Retaining multiple languages?
October 2, 2017 2:30 PM   Subscribe

How do you work on maintaining all your lesser used languages?

I'm struggling to find a efficient way to manage all my languages as of right now it's like a multi-pen method which I'm starting to get extremely confused with everything. I'm American and I live in a major eastern metro area where I'm constantly being bombarded with languages.

1) Local Chinese Dialect: (grade school level/raised by grandparents)
2) English: (college and beyond level)
3) Mandarin: (grade school level): I can understand most of it but I cannot read or write.
4) Spanish: (grade school level): I can read basic signs and understand slow conversations based off 4 years of guided study back in HS.
5) Japanese (grade school level): I picked this up from anime/manga it's my latest focus but then I realized I'm starting to get all the vocab/grammar rules confused. I can read children's books but I plan on improving until I can read novels. I understand basic greetings/phrases though.

I'm not against learning Chinese but it's just very time-consuming and expensive along w/I have PTSD from Chinese school growing up in a prodominately white area. I'm reading some intro JPN courses and textbooks but I'm starting to find that all my languages are starting to all jumble together with exception of English.

Does anyone have advice on how to maintain flunecy in multiple languages? I know some of my EU friends are fluent in more than one language so there's some hope out there.
posted by chrono_rabbit to Writing & Language (6 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
i watch familiar stuff (movies, tv shows) with audio in one language and subs in the other, and then switch them to the opposite. i mention this in literally every language thread but i learned catalan (and improved spanish fluency) by watching the simpsons in this way.
posted by poffin boffin at 3:06 PM on October 2 [5 favorites]

From your list it looks like you're fluent in one language and at a learner-type level on all the others? I find that the jumble is just a natural part of language learning and will improve on its own as you pick up more and more of the language. IME it never really fully "goes away", but once you get to the point where it doesn't hinder your communication it just becomes a little quirk to work around (personally I find it neat!)

As for actually improving or maintaining language level, I try to find hobby-related media in my target language to consume - for me this is a lot of recipe blogs and cooking shows, some webcomics, online community-type spaces like metafilter... Basically the stuff I would be doing in English anyway. For speaking, if you're in a major metro area you could also try language-specific meetups or language exchanges, where a bunch of people just meet for an hour over coffee or whatever and chat. There has been quite a few questions about this so you may want to peruse the archives, if you haven't already.
posted by btfreek at 3:31 PM on October 2 [1 favorite]

Btfreek is right. What the research shows is that language learners at all levels who encounter multiple languages eventually learn to separate them through experience, context, and acts of appraisal-negotiation-confirmation when starting a new interaction. You don't have to risk blurting out a Japanese answer to a Mandarin question forever! Just push through to the other side. Keep at it. It will happen. Not fast, but it will happen.

If I were in your shoes, I would perhaps focus my language interests. Which non-English language do you encounter most? Which one is most useful? Which one has the strongest ties to your life goals? Perhaps emphasizing the one language and letting the others languish for a bit would have a bigger payoff sooner.
posted by Mo Nickels at 3:40 PM on October 2 [1 favorite]

I have maintained fluency in multiple languages, but I had attained high fluency while relatively young, because of living and going to school in those languages. In my case, reading regularly in those languages, even if it's just news or magazine articles, seems to help much more than watching tv shows or movies.

Given that you rate yourself at grade school level for languages other than English, I'd follow Mo Nickels' advice and focus on one language, and power through reading genre novels in that language. That's how I expanded my English vocabulary when I was learning English, just devouring science fiction novels whether I completely understood them or not :)
posted by research monkey at 4:12 PM on October 2 [1 favorite]

btfreek: Yes, I feel like the jack of all trades but master of none. I'm most familiar/comfortable with English but there's always peer pressure to learn more languages even if I like this hobby it can be overwhelming at times. In the past, I used to filter everything down to English-only but now there's too much "noise" in the background of the city.

For example, walking down the street I hear Spanish and then I think about the Spanish to English translations but then I get zoned out when I pick out my local dialect which overtakes English. By the end of the walk, I'll be thinking about how I can tie it back to English and my mind just goes on an auto-translate tour where I go Spanish>English>Mandarin>Japanese>English.
posted by chrono_rabbit at 4:39 PM on October 2

A precursor to "how" is "why?" Do you have a clear sense of what you want to use each of these languages for? Because that's the way to reduce the overwhelm, is to apply each language to a specific purpose or situation.

I'm assuming with your local dialect, you have people in your life who prefer to communicate with you in that dialect. For English, you have your daily life and Metafilter (obvs). For Japanese, you have your anime/manga.

It's not clear why you'd want to continue spending time shoring up your Mandarin and Spanish. Don't get me wrong, they're great languages spoken by many people. But if you aren't currently craving something that is best achieved via that language (for example, maintaining a relationship with someone who primarily speaks it, getting day to day needs met in a city where it is primarily spoken, a strong interest in an aspect of a culture where it is spoken/written), there's not going to be a lot of motivation to keep it up.

You mention "peer pressure," but if your only reason is to be able to tell friends that you speak it or to include it on a resume, basic level is fine. If you need more later--like if you move to Beijing and take up salsa dancing, you have a good base to build on when the time comes.
posted by Former Congressional Representative Lenny Lemming at 5:44 PM on October 2

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