Language learner’s lament

How can we maintain our languages and learn new ones? I will find out over the next year or so.

I am just back from a 4 week trip. Montreal, Prague, Portugal, Spain, London and Berlin.  A high point was my last evening in Prague where I felt that I was really comfortably conversing in Czech, understanding almost all of the discussion and generally able to get my ideas across. Then I flew to Portugal to join my wife on a golf holiday and my Portuguese let me down it seemed. In Spain, even my Spanish was not where I wanted it.

Off to Germany, and again my Geman was not where I wanted it to be. On top of that, in trying to speak Russian at the Sprachen und Beruf language conference, I kept on coming out with Czech. Luckily I had a Russian speaking taxi driver on my way to the Airport in Berlin and as we spoke I started to feel a little better about my Russian.

So now I am back home. I want to do a 5 days to fluency challenge in Korean, leading up to a visit to Korea in the spring. Yet I don’t want to lose my Czech, and I want to recover my Russian. In addition, I was really stimulated by my visit to Berlin. I read three newspapers,  Handelsblatt, Die Welt and Suddeutsche Zeitung from cover to cover on the flight back. I have been listening to an audio book of Golo Mann’s Preussen Erobert Deutschland here while cleaning up the house. I would love to focus on bringing my German up to a decent level, and yet I bought some Portugues and Spanish books while in those countries, and I want to polish up those languages.

There are only four languages that I can speak any time and anywhere without too much slippage, English, French, Japanese and Mandarin.

But today my wife and I are going to play golf, and tomorrow I have to go to the office. There is not enough time in the day. Help!!!

7 thoughts on “Language learner’s lament

  1. All right,So you only manage to speak well your English, French, Japanese (which is a totally different language) and Mandarin, great!!! and you got disappointed not to understand Portuguese from Portugal, my goodness!! I envy you, I’d like to be disappointed for the same reason, I’d be very happy…..Hugs,Mara

  2. It’s only natural that what is not practised intensively is rusty and forgotten. After all, the 10 000-hour rule is there for a reason. To become an expert in any field, being it a language, playing a piano or being a skillful carpenter, you have to spend 10 000 hours or so practising that skill. Steve, you always say massive input, that is all good and reasonable, but this only develops passive skills. To develop active skills, one must also spend many thousand hours. It may be less hours if the subject is related to what you already know, like if you know French, then Spanish and Portuguese being Romance languages can be learned in a shorter time, but not THAT faster, the general rule still applies.The main point is, if one dedicates 10 000 hours to any field, how many areas/subjects can one master in one’s life time without sacrificing normal life too much? This number is obviously very limited. Being able to speak 3-4 languages from different family groups very well is already pushing the human limits.

  3. Dear Steve, thanks for your thoughts. Though I??know it???s not all about numbers, I many times wondered if it makes sense from a practical point of view to strive to learn as many languages as you can.It???s great to say ???I??know 10 languages??? (just an example ??? I???m not referring to you), but how much actually you can make use of them? Your 5 days to fluency has helped me a lot to debunk my thinking of polyglots knowing this or that language from soup to nuts.Of course learning a new language hinges on your goal, but outside polyglots??? world, as I??mentioned, we are hearing about this ???hiperpolyglots??? superpower nonsense.My life motto is the following: ???strive for perfection which you will never achieve???. Why? Because as a churchgoer I strongly believe that human being is mediocre when it comes to perfection. And perfection is not human. Only God can control everything.Thank you very much Steve. I highly appreciate your knowledge, ability to learn new things at your 66!Best regards from Poland,WojtekPSIt seems that I???ll have to learn ???Babel no more??? sooner that I??thought đŸ™‚

  4. Well, my solution to this would be to make sure I talk with a native speaker in each language I’m trying to maintain for at least X hours per week (I would probably aim for 1 or 2 hours per week given the number of languages you’re trying to maintain)–now, whether that’s going to be in person or via Skype or whatever will depend on your situation but it really doesn’t matter. I found that after going for nearly a year without speaking to anyone in Spanish that I was able to get my speaking ability back up to snuff with about 10 hours or so of initially awkward conversing with native speakers via Skype that I’d met on a language exchange site.This, to me, sounds like more of a generic scheduling-related problem than it does an actual language-learning-related problem. What do you think?Cheers,Andrew

  5. Actually, a little passive listening and LingQing gets me back in shape pretty quickly. Mara, I have little trouble understanding European Portuguese but just don’t speak it as well as I would like. Again, a solid dose of listening and reading and a little conversation gets me back to where I was. To get really good I would have to speak more, for sure.I do not strive for perfection, but I am always keen to improve. If I say I speak a language it means that I understand it well, and if put in a situation where I need to use it, within a few minutes I am able to communicate quite comfortably. Czech has just joined that group.I will be using LingQ on all of the languages I want to maintain, and will try to talk 30-60 minutes a week in each of them, while focusing on Korean. We’ll see how it goes.

  6. Hi Steve! Long time reader first time writer. Interesting to know you have no problems understanding European Portuguese, even though I’m from Rio de janeiro, Brazil sometimes I have problems understanding people from Portugal. :)I’m my opinion the cause of your problem may be not the quantity but the frequency of contact with your targeting language, this happens to me all the time. I’ve been studying English by myself since 2009 and until now I was just doing input activities you know, things like watch movies, tv series, listening to podcasts and reading lot every day. Now I’ve reached a point were I can watch my favorite movies, tv series(Smallville) without subtitles, listen to podcats on a variety of topics ranging from games to science with no problems. But if I spend two day without any English its enough to cause damage on my L2.Now I am focusing on write and speak since I am quite satisfied where I am now any advices would be very welcome.Cheers,Bruno

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