I’ve been known to let my languages languish from time to time. I’m not ashamed of this– projects, I think, should be fluid and adaptable. Sometimes you have more free time to devote to what you want, and sometimes a new interest takes hold and you put your others on the back burner for a while. If polyglottery is a goal of yours, switching your “focus” languages is part of the game. We all have the same number of hours each day, and, unfortunately, they’re finite.
The nice thing to know is that getting rusty at a language does not make it as if you had never learned it in the first place! Always know you can jump back in, and you’ll likely relearn old skills faster than the first time around. Sometimes, it doesn’t even feel like you have to relearn anything– it’s as if the language was always there, and you just needed a small reminder.
That being said, I like to learn a language to a decent level before I take a break to focus on another one (or more). The more secure you are in the language, the harder it is to forget things. For example, French is my strongest language– I focused on it nonstop for about a year before I tried other languages or interests. I’ve read a lot in French, I had a long-term conversation partner, and it has really become a part of my life. So, when I take time off from French, I still feel pretty confident about it when I come back. In my experience, when I’ve taken time off from languages I don’t know very well, it can be a little alarming to come back to them.
Finally, and it should go without saying, the best way to avoid this kind of issue is to keep the language in your life in some way, rather than forsaking it completely! Even when I’m not focusing on French, I try listen to French radio and read French news a couple times a week. As I’ve said recently, I’m taking a hiatus from Dutch, but I’m still doing short bouts of reading each day.
So, with all that out of the way, here’s how I revive languages!
1. Watch a movie!
Pretty easy, I’d say. This one comes from my direct experience. I’m not talking about heavy amounts of immersion or anything. Just watch one film, preferably one originally produced in the language (no dubs!).
A couple years ago, I had taken quite a bit of time away from French. Possibly months away from it– after all, I was in the middle of law school, and things were very busy. However, I decided to sit down to watch the wonderful québécois film, Monsieur Lazhar, simply out of interest, not out of a desire to improve my language skills. After I watched the movie, I was surprised to find that I was easily thinking in French again, and I could speak fluidly and confidently (I was speaking at my then-boyfriend, who watched the movie with me!). The words were just coming to me in a way I thought I had lost from my time away from the language.
I think it had this effect because I gave my undivided attention to native-spoken French for about two hours. Usually my listening is more haphazard– I listen to radio while I work on something else, or I watch a shorter TV episode. The fact that it was an art film helped too– actors in art films tend to speak more “naturally” than they do in action movies, animations, or even talk radio. There’s hardly any heightened dialogue here, except for a couple of dramatic speeches. I can’t explain it too much, but I think the combination of the style of speech plus my attention revved up my French in a way I hadn’t anticipated. It was very comforting– I often worry about losing abilities in a variety of skills, but this experience taught me that well-learned skills are not so easily lost.
2. Extensive Reading!
Language is a natural, biologically-rooted skill. People are made to learn languages, barring learning or communication disabilities. Therefore, I find that it helps to view a languages not as a step-by-step, linear achievement, but rather as a conglomerate of different skills and abilities that come together to present as proficiency in a certain language.
This is where extensive reading comes in. I took some time off Spanish a while ago, and when I got back into it, I decided to return to my trusty Harry Potter books. The books are not too difficult to read if you have the basics of a language down, and my personal knowledge of the series provides an extra bolster to keep my interest when I don’t know every single word. Choose a book that’s at a level you know you’ll enjoy– and if you’re not enjoying it, choose something easier!
I’m doing this with Italian right now, but instead of novels, I’m using a reader aimed at learners. I’m not really doing the exercises, although I glance at the vocabulary lists included after each reading. My focus is on reading and reacquainting myself with Italian after a long break.
Jumping right back into reading for 15 or 20 minutes a day gives you a broader sense of the language and gently reminds you of vocabulary and grammar patterns that might have disappeared from your active skills, but that you can still recognize in context. Because we’re talking extensive reading, it’s important to keep the focus on the reading itself. Reading quantity is the goal here! Don’t stop to look up words unless you’re absolutely dying to know. That can come later when you’ve refreshed the language a bit. Extensive reading is just a nice way to get acquainted with a language again, maybe one you don’t know well enough to understand movies in. It’s fun, you see language in context, and after a book or two, you can get back into the hardcore learning, if that’s what you’re after!
There are plenty of ways to revive a rusty language, but these are two methods that I personally come back to over and over again. It’s not the end of the world if you’ve forgotten about a language for some time– I find that forgotten skills are easy to re-acquire through input, and you’ll be back to where you were in no time!