Welcome, budding polyglot. If you’re reading this, I am sure you’ve heard the phrase, “If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it”. At one point or another, anyone who has ever studied a language has heard this phrase. Unfortunately, it’s dead wrong and has driven millions of people down the wrong path. It can be easy to disregard something if you think you will need constant maintenance just to remain average. This is one of the reasons why people struggle to go to the gym day in and day out. However, that doesn’t mean it has to be as difficult as it is made out to be. There are some very effective strategies that one can use to maintain their languages, but for now, let’s talk about recovering the language you gave up all those years ago.
Before we begin, though, I want to make it clear, you know and remember more than you think you do. The idea that your brain just discards all of the information you don’t use on a day to day basis is just incorrect. The most important part of this exercise will be reframing the way you view languages and your way of learning and retaining them. You will only “lose it” if you make the decision to never come back to it.
You know more than you think
As I said above, the idea that you lose what you don’t use is ludicrous. It may be more difficult to recall the longer you go without using it, but your language is not gone, it is lying dormant, waiting for your return. Here is how you make that return and hit the ground running as you recover your language and begin working to master it once again:
- Remember where you started.
One of the more challenging things about this reframing is thinking about where you are and not where you think you should be. It is easy to say, “I studied for x years, therefore I should be at y level”, however this is simply not how it works. Everyone has their own path and comparing yourself to where others are at in their journey is counterproductive. The only reason to remember where you started is to be able to see how far you’ve come.
- Where did you end?
This is important for a couple different reasons, not the least of which is understanding what drove you to stop. Was it a bad teacher? Were you working on a language you had no interest in? Were you just young and dumb?
Understanding what made you stop can serve you in that you will know what to avoid this time around. Your goal, and mine for you, is to make language learning a part of your everyday routine. In order to do this, you will need to be honest with yourself and do what you can to play to your strengths and mitigate your weaknesses. Everyone learns differently, that’s why the education system has failed to teach most people how to acquire a language. Boilerplate courses and one way systems will never be appropriate for hundreds if not thousands of drastically different learning styles.
- What did you enjoy?
Now that the things holding you back have been decided, what are some of the things you actually did enjoy about learning another language?
Whether you enjoyed listening to the other language because it was melodic or speaking with others because you were able to connect with new people in a new language, focusing on what you enjoyed will be important as you start over. The goal is to create a system where you stack Ws by doing things you already enjoy. If you love music, search for music in your target language. If you love history, search for history lectures in your target language. If you love to read, find books ranging in difficulty in your target language. Do you spend time watching TV? Watch some series in your target language with subtitles in your native language.
If you are doing what you enjoy it becomes a delight to study rather than a drag. For a long time you did not get to choose your study materials, that is no longer the case. Vocabulary worksheets and pass/fail tests are nothing compared to simulated immersion.
- What support do you wish you’d had?
You are the only person you can depend on now, assuming you are undertaking this endeavor on your own without a coach. That means it will be on you to put the support infrastructure into place. The advantage to this is that you can choose what you surround yourself with and how you reward yourself. Some of the support that is provided to the masses by and large does not do much in the way of keeping people motivated. Part of the issue is that motivation is the goal when discipline should be. If you are disciplined in your language studies you will crush every motivated person on the way to the top.
A good starting question is, “What is the minimum that I can do, that I would do, day after day and what would I like as a reward for that?”; and once you set the foundation you can build upon it. It is time to set yourself up for success.
Take Control of Your Language Acquisition
Now that we have established everything that went wrong and a couple of things that went right, it is time to plug it all in and win. Only you know what will work best for you. You also now know that your language lies dormant, waiting for you to come back and revive it. If your goal is to become fluent and work with the language in a professional capacity, the best time to start is now. In a year, doing the right things, you will be well on your way to C2 certification. However, if your goal is to be conversational, you are much closer than you may think.
The most challenging part of becoming conversational or fluent will be speaking, unless you live somewhere that allows for total immersion. With that in mind, it is important to facilitate immersion as much as possible. As you begin shopping around for the best language app you will notice they often go back to the idea of simulating immersion. Of course this is the goal, but a computer or phone will never be an adequate replacement for the real thing. The best way to set yourself up for success is by finding a native speaker with whom you can practice. It is also imperative that you understand you will make mistakes, and lots of them. This is all part of the process. Write down your mistakes, correct them, and continue learning.
An advantage you have now over yourself of the past is that you know what did and did not work for you. Now that you are in control you can put more into the things that move the needle the most at your own pace rather than defaulting to what everyone else is told works best. What matters now is that you don’t let what you’re good at be a reason to avoid what you struggle with in the language. If you love to read but hate to write, you need to spend more time writing. If you hate speaking, you need to speak more. If you struggle to read, you need to read more. Focus on what needs the most improvement when you are recovering, the rest will come.
This is a big week. Going into the second month of the year, it is time to decide if 2024 is the year you walk into as a bilingual. If you are hesitating because you stepped away from learning a language years ago, I hope this reveals the truth to you and you make the decision to pick it back up. Just because you have a foundation, though, does not mean it will be easy. You will face many of the same struggles as anyone who is learning a second language. That said, you also have the advantage of seeing everything for the second time rather than the first. Be gracious with yourself, and understand you can do difficult things and be great. So go do difficult things and be great. I will be here rooting for your success and watching your progress. In the end, there is no comprehensive guide, no tips or tricks to carry anyone across the finish line. Language acquisition requires time, effort, and consistency. That said, it is something that anyone of any age is more than capable of accomplishing.