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(Re)activate your language skills

Anyone who has tried to learn a foreign language knows this familiar story. In the early stages, you are 'all in'. The new language is interesting, you are learning a lot about another culture. You make fantastic progress, diligently learning new vocabulary, analyzing grammar patterns and making insightful comparisons to your mother tongue. This honeymoon period of soon gives way to the chore of having to maintain the levels of enthusiasm needed to sustain such progress. As the months turn into years, and the initial interest fades, so too does the ability to recall key words, phrases and basic sentence structures. Sure, you can order a pizza or another beer and fool any waiter into thinking you have the language mastered, but in fact those few words and sentences that sound so natural in a restaurant or cafe setting, are doing all the heavy lifting. As soon, as the conversation turns form ordering off the menu to, say, politics, you are lost. Struggling to find the words to express even the simplest of opinions.

If any of this sounds familiar, don't worry, you are not alone. There are many factors that can contribute to second language regression. Most of us lead extremely busy lives, juggling career, family and all the day-to-day chores, tasks and obstacles that always seem to get in the way of our best laid plans. Maintaining a langue is difficult, especially if you are not living in a country where that language is spoken, or if you are not required to use the language on a regular basis either at work or at home.

Of course, technology can provide some respite. But, at the end of the day, something seems like it is missing when you are 'interacting' with a bot and not a real person. You miss all the non-verbal cues (which are essential in much human communication) not to mention that complete lack of spontaneity that is present when speaking with a 'real' person. However, apps like Babbel, uTalk and Duolingo can be great for bite-sized learning if you have a spare 5 minutes while commuting or in a waiting room.

However, there is simply no substitute for interaction with a real live human being, whether it's online or in-person. Many studies have shown that while revising through textbooks and using language learning apps, the deepest and most long-lasting acquisition of a foreign language comes through real and regular interaction with people, where the you have the opportunity to activate your language knowledge and thereby cementing those pieces of language (words, phrases, idioms, sentences) into your brain, making it more likely you will retain that knowledge and be able to use it when you need it.

So, what steps can you take to reactivate parts of the language forgotten long ago?

  1. Arrange for regular sessions communicating with a native speaker of your target language. Ideally, spend at least one hour, once a week interacting with someone in your target language in order to reactivate your language repertoire.

  2. Watch TV in your target language. With subtitles on or off, this is a great way to practice listening skills.

  3. 5 minutes of daily practice. Do this in the car through role-play of arrange a phone conversation with a friend and have have a quick chat in your target language. Or, sign up to language learning app for small chunks of regular practice.

  4. Be systematic. Schedule your practice time. Even if it's just five minutes, put it in your calendar.

  5. Keep a set of vocab cards that you can add to regularly. Go through them two or three times a day spending only 3-5 minutes doing so. Don't try to memorize them. Eventually, these vocab items will become fixed in your memory!

Remember, the brain is like a muscle and therefore needs regular exercise. These five tips are designed for those who lead busy lives and cannot spend hours and hours attending language courses or studying through textbooks. Try one or all of these steps, and before long your language muscle will be toned and raring to go!

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