Maintaining your languages

Answering my challenge, Ask Me Anything, my friend Gio from Miami wrote:

“How do manage to keep your languages active and up to date while on the road?”

Most of you know that I am a writer and a translator, so I must work with at least two languages. But there are many reasons to need another language:

  • for work (translator, interpreter, tour guide, etc.), or
  • travel (on the road for business or pleasure), or
  • school (literature, research, reading), or
  • just to be able to read books or watch movies and videos in the original language.

Once you stop using your second language regularly, it begins to degrade. If you learned it as a youngster or over many years of residence, it may slip slowly, but it will slip. Familiar words won’t come to mind immediately, or you might trip on a grammatical item. When this happens to me in Italian, I can almost always recognize that I made the error right away, but it’s out of my mouth or on the page already.

Languages that we learn quickly or don’t use often, for example, my German, Dutch, or Spanish, will fade more quickly. I can teach myself some tourist-level competence using Duolingo, Rosetta Stone, or another language-learning program, in just weeks or a few months, but after passing through the target country, the language fades so fast that I can’t use it at any level by the time I get back “home,” wherever that is at the moment.

Yet, as a professional, I need to maintain my Italian and my French. No excuses for being the Freewheeling Freelancer, riding almost everywhere except Italy and France these days.

In my experience, maintaining my “source language” is easier than ever in the 21st Century. Most important for someone on the road a lot, I no longer need to carry boxes of heavy books everywhere, look for newsstands with foreign newspapers or magazines, or listen to short-wave radio broadcasts.

To maintain the languages that I cannot afford to let weaken, I must:

  1. Keep reading.
  2. Keep talking.
  3. Keep listening.
  4. Keep writing.

Here’s how that works on the road:

  1. Reading. I have bookmarks to major Italian and French daily newspapers in my browser. Over breakfast every day, I read not only the American news, but the main articles in a British, French and Italian newspaper. I almost always have at least one Italian eBook open in my reader. Finally, my many friends in Italy, France and Québec who post to Facebook and LinkedIn help keep me refreshed.
  2. Talking. This is more problematic. In addition to making sure that I speak Italian and French to my friends from those countries wherever I am, I occasionally chat with friends using Skype, Hangouts, or one of the other video or audio chat apps. I don’t do this as much as I would like, but being on the road (or away from the country) is no longer the excuse it was in the 20th Century and before.
  3. Listening. In addition to the bookmarks to the newspapers, I stream music and audio programs on my phone and my computer. For example, as I write this, I am listening to Rai Radio Tutta Italiana from Italy. Similarly, I could tune into the news or podcasts from a dozen channels – and that’s just the RAI offerings. French and Quebecois broadcasters also offer streaming.
  4. Writing. I have kept some of the entries in my diary in Italian and French for decades, and once in a while, I am inspired to write stories or poetry in Italian, just for the heck of it. Naturally, I write my emails in French and Italian to those who use those languages. I take advantage of the opportunity to write email to “up my game” by editing them carefully to make sure that I am not becoming sloppy or “anglicizing” my language in email. English has already invaded other languages with a heavy hand; I try not to be part of that problem.

This seems like a lot of work, but I cannot allow my working languages to slip below the level I need to perform professionally. And believe me, I am delighted that it makes no difference where I am, as long as I have an internet or cellphone connection. Downloadable audio, video and eBook content even allows me to skip over the lapses in cell coverage.

What about other languages? What if I want to keep up a language that I learned more casually, for example, just for a short visit on vacation? Or what if I want to learn a language I don’t speak for any reason? Languages that I learned as an adult can be built on and maintained using the same techniques described above. However, what I find more helpful is to continue whatever language training program I was using before I passed through the country. What I learned and heard and read while in country helps me build the language in the training program, so that I continue to get better after leaving the country. The alternative is to watch it fade quickly.

My son Daniel has impressed me by studying Dutch, German, Spanish and Magyar using Duolingo to a level where he is conversational in French, Dutch, Spanish and Italian and can probably cross into Germany or Hungary with only a few weeks’ warning.

These are some of my tips for maintaining my languages on the road.

Do you have any others?

Obrigado, Gio!

Smooth roads & tailwinds,


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