Maintaining Languages

Discussion in 'The language learning methods of Big_Dog' started by Big_Dog, Feb 27, 2014.

  1. Big_Dog

    Big_Dog Administrator Staff Member

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    Time required to maintain.

    In a post titled “How to learn many languages to a high level” I state that the most efficient way is to learn a single language all the way to C1/C2, then move on to the next one. The reason for this is that maintaining C1/C2 languages takes little if any time. In contrast, maintaining languages at B2 or below takes enough time to severely limit the number of languages one is capable of learning. After all, there are only so many hours in a day. Let me explain how I came to this conclusion.

    I have experimented extensively with maintaining languages. I have learned 8 languages to a level of B1 or better over the years, and I can speak 7 of them at my highest, or near highest, level at any given moment. This is a good indication that my maintenance method works. Let me summarize my languages and maintenance experiences below.

    English – native; obviously this doesn’t need to be maintained.

    Spanish – C1; started learning at the age of 11 and learned over the course of 30 years very slowly and inefficiently. Other than overhearing conversations, occasionally glancing at a Mexican TV show, or having a Skype conversation 1 or 2 times a year, I don’t use it. I probably spend less than 5 hours a year “maintaining” it. It doesn’t need to be maintained; it’s still there. Ok, in the first minute of conversation after months or years of inactivity I often sound like an imbecile, but it comes back quickly after that, and listening is never a problem. Is the reason I don’t need to maintain because I learned it to C1, or that I learned it for 30 years? I will include that in my post about CEFR levels later, but I believe it’s because I’m a true C1. You can reach C1 much faster than I did, and still be able to get away without maintaining. Conclusion – it’s not necessary to maintain a C1 language.

    Swahili – B1; started at the age of 38, learned it for a few months, and was immersed in it for 3 years. I lived in Tanzania, used it daily, and reached a “conversational B1” level. I haven’t used it since, and would have great difficulty trying to converse today. This is the only one of my languages that I let slip away, because I have no need or interest to maintain it. Conclusion – not maintaining a B1 language will result in your level dropping.

    I have been learning/maintaining my last 5 languages since I started them.

    Thai – B2; started it at the age of 42.

    Japanese – B2; started it at the age of 44.

    Mandarin – B1; started it at the age of 46.

    French – B2; started it at the age of 48.

    Russian – B1; started it at the age of 49.

    I’m now 52. Thai was my first self-learned language. I learned it to A2/B1, then just quit it for about 6 months to learn Japanese. After the 6 months I visited Thailand, and was disappointed to find out my level had dropped back to A1. I had to re-learn about half of what I knew before. Yes, I learned it faster the 2nd time, but the loss was significant. So that fueled the desire to maintain my languages, because I wanted to be able to use my languages at any time, or at least get back to “normal” in under a week.

    I started experimenting with language maintenance. I wanted to put the least amount of time possible into this. I was in the process of adding new languages, and I preferred to use as much of my free time as possible to study them. This experimentation was one of the main reasons I became such a big believer in Synergy. Let me explain.

    I tried to maintain my Thai. Again, it was A2/B1 at that point. I didn’t want to be learning any new material; after all, that was one of the basic principals behind maintenance. The trouble was, I learned Thai by using a textbook, memorizing vocabulary, and talking to native speakers when I was in country. No reading, no writing and no listening. So I did what I could do – I talked to native speakers on Skype once or twice a week, and I went to Thailand once a year. When I visited Thailand, I was able to check my level. It had dropped considerably, but it came back to about where it had been after 2 or 3 weeks. This recovery was also due to the fact that I normally studied new material in country. But my conclusion was that under my current method I wasn’t really maintaining, I was just limiting damage.

    I used the same learning and maintenance methods with Japanese for quite a while, and as a result I was just limiting my damage. But when I started learning Mandarin, I started listening to all my languages on a regular basis. Inspired by the improvements in my learning, I decide to add listening to my maintenance plan too. (Note - since I was studying three languages at the same time, I started the habit of only learning one language actively, and putting the others on hold. When visiting the host country, I switched the active language to the host language while I was there. I make this point because I want you to see the need for maintenance. I maintained languages on hold.) My verdict on adding listening was that it helps, but I was still experiencing a slight level drop.

    I started to read Thai on a regular basis about the same time I started to learn and read French. I could tell that this was helping my learning a lot. Actually, I had been making very feeble attempts to read Japanese and Mandarin for a couple of years, so this latest revelation inspired me to shore up those efforts. I went to China and read several small learner books, and kept this up for several months after getting back. I did something similar for Japanese. And of course I added reading to my language maintenance schedule.

    Now I need to be careful here, because I didn’t want to spend too much time on maintaining, and it’s easy to add time when adding skills. So I sat down and decided I needed to practice each of the skills at least once a week, but I wouldn’t go over 30 min/day total. I prefer to do each skill twice a week, but sometimes I fail. And due to work, I probably average closer to 2.5 hours a week than 3.5. Note - there is definitely a difference in B2 and B1 languages. B2 take less time to maintain. But I continue to shoot for 30 min/day for simplicity.

    Anyway, I discovered that conversation, listening and reading is a pretty effective way to maintain a language. I finally felt that my level wasn’t dropping. I’d like to mention a caveat though. If you study a language for many hours a day, learning lots of new material, for weeks or months, then go into 30 min a day maintenance mode, before too long you will notice a drop in your level. This is because during that short intensive study period you were sort of artificially at a higher level. In this case, it’s best to reduce your hours slowly over several months. Give your brain enough time to assimilate the new material before reducing all that reinforcing comprehensible input to only 30 min a day.

    Let me address languages at A2 or lower by using some different cases. Say you have memorized 100 words. To me, it would be very inefficient to try to maintain these. I’d just wait until I have enough time to truly study a language, and start over. What if you know several hundred words and can exchange some greetings? I can’t see spending the time to maintain this either, for the same reason. What if you studied Mandarin for 2 hours a day for 6 months, but then don’t have time to study it for a year? You know a few hundred characters, a few hundred words, can hold very basic conversation, understand really simple podcasts for learners and can’t read anything but some lines from a textbook. If it were me, I wouldn’t try to maintain it. It’s unlikely that spending 30 min a day will save much of what you had after a year. It takes more time to maintain a language at a lower level, it will be hard to find appropriate materials to maintain it, it’s not good to keep repeating the same materials over and over, etc. You are better off to continue learning, maybe at a reduced rate, or just dropping the language until you have more time. Conclusion – don’t maintain languages at A2 or lower.


    The future. To be honest, if I have time off and I can truly spend 3.5 hours a week maintaining a language with conversation, listening and reading, I find my level actually rises a tiny bit. This is something exciting I discovered when I spent nearly 6 months at home, not working, and studying Russian actively. My maintained languages improved a little over that time. It’s important for me to shoot for 3.5 hours a week when I’m working, because my schedule will eat into my study time some times. So I’m not going to change the old 30 min/day goal. 30 min is easy to think and talk about too. Regardless, 3.5 hours is too much, which is a good thing.

    So I’ve proven 2.5 is possible. Can I reduce it further? Well that’s what I’m trying to do right now. The last year or two I’ve been experimenting more and more with writing. Because I was impressed by the results, suddenly the concept of Synergy presented itself to me, and that’s why I’ve written all of these posts. The well-rounded approach is more efficient. I believe writing will drop the magic number to 2.0.

    In addition, I’m considering challenging the very definition of maintenance by learning a little new material. I’m assuming that learning new material in each skill will make maintenance even more efficient. I hope to get down to 1.5 hrs/week, or maybe even just 1.


    Summary. So, I’ve learned 8 languages. My mother tongue and a C1 language don’t require maintenance. One B1 language wasn’t maintained, and deteriorated down to practically nothing. The other 5 languages, all in the B’s, require regular work to maintain their levels. Common sense dictates that one shouldn’t maintain A2 or less. Therefore, I’ve come up with the following table for the time required to maintain:

    C1/C2 – zero

    B1/B2 – 30min/day

    A1/A2 – not worth it


    How to do it?

    Let me reiterate that I am talking about maintaining B1/B2 languages. The best thing you can do is practice all the skills. You can use Synergy step 4 as a guide. Maintain similar to the way you learn, but don’t spend as much time at it, and don’t add new material. You should do this 30 min/day.

    Converse, listen, read and write material that you are somewhat comfortable with, preferably at i+1. No grammar, vocabulary or pronunciation studies; just use the language. Try to do 2 sessions per week if possible, to spread it out and keep your mind fresh. A sample schedule: Reading 30 min, twice a week; Writing 15 min, twice a week; Conversing 30 min, twice a week; Watching movies 30 min, twice a week.
    Ogrim2, iguanamon, Iversen and 3 others like this.
  2. cm.1

    cm.1 Guest

    I agree with everything here.
  3. sfuqua

    sfuqua New Member

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    i had a nice surprise with my Samoan. When I lived in Samoa for 6 years as a Peace Corps volunteer, I rapidly got to a C2 level (as measured by repeated FSI tests). I left Samoa and used Samoan less than 10 times over the next 30 years. I hadn't heard or spoken it for the last 10 years, when I realized that my neighbor was Samoan. We talked for 45 minutes. I was less than perfect in my speech, but I bet I would be fine after a couple of hours. My listeing comprehension seemed as good as ever.

    So, 30 years with zero maintenance, left me with decent Samoan...
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  4. Big_Dog

    Big_Dog Administrator Staff Member

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    Cool story. In my last job, I actually worked with a Samoan. He was always trying to get me to learn Samoan. We talked about it quite a bit. Interesting language and people. Gotta get there some day.
  5. Bob

    Bob Active Member VIP member

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    I've done 0 maintenance on Spanish for 4 years. Tried it a few days ago... It's all still there. But oddly, when I try to think of something to say, it starts coming out Cebuano. I watched some TV recordings, understood it just fine, and then tried to remember what they had said. I said in my head, "Hi, ako si... no no no :p"

    It would probably take a few days to flip back over. I couldn't claim C1 in anything but reading in Spanish in the past. Maybe it's enough to just have a high level in one skill?
  6. Big_Dog

    Big_Dog Administrator Staff Member

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    Possibly. For me, the one skill would be listening.
  7. Peregrinus

    Peregrinus Active Member

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    Big Dog, have you experimented to see if there is a difference for your B1/B2 langs if you do all the practice for a lang in longer sessions just once or twice a week versus smaller sessions every day?

    I once mentioned on HTLAL a novel I read years ago, Shibumi, by Trevanian. The protagonist (an assassin and cave explorer with an interest in Japanese aesthetics) grew up multilingually and during a stint in a Japanese prison maintained his langs by designating each day of the week for an individual lang, as well as one for the Basque language he was learning from a grammar and dictionary. And for those other langs, apart from Japanese which he spoke with the guards, he had no way of maintaining except by thinking in the language and trying to review what was in his mind. Which raises the question whether, despite not being able to enumerate all the vocabulary explicitly, one could maintain just by concerted efforts at thinking.
  8. Big_Dog

    Big_Dog Administrator Staff Member

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    I've found that twice a week for each skill works pretty well, as I mentioned above. More than that, and sessions get too small. Less than that, and I forget too much between sessions.
  9. Peregrinus

    Peregrinus Active Member

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    Actually what I meant was limiting the study of an individual lang to just one or two days, regardless of which skills those sessions focused on. For example you have 7 languages in your profile besides English. So have you ever just allotted one day of the week to each language, which thus would mean practicing all the skills for a language on the same day?
  10. Big_Dog

    Big_Dog Administrator Staff Member

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    Yes. I've done more and less than twice a week, and found twice a week to be the sweet spot for me.
  11. Peregrinus

    Peregrinus Active Member

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    Dr. Arguelles once said on HTLAL that maintenance is the hardest task for a polyglot. And I remember Big Dog opining that once having reached a C level in a lang, then explicit maintenance is not really necessary. Also Kato Lomb said in her book that with her weaker languages, when she had a need to use them again, usually a translation job, she spent some time reviving the language by going over the materials she used to learn it, like a course and a novel. So when it comes to maintenance, perhaps getting langs up to the C levels allows one to be able to drop them from weekly maintenance/learning and devote that time to other languages not yet up to that level, and then to merely revive those C langs later as needed. Dr. Arguelles said that 20 minutes a day was generally sufficient for maintenance, but that if one was interested in reading literature it was more like an hour of doing precisely that.

    The above suggests to me that long-term the most efficient route to learning multiple languages might be to learn one or two at a time to the C levels, and then temporarily leave them aside as one moves on to new languages. Of course time not explicitly spent on language learning, like general radio and TV for entertainment could be done in those C languages rather that one's native language and be kind of a bonus maintenance that still did not detract from languages currently being learned.
  12. Stelle

    Stelle Active Member VIP member

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    There's a lot of range within a C, though, and I think that - even at the C level - some maintenance is required. That said, what I think of as maintenance (and as learning) at that level, you might think of as "time not explicitly spent on language learning": reading, watching TV or the news, chats with native speakers.
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  13. neofight78

    neofight78 Member VIP member

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    Perhaps you have already written about it somewhere, if so I'd be grateful for a link, but I'd be interested to read a bit more about your experience with writing, how and why it's given you good results and perhaps how best to use it to improve. I've started writing more myself recently, and I'm beginning to quite enjoy it, but I only write when I feel inspired and I'm not sure how much it's helping.
  14. Big_Dog

    Big_Dog Administrator Staff Member

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    Here's my big post on writing. All of my methodology posts can be found in this sub-forum. Samples of my method and corrected Russian writing are here.

    Like you, I also find it a little harder to get motivated to practice writing than other skills, probably because I don't really intend it to use it on a regular basis afterwards; it's just some thing I do to facilitate learning. I've been getting better at picking topics. You've probably heard about the use of islands as discussed in this book. Now I try to write about things that I talk about all the time, which helps create islands. Of course writing a whole page is pretty long for an island, but it's good to really think through and understand the structure of topics I cover so often. After I get my writing corrected, I often feed the sentences into anki, and I can really tell the difference the next time I talk about that topic. I can slam Benny very well in several languages now!
    Last edited: Oct 9, 2014
  15. Cainntear

    Cainntear Active Member VIP member

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    I've come to a point in my learning where this notion of "reviving" or "reactivating" a language is really pertinent, and I'm finding it fascinating.

    I was away from regular contact with Gaelic for two years (some occasional contact watching TV or reading short pieces of writing on the internet), then I came back and most of the structure was still there, but vocabulary was messed up.

    I'd been away from regular contact with Spanish for three years, although on and off I'd meet people or watch DVDs. The biggest problem wasn't about forgetting Spanish as much as Italian getting "overlaid" on it and hiding things I still kind of "knew".

    My Catalan, on the other hand, has heavily degraded, and it's the grammatical elements now that are the biggest problem (although vocabulary is also messed up). (And yet, when I met Catalans in Italy, I didn't suffer from Italian interference the same as I did with Spanish.)

    Spanish and Gaelic were what I'd consider "strong" languages (C-something) and Catalan weaker (B), and it's interesting to see how the difference in ability beforehand led to differences in language loss.

    But when I was trying to reactivate high school French and Italian, I couldn't do Lomb's thing of revisiting earlier material. It was too slow and it just became utterly yawnsome. I'm now really curious about the patterns of forgetting. I would love to be able to identify them so that a new specialisation in "relearning materials" could be opened up that goes over just the things needed to trigger the memory, rather than just going over everything... again....
  16. Peregrinus

    Peregrinus Active Member

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    Looking at a different field, e.g. maths, I had a lot of advanced math in college that I have not used since. I would bet that if I picked up a book on partial differential equations, that it would not just come back easily. Rather, I would have to start lower, probably with basic calculus. So the question is whether, just as with uni courses, there are prerequisites that first have to be relearned for a topic before moving up. But frequency probably matters in all topics, as in the most frequently encountered words/concepts/etc. are likely to be more quickly relearned. Starting from scratch may be boring, but it would not necessarily have to be slow. The problem, just as with initial learning, is that one rarely if ever finds a comprehensive series of texts/audio with a gentle gradation to take one to a high level of proficiency.

    For me, Anki would be the most significant part of my way back, since I never delete cards/decks, though I may move well-known cards to an inactive deck, though that is not really necessary given the algorithm keeps pushing stuff further into the future. If one learns vocabulary in context but does not extract same into SRS/Iversen-lists and also preferably save the texts as well, then it will be harder to revive one's original knowledge and the difficulty will be not knowing what one knew before which "should" be easier, versus learning new things never known before.
    Last edited: Oct 10, 2014
  17. Laamok

    Laamok New Member

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    Maintenance is a great idea for me if I decide to have a break from things, but for now I am doing it super intensively until I reach certain goals and levels that will be sufficient so I can read or listen to TV in Thai and start picking up words the natural way.
  18. sfuqua

    sfuqua New Member

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    I had a Chinese friend in grad school who was imprisoned during the cultural revolution in China. He was an English professor, and he was forbidden to speak English while he was imprisoned. Through the beatings, the slave labor, and the starvation diet, he struggled to maintain his English. He figured out that if there was bad weather, the guards would let him pace out by the barbed wire fence at night, as long as he stayed in the spotlights. He would pace in the snow and the rain, and once he was out of earshot of guards, he would recite poetry, especially Shakespeare. For me at least, it makes a striking image thinking of him pacing and reciting in the snow at night.
    When I knew him years later his English was excellent.
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  19. Big_Dog

    Big_Dog Administrator Staff Member

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    I think you are wise for doing that. If I had it all to do over again, I would learn each language to a high level before moving on.

    Awesome story. Scary, but inspiring.

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