How I’m Maintaining the Ability to Speak Six Languages

It’s now been over a month since Vat and I returned from Korea and ended the year without English. Now is the most sensitive time for determining whether I can maintain the ability to speak Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese and Korean, so I wanted to share my plan.

If you learn something quickly you also forget it quickly. Luckily, this has an easy solution: small practice sessions, scheduled in advance.

When I learned French, my strategy coming back to Canada for maintaining my ability was simply to practice a lot with French people. I’d try to meet French people and practice. When I wasn’t doing that I’d try to read books in French or watch movies.

This strategy had a major drawback: it’s not a habit. Trying to meet people who speak the target language results in random bursts of practice. Books and movies are great, but once the book is finished you might have a few months before you read another in that language.

My French level actually improved in the few months after I left France. However, as the years went on, it started to slip. My French level today is definitely lower than my best.

My Current Strategy for Language Maintenance

This time around, I wanted to try something different. Instead of relying on meeting people, or even sustaining my motivation to learn the language, I would schedule, in advance, one conversation session each week through iTalki.

I started doing this with French, Spanish, Portuguese and Chinese while I was in Korea. Now that I’m back I’ve done the same with Korean. Right now I’m only doing half-hour sessions for the Romance languages, which I speak better, and an hour for Chinese and Korean. That means my weekly time commitment is 3.5 hours.

Will 3.5 Hours Be Enough to Maintain Five Languages?

The amount of maintenance you need to maintain knowledge decreases exponentially with time. This is the secret behind SRS software: by lengthening the review time between concepts, you require less and less exposure to remember.

Three-and-a-half hours is probably not enough time to maintain my level of the languages on its own. As a result, my ability will probably diminish (assuming I do nothing other than this practice) for the first few months.

However, because my goal is to maintain these hours as a habit, my hope is that eventually 3.5 hours will be more than enough to maintain and I can start improving again. Since the memory demands are decreasing while the time commitment is flat, this results in my total ability going through a dip and then slowly rising again.

How Has It Worked So Far?

I’ve been doing this in Canada since I got back, and in Korea for two months, so that gives me three months to judge this language-maintenance strategy. With that, I have a couple thoughts:

  1. Conversation practice doesn’t sample the full range of a language. Especially when it’s done one-on-one through Skype, certain linguistic categories aren’t practiced enough or missed (like the vocabulary for ordering food or giving directions).
  2. iTalki is great for scheduling sessions in advance. I’ve been doing tutoring, rather than conversation exchange, but you could use the website for conversation exchanges if you want to save money. Scheduling the tutoring means I can automatically make the appointment to practice a language and not have to fuss with trying to find speakers.
  3. Conversation practice may not sample everything in a language, but it does tend to focus on the important parts needed for communication. My goal is to be able to speak any of these languages immediately if a situation arises, so I think it’s more important to keep my conversational skills sharp than reading or listening.

Beyond the Habit

Just coming off this challenge, I still have a lot of the momentum, so I’ve been spending a fair bit more than the 3.5 hours on the languages. I’ve spent about 30 minutes a day getting caught up on my Anki review queue, I’ve been watching some television in Chinese and I started reading 西游记 (Journey to the West).

I’ve also met people who speak these languages in Vancouver and having calls with friends I met during the trip. If you include this time to my tutoring, I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t closer to 7-8 hours per week I’ve spent practicing.

But, I know that as my life gets busy once again and my focus shifts to learning other things, I may not have the same spontaneous interest to study these languages. Therefore, keeping this 3.5 hour commitment simplifies the maintenance process considerably. When I want to push for a better level in a particular language, I can, but I know that even if my focus shifts I’ll still be putting a minimal amount of practice to maintain those languages.

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  • Bojan from Centask

    As someone who is multi-lingual (at 3 languages right now), I find these tips formulate some of the things I am instinctively doing, and some things that I should be doing, but I don’t.

    One tip that I would add is learning languages, as a part of your daily to-do list.

  • John O’Donnel

    Congratulations on your project. I learned a lot from you.

    I have a suggestion too, as a language learner myself (japanese, spanish, english, portuguese and intend to start chinese soon): you should consider what languages you really want to use in life and master. Even if you went through 4 languages in a year as a learning experience, this does not means that you should keep all 4 languages. As you said in your last post, it’s hard to consider what is useful or useless to learn. In my view, all learning experiences are welcome and beneficial. But when it comes to be realistic about our expectations, pragmatism should prevail. For example, If I was going to maintain 4 languages, which is very hard to do at once, I’d ask myself what languages need more focus regarding others. Because languages are all different in their own peculiar grammars and pronunciations (as surely you noticed). Some require more effort and time than others. Besides, I guess it is better to drop one or two of them, and master the remaining ones. Unless you’re aiming to be a polyglot, diplomat or do business with a lot of language exchange.

    Sorry if it appears that I’m trying to discourage you, but I’m not really. I’m just saying that I wouldn’t be capable to do this myself considering a busy life.

    Keep sharing with us your plans, they are all very insightful.

    Thanks.

  • Leo

    Hey Scott,

    If you’re in Vancouver I definitely recommend you drop by LanguageCast Vancouver. They meet every Monday from 6:30 pm. About 100 people participate every week, mostly Korean and Japanese, but a good mix of Canadian, Latin and Chinese as well.

    Tell them Leo sent you!

    There’s also another big language meet up at the Wave’s coffee on Smithe every Monday to Thursday from 5 pm, but the emphasis is on speaking English. However, most participants are East Asian. If you go, tell Michael Leo said hi!

    Best of luck!

  • Jessie

    Another tip is to listen to some people chatting in your native language (ex. train) and then translate these through your mind into the language you are maintaining or if you have a pen and notebook with you, write your translations.

  • alex

    When is the Korea video going to be posted??

  • Ollie

    Cheers Scott. So are you actually doing Anki every day? Are you up to date or how many cards do you have backed up? I’m about to head to china for 3 months after a year of mandarin study, so this is all super relevant for when I get back to Australia afterwards. Cheers. O.

  • WIDOUSEE

    I’d like to learn several languages,but I found that its uneasy for a worker to study 3.5 hours.

  • Scott Young

    Alex,

    Soon! Vat and I have had some hiccups in production, but I’m hoping it will be finished in a month or so. (He’s started back at school and hasn’t had as much time to finish the editing)

    WIDOUSEE,

    That’s just for maintenance. I think if you were to start from scratch the time investment would be much higher.

    Ollie,

    Pretty much. I have a habit of doing Anki when I’m waiting for things throughout the day. I’m finally getting close to zero on the review cues (my Chinese deck had balooned to 4000+ and my Korean hit nearly 1500+, and are now both down to around 600)

    Leo,

    Thanks. I’ve already dropped by the Waves Coffee one, but I’m not sure how often I’ll go as it’s exclusively English.

    John O’Donnell,

    I agree. I might write about deliberate forgetting in a future post. In the meantime, however, I’m going to do my best to *maintain* the languages I’ve learned and be more selective about which I want to *improve*.

    -Scott

  • Brett Burky

    What really makes Anki that much better than Quizlet? I have tried both and I kept seeing that people keep talking about this more than Quizlet.

    I know that it has “n & back” is that the only thing that people are using to recommend over the other?

  • Scott Young

    Brett,

    I haven’t used Quizlet, so I can’t say. I don’t think there’s anything too special about Anki–but it is open source and supports a very generic format of displaying flashcards, so for the heavy-users it is a bit more friendly for modifying.

    I experimented with Memrise and Skritter a bit, but they have a more rigid format. Good if you want to study exactly what they’re offering, but not as good if you want to make your own decks or material.

    -Scott

  • Alex

    Thanks Scott ! Btw my mom (she’s korean) says yalls korean is pretty good!

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