How to Maintain a Language While Starting a New One

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You've climbed the hill of your first foreign language, maybe finding yourself at level A2 basecamp or even up on the plateau of endless conversations. Maybe you've even ascended further, building your language home and living near the peak for many years.

And now, you're beginning to think about learning the next language. Maybe you've got a trip coming up or you're simply feeling the curiosity.

It's time to learn a new language! The only question is:

How can you keep your other language fresh while starting on a new one?

Do you have to worry about forgetting everything you've learnt within weeks?

In my new podcast episode, I looked into this question in detail while answering a question from my listener Owen.

Click Play to listen to the podcast episode:

First of all, Would I Recommend Learning a Language While Maintaining Another?

It’s always a matter of taste, but my personal opinion is YES. It gets easier to learn your 2nd, 3rd, 4th language because you know yourself and you know languages.

In linguistics, this is called metalinguistic awareness. Your brain has become aware of structures and vocabulary, you already know some language, and you are able to transfer a little bit of that over to the next one.

In addition to this, you now have the psychological advantages of more positive self-talk, reduced self-doubt, increased self-efficacy.

You'll spend less time wondering if you have what it takes because you already know. This is a huge advantage.

Read more about these skills in my blog article about what gets easier after learning 10 languages

Next, it's time to consider how to get the most out of studying both languages.

What Can You Do When Words Pop Into Your Brain in the Wrong Language?

I’ve found that the more languages you want to keep active at the same time before they become so ingrained that speaking is just automatic, the more interference you experience.

Language interference happens whenever you learn new languages, even when you are adding your first ever foreign language. It happens to adults and children, and is a natural part of the process.

For a good insight into this, check out An Introduction to Foreign Language Learning and Teaching (Learning about Language) by Keith Johnson.

You can get

  • phonological interference (essentially an accent),
  • grammatical interference (word order, pronouns, tense, mood..), * . lexical interference (usually when you borrow words and put them into the 2nd language, like Denglisch or Engrish or English).

Then there’s ‘unintentional code switching’ which is the interference you experience when saying a word in the wrong language. Usually code switching is considered intentional but unintentional occurrences have been studied too.

We lose speaking fluency more readily especially when there wasn’t much speaking before, so you may find that a language is easy to re-learn on Duolingo but almost impossible to speak.

Focus on the skills you want to maintain

When you’re thinking about adding languages and maintaining older ones, it’s important to think not just about the level, but about what you actively want to DO with the language.

Rather than thinking “I want to maintain my French at level B1”, consider what you need the language for and what you want to be able to do at the drop of a hat. So the question is not just keeping it fresh, but HOW you keep it fresh.

Consider listening, speaking, reading and writing, and where you see yourself functioning. As discussed in my podcast about re-learning a language you've forgotten (click here to listen), you will still have literacy and structural understanding, but vocab seems to go more quickly.

Consider your goals in the new language

Are you dabbling, enjoying following your curiosity? This is common for a lot of polyglots.

Or are you considering a language with a serious purpose of functioning in the country?

Your goals in the new language affect how much time you are spending with it, and time really matters here!

So before diving into a project of learning 4 languages at the same time, consider whether you want to go deep and acquire any of them to a very high level, or you are happy veering to the other side of the road now and then.

Conclusions:

  1. You can’t just forget a language, but in order to keep it fresh you need to engage in maintenance activities and accept a learning curve when you immerse again
  2. Learning more languages, even at the same time, is awesome
  3. But don’t expect miracles, consider your goals and limitations
  4. Interference is normal

I would love to hear your stories of learning several languages at once. Leave a comment here, and subscribe to the Fluent Show for more language learning tips.