Language acquisition and maintenance

Today K College is closed due to the world-historical blizzard that ripped through the midwest, wreaking havoc that included completely paralyzing Lake Shore Drive to the point where people had to abandon their cars:

Lake Shore Drive after the apocalypse

I decided to take the opportunity to get back into a habit that I’ve sadly neglected: language maintenance. I find that even as little as a half hour a day of focused foreign-language reading makes a huge difference in keeping things at the point where I can effectively plunge back in when my research requires, but for whatever reason, that basic language work is always the first thing to go when my schedule becomes more hectic.

The languages I’ve done translations in are usually much more durable and can stand periods of neglect between more concentrated work, but others seem to deteriorate much more rapidly — setting off a vicious cycle where I am intimidated to work on them precisely because they need more work.

The only permanent solution would be to integrate the language work directly into my research and teaching, but there’s basically no way that would happen organically, especially with undergrad teaching. So the best I can do, short of periodically doing translations in all the languages I’m trying to maintain, is try to remain faithful to some kind of holding pattern that will allow me to call upon those skills in a hurry when necessary.

Does anyone have a better approach?

11 thoughts on “Language acquisition and maintenance

  1. I can’t offer a better approach, but I find that music really helps me stay in the holding pattern. I took Chinese as an undergrad and I only remember how to order a beer and a couple of pop songs we translated in class.

    I also find that poetry is nice because you cand find something short, but it still challenges your vocabulary and grammar skills. It is also interesting to read out loud. Finally, poetry reminds you how important those language aquisition skills are. I know I have read Rilke in translation and I wanted to vomit.

  2. I try to read a morning newspaper in the language of choice which is easy you’re doing modern languages – and I’m not talking about websites, I mean a PDF of say Liberation or Die Welt (there’s plenty of places to find those for free, so no additional cost of subscriptipn) – it has a certain finality about it (unlike websites) – Liberation is around 40 pages, for example. Read through it, some articles are more interested than other and so on. Helps me, anyway.

  3. Not to promote any illegal or unethical activity (disclaimer), but take a look at this fellow, he always has at least three French newspapers in PDF every day (Le Parisien which is a bit annoyingly urban, Liberation, a leftist paper and Le Monde a good centrist source):

    I’m assuming you’re familiar with thinng like that – if not, it’s pretty easy to figure out how to download and unrar etc etc

  4. I second the newspapers and podcasts (and being an idle consumer, comedy podcasts are a great way of getting over the motivation problem). Spoken word is my other solution: there’s loads of stuff out in various languages at

  5. In January I started posting a translated sentence from Swann’s Way and The Trial pretty much every day. What I did not expect was how much I love the pacing this process. Everyday I uncover a subtle change from Kafka and everyday I encounter an infinite torrent from Proust.
    Not sure about the efficiency or effectiveness of this approach though.

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