There’s a story you hear all the time from language learners. It goes something like this:
I took French in school, and I got pretty fluent at it by the end. But then I lived in Germany for a while and studied the language, and now when ever I try to speak French, it comes out in German.
But there are some people, and I’m one of them, who manage to maintain conversational fluency in multiple languages learned after childhood. It takes some initial investment, but the concept is quite simple. Here’s how.
You need to practise both languages simultaneously. I don’t mean at exactly the same time because obviously a word that leaves your mouth is only going to be in one language, but any day where you speak some of language X should also be a day where you speak some language Y. Or if you speak one language on Monday, speak the other one on Tuesday.
But don’t go for longer than a week without speaking all the languages you want to maintian separate from each other, especially when you’re at the early learning stages of a new language. It’s probably easiest to have certain people who you speak each language to, so that you can develop some associations, but basically this is it.
There are some intuitive-yet-counterintuitive reasons that this works. The counterintuitive part is that the total immersion model is generally considered the gold standard for language learning. But you only learn what you practise, and in immersion, you practise being a monolingual. If all you want is to be able to hold really fluent conversations in a single other language, then you should absolutely go for immersion.
But people who want to become translators don’t just practise speaking both languages, they practise translating between them, because this is a slightly different skill. And people who want to be fluent in multiple languages at the same time need to practise speaking multiple languages at the same time. If you want to go somewhere and surround yourself with a language, my suggestion is to spend an hour or two several nights a week doing sonething in the other language you want to maintain.
The brain is very plastic: it will do what you train it to do. But the brain is also very efficient, so if it rarely has to do something, then it won’t learn how to do it. Think about little kids learning another language: if they are exposed to people who speak to them in several languages, then they will learn several. But if they move to an area where a different language is spoken and have no more exposure to the other language, they will fairly quickly forget it entirely.
So what does this look like for adult learners in practise? A couple options: you can start two new languages at the same time (not for the faint of heart), or you can continue with a language you’ve been learning while starting a new one. The good news is that once you can hold a tolerable conversation in language 3, it’s probably pretty safely cordoned off from language 2. However if you start a language 4, you will need to be simultaneously active in both L2 and L3 in order to keep them separate. And for L5 you need to use all the previous ones.
Not the easiest thing in the world, but of the dozen or so languages that I’ve studied, it’s precisely those that I studied/spoke at the same time that never come out accidentally in place of each other, and it’s those that I studied separately that insist on lumping themselves in with another language. So that’s one testimonial. Anyone else have similar (or different) experiences?