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How to Avoid Forgetting a Foreign Language

Don't forget a foreign language, girl listening to music

“Necessity is the mother of Fluency.” I say this all the time around these parts, and -- when I’m not getting strange looks and cries of “Sir, please stop shouting!” -- my experience has always been that it is true. Textbook learning is a valuable starting point for language learning, but making those grammar rules and new vocabulary stick is a matter of immersing yourself in the language.

How do you keep up your newly-acquired language -- and keep yourself from regressing -- when you find yourself once more surrounded by English speakers?

But what if you can’t? What if you used to have that opportunity, but don’t anymore? This is the conundrum facing many language-learning students when they return home from their study abroad. How do you keep up your newly-acquired language -- and keep yourself from regressing -- when you find yourself once more surrounded by English speakers?

That’s where Go Overseas and I come in! We’re going to help you hold on to those homophones and invest in those infinitives by looking at some of the best ways to keep up with a language after coming home!

Recreate an Immersion Environment at Home

So, you’ve seen the light of immersion, huh? Then you know what a miracle holding real conversations with native speakers can be for your language skills. The good news is, there are ways to keep that momentum rolling once you get home.

Girl talking

1. Find Native Speakers in Your Area

The best way is to try to find the part of your town with people from your host country. This is easier to do the larger your city is (and the more populous and internationally mobile your host country was), but just about any metropolitan area will have this opportunity.

Find a coffee shop or restaurant (or book store, or park, or really anything) in that part of town, where you can hear the language you love to speak floating out through the windows, and go on in.

Order your meal in the native language and chat with the waiter. Ask the bookstore owner to recommend authors from their native country. Make an effort! They're not going to bite your head off, and will be happy to talk with someone who has taken an interest in their native culture -- and will be even happier to do it in their native language!

2. Find a Language Meetup

Do candid impromptu conversations feel a little forced to you? Then, you should check out a language meet-up (many of which are listed on Meetup.com).

These events, organized by various groups, are usually weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly affairs and take place at a predetermined location like a coffee shop or bar.

Exercising your second-language muscles takes more effort when you're back home; you're no longer immersed, after all.

Inside, each big table or booth has a card printed with the language being spoken at the table. Anyone interested in speaking that language -- whether for practice or for a taste of home -- can drop it and converse with some other people who are there for the same reason. Ask around, search Meetup, and don't be lazy (or shy) about going!

3. Don't Be Shy!

I know some shy readers will cringe at reading this, but you have to make a choice -- do you value your polylingualism or not? Exercising your second-language muscles takes more effort when you’re back home; you’re no longer immersed, after all.

You have to make up that effort but taking initiative and putting yourself in positions to be immersed. Once you realize that nobody really cares how silly you think you might look, you’ll quickly discover that you’ll be glad you made an effort.

Read, Watch, and Listen to Media in the Language You're Learning

One of the strangest things about living abroad is the media. The evening news is in a foreign language. Commercials are (mercifully) incomprehensible. Newspapers are riddled with strange accents and unusual punctuation. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

But if you want to keep feeding your brain a steady diet of media in your host language, it can greatly improve retention and further your growth once you return home. While it may not be quite as immersive as, well, immersion, this strategy can provide a valuable stimulus to the language center of your brain.

  • Watch news broadcasts from your host country -- Nearly every reputable news source around the globe has website where you can either browse archives of reports, or even live-stream broadcasts as they are airing. Many of these streams even come with the options of native or English subtitles, so you can follow along, then take the training wheels off when you feel ready!
  • Find foreign films on Netflix -- And speaking of sweatpants-and-junk-food fueled fun, did we mention Netflix? Because, you know, Netflix. There are a functionally infinite number of foreign films, also with or without subtitles, also delivered directly to your screen of choice.
  • Read books, newspapers, and blogs in your foreign language -- Make it part of your daily routine to read one thing a day in the language you're learning. Follow a funny blogger from your host country. Heck, you could even change the language settings on your phone!
  • Listen to music in the language you're learning -- And sing along! I know this sounds ultra-dorky, but just think of how many new Spanish words you could learn by belting out a Manu Chao song (in the safety of your car or shower, of course...)
  • Download podcasts -- And we don't just mean language learning podcasts -- depending on your level, you may want something that's intended for native speakers. Especially if they're talking about something else you're interested in (sports, movies, fashion, science!), you're likely to make more of an effort to understand.

So keep on exercising your language brain with media! Just remember to go outside every now and then.

Take Language Learning Into Your Own Hands

Finally, there are straightforward, language-centric ways you can continue to learn your host tongue after returning. If you want to keep your language skills fresh until you can pursue them later in life, or until you graduate, or until whatever, these are really good ways to go.

Girl using a computer

Use Language Learning Software and Apps

As you’ve probably heard, language-learning software is becoming better, more affordable (free even), and more in-demand. Chief among these are programs like Rosetta Stone.

While not as effective as true immersion, Rosetta Stone is a fabulous option for students back home who have a little bit of free time and all the desire in the world.

With just an hour or so a week, you can keep your language skills sharp, and -- at very least -- you'll keep your skills from regressing, if not improve them outright!

Hire a Tutor

Does learning a language from a computer seem a little too sterile for you? There is always, always, the option of enlisting a tutor. No matter your language, there are tutors available for you.

Language is great, but what good is it if you forget it?

Consider it mini-immersion -- one on one conversation and lessons in your second tongue that help you work out your problems, and ask the questions you need to ask, in a private setting. Many successful people took private tutoring lessons when they were younger; it is another case of not letting your own shyness stand in the way of your personal growth. If you’re brave enough, use it for all it’s worth!

Don't Let Your Language Skills Wither Away!

So there you have it. At Go Overseas we get that immersion rules, and we get that you’re probably a language chieftain after studying abroad. But too many people allow their language skills to atrophy after returning home. We don’t want that to happen, and we hope that these tips will help make sure it doesn't. Because after all -- language is great, but what good is it if you forget it?

Want to immerse yourself in a language abroad again? Browse your options for language schools abroad.

Photo Credits: DTS, Jessie Beck, and Flickr.
Jason Rodgers

Jason is a hockey player from Virginia, and his passport is a quilt of stamps and visas. He studied French at the Sorbonne in Paris, worked in International Ed in China, celebrated Thanksgiving in Amsterdam and cheered July 4th in Brazil. Jason can recite Sartre in 3 languages just as fast as he can put a puck past your ear. Follow Jason on Twitter @HeyJayJRogers and on Google+.