speaking ability.

    What you could do is rent movies in French or German or whatever, turn on the subtitles (in German) and do "shadow talking", and basically copy what's being said on screen. You can combine work with play.
    posted by KokuRyu at 10:30 PM on April 8, 2009

    See if you can find a flash card program for your mobile phone. There are many for the iPhone, several quite good. Then you can freshen up on vocabulary while you're waiting in line somewhere or on your commute or anywhere else you have a minute or ten to kill.

    Do you keep a diary or journal? If not then start one and keep it in another language. Or a blog.

    Get your news only from foreign language web sites.

    Get a pen pal. Or a girl/boyfriend. Or both. (Try international dating sites. Even for just a pen pal.)

    Check to see if there are foreign language Meetups in your area.

    Teach someone else.
    posted by Ookseer at 11:27 PM on April 8, 2009

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