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.