One of the most common problems with language learning is forgetting. You spend months or years to build some knowledge of a language, only to find a few years later that you’re unable to speak it very well.
There’s a few ways you can deal with this. One is to simply accept that forgetting is a price paid as part of learning, with the silver lining that relearning tends to be faster. If you forget the language, you can brush up again with a shorter period of practice than originally.
Another way to deal with the problem is to be proactive—establish a regular maintenance schedule, like I did with the languages I learned. I found this helped a lot to prevent backsliding, but it’s not perfect. More, it can be annoying to keep practicing a language you don’t plan to use, if you want to move onto doing other things.
One theory suggests that if you learn a language to fluency, you won’t forget it. That forgetting only occurs because you were at an intermediate level. Reach fluency once, it’s said, and you can speak the language forever.
Does Being Fluent Prevent Forgetting?
I’m not convinced by this theory, but I suspect it has two grains of truth. The simplest explanation is that when you’re fluent, there’s so much more to forget that you can forget a lot and still have retained functionality. By this account, fluency offers no added protection to the decay of memory, it’s simply a greater volume to forget.
The secondary explanation has to do with overlearning. This is that when you speak a language fluently you are using it frequently in real situations. Real situations have considerable overlap, where common words and phrases are used far more than uncommon ones. This results in a psychological effect called overlearning, where extra practice that goes beyond perfect recall increases the stability of your memories.
My suspicion is that the relatively low loss of language by once-fluent speakers is largely these two effects, but it’s also possible there’s a third benefit that makes reaching fluency a more stable goal.
Was I Able to Level-Up My Korean?
My trigger for this essay today was in the wrap-up of my recent project to level-up my Korean. On one level, the project was successful. I stuck to my predetermined schedule and added tons of new vocabulary and grammatical knowledge which showed up in my tutoring sessions.
On another level though, the project was a failure. My original motivation for the project had been to reach a high enough level to sustain genuine interactions with people, in Korean, while living in Canada. That didn’t end up happening, so even though my Korean got better, it didn’t get to the point I wanted to reach.
I think this failure largely came down to a mistake I made early on. My thought was that my lack of immersion in Korean in Canada now was mostly hobbled by my inadequate Korean skills. That if I worked on it for a few months, I’d be able to engage more fluently with speakers here who also speak English.
In practice, I think the problem had less to do with my level of Korean (which was probably already enough, to be honest), and more to do with my lack of a foundation of activities and opportunities to socialize in Korean.
In other words, I had mistaken a linguistic problem for a social one. The irony is, that this was essentially the thesis of the Year Without English. During that project, I wanted to demonstrate that pushing immersion, even at a very low level, can be successful for language learning. The fact that I turned back on this when attempting my level-up project, I think underscores how counter-intuitive it is.
Can You Maintain Immersion in More than One Language at a Time?
I’m done my Korean project now, as I’m starting a writing project that’s going to demand my full attention. I’m not giving up on Korean, but I’m switching it back to the status it had before: maintenance through occasional practice, not active improvement.
Although part of the reason was that I simply ran out of time, I’ve also become more aware of the difficulty of trying to simultaneously maintain immersive environments in more than a few languages at a time. Once I realized the flaw with my Korean project midway, I switched to trying to build more contacts with Korean people here in Vancouver. The challenge is that this is time consuming. I already have friends and pre-existing social contacts, so it’s difficult to add a bunch of new ones, without pushing other activities out.
This was a major reason, during our trip, that Vat and I insisted on the No-English Rule from Day One. Once you establish a social life wherever you’re living, you’ll be reluctant to ignore friends and social engagements to strike up new, more difficult social relationships in another language. Starting from scratch is easier because you don’t have anything to compete with.
None of this should be taken as an impenetrable barrier. Of course, if I were really serious, I could overcome these challenges and improve my Korean. However, as I think about it more, I’m inclined to focus more on improving my Chinese.
Is It Better to Master One Language or Be Adequate at a Few?
One idea I’ve written about before is the idea that there are some things worth learning well and others worth learning poorly. Meaning, that some skills, if you learn just a little bit of them, will reap most of the rewards. In contrast, other skills are only worth learning if you intend to get very good at them.
I suggested languages were something worth learning poorly. Because if you know a little bit of a language, you can do quite a bit with it. No, you might not be able to fluently discuss politics or philosophy, but you can easily travel and communicate with people who speak that language but not yours. A little bit of language is a good thing.
I stand by that opinion, at the lower ranges of language learning. However, my feeling is that once you get past the intermediate level of a language, the next cluster of benefits come at a much higher level.
To express this idea concretely, if you were looking at a graph of the benefits of learning a language, you’d see a spike at the early levels, corresponding with suddenly being able to order food, travel and have simple communication with people. Then you’d see a second spike at a level near complete fluency, corresponding to being able to do deeply functional things in the language like negotiate business, work professionally, consume media, etc..
For all of the languages I’ve learned, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Mandarin Chinese and Korean, I feel like my ability is above the first spike. I can do all the basic things pretty easily, and I’ve practiced them enough that I’m unlikely to forget them for a long time.
However, for Mandarin Chinese (and possibly Spanish), I’m beginning to notice the second spike. During my last trip to China, I was able to give two live talks in Chinese, as well as discuss business with some potential colleagues. That’s a different set of benefits I’m only starting to tap into.
Where I find myself with the other languages is more of the gulf between the easy benefits of low-to-intermediate abilities, but still a long way from the hard benefits of being a fluent speaker.
This leads me to think that, for now, I’m going to strive to push further with Chinese rather than try to continue the level-up with Korean.
Weighing in on the Mastery/Polyglot Debate
There’s a bit of debate about whether you should master a single language or dabble in a bunch. I think part of the heat of this debate is fueled by the perceived impressiveness. That is to say, a polyglot who speaks many languages, is often seen as very impressive, even if their ability with any particular language is actually quite low. Whereas, someone truly fluent might actually have done a lot more work, and thus be more deserving of praise.
Side note: Honestly impressiveness is probably the worst reason to learn any language, never mind a bunch of them. Telling people you speak multiple languages is usually awkward and conceited. Them finding out usually results in skepticism or trying to “test” you. This isn’t to say nobody finds it interesting, but just to say that if you’re learning languages with the purpose of seeming “cool” you’re going to have a bad time.
I think the benefits of language learning are mostly intrinsic. From that perspective, there’s two broad sets of benefits, one that comes early on and one that comes much later. Whether you favor full fluency in a single language or adequacy in several depends a lot on which benefit matters to you more.
I would lump the early benefits into two broad categories. The first are travel benefits, meaning that you can now travel in countries that speak that language with much greater ease. The second are cultural bridging benefits, allowing you to interact with monolingual speakers of that language, which helps you get outside your own cultural bubble.
The later benefits mostly have to do with deeper experiences. Interacting meaningfully with native media (novels, movies, music). Working professionally or studying in the language.
Because the early benefits can be reached much faster, they don’t require as long a commitment and it’s possible to reach that level in multiple languages within a few years. This is great if you want to explore the world and dip into different cultures and experiences. The later benefits take a lot more work, so it’s usually a decades-long project.
What Do You Think?
The tl;dr version of my views right now are:
- Maintain adequacy in multiple languages.
- Focus on getting really good at one (maybe two).
I’m curious, however, what your views are. Do you speak more than one language? If so, why did you do so? If you speak multiple languages, do you focus on one, or improve them all evenly?
I’d be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments.