How to Pick Up a Language After a Long Break
My name is Shannon Kennedy and I'm the language lover,…
It is confession time, my dear friends, and my confession to you is that I have a couple of languages that I have sorely neglected these past few years. If you haven’t already guessed, likely from watching my IGLC update videos, my Italian, German, and Spanish are in need of some serious love and attention. And by serious, I mean ridiculously serious.
And while I’m intensely focused on preparing for my HSK exam in December in addition to taking on Russian, I hate to waste all the time that I’ve spent learning those three languages.
Actually, let me rephrase…
I hate the idea of having to spend the time re-learning a language I’ve already invested a large amount of time into learning.
So, I think it’s time to do a bit of a refresh before any of those three decide to go on permanent holiday from my long-term memory.
We all take breaks from language learning and that’s okay[Tweet “We all take breaks from learning a language, and that’s okay.”]
We all take breaks from learning a language, and that’s okay. It may be because our schedules become overwhelming between work, school, or family. Or it may be because we studied too long and too hard resulting in complete and utter burn out (and believe me, I’ve been there in so many ways). It might even be because we’ve reached a point in our language learning where we felt prepared to tackle a new language resulting in a bit of a hiatus from the old language while we really dive into our new venture.
Hey, it happens.
Regardless of the reason behind our taking a break from language study, we all take them, long and short. It’s nothing to feel guilty about. As long as you’re doing what you need and want to do, you aren’t doing anything wrong. And as far as it goes with something like language learning, with methodologies that can vary immensely from person to person, there’s really no right or wrong as long as you enjoy the process and are achieving your personal learning goals.
Not all languages need to be refreshed
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I have learnt more languages than I actively discuss here on Eurolinguiste (but you can learn all about them here). I speak French and English at home, but I primarily talk about my ventures learning Croatian, Mandarin and Russian with brief mention of my history with German and Italian.
But like many of my fellow language lovers, there were other languages.
Romanian and Arabic were two languages that I spent some time with but gave up, and there’s a good chance I won’t go back to them. There’s also a small possibility that in ten years from now, I might say something different and dive into one or the other with the same fervor that I mustered up for my Mandarin Chinese studies. Who knows. Ten years is a long way away.
Spanish, German, and Italian, on the other hand, are languages from my past that I’m not ready to surrender. I’m willing to spend the time needed to work on them again and get them up to par.
In an effort to be completely transparent, my time invested into these three languages is both more in total time spent than the two I’ve given up (for now) and so I feel a greater commitment (and even responsibility) to maintaining them.
Regardless of how much time you’ve spent with a language, however, getting back to it after a long break can be frustrating. In fact, refreshing a language one’s already learnt can be infinitely more frustrating than learning a new language from scratch. Having to re-learn something that we should already know, because we spent time learning it, can definitely deter a language lover from revisiting an old language.
But revisiting a previously studied language doesn’t have to be a painful experience.
I love taking on new languages. There’s something thrilling about learning something completely different and discovering a new culture. Yes, I admit that the “shiny and new” factor definitely comes into play for me, but I know I’m not alone.
When taking on a new language, the initial learning curve is so much steeper than reviewing a language I’ve already studied. That alone can make it came seem so much more rewarding than revisiting an “old” language where my improvement is less obvious.
Unfortunately, there are only so many words we can remember and I don’t want to spread myself too thin. I’ve committed myself to seriously learning eight languages, and rather than waste the time I’ve spent learning three to replace them with something new, I’ve decided to go back and refresh these three languages after a long (read years) break.
How to Refresh a Language After a Long Break
Start from the Beginning
We may be tempted to skip ahead because reviewing things we’ve already learnt seems tedious, but reviewing what you already know is 1) good for refreshing and reinforcing what you learnt in the past and 2) will fill in any gaps that might have appeared in the time since your break started (or that may have even existed before).
But won’t refreshing a language I’ve already learnt be a waste of time?
No, and I’ll tell you why.
Review helps reinforce the information that you already know, and therefore, it’s good to do it even if you haven’t taken a break. Just make sure you only review every so often. If the majority of your study is review, you’re only holding yourself back. As I often tell my music students, practice (or study) is taking the things you don’t know and making them better. Playing is where you’re just doing the things you already know how to do and that require minimal effort. You’re so much more capable of progressing through a language that you might think, but you need to really spend more time “practicing” than “playing” to reach that potential.
Secondly, review isn’t a waste of time because if something truly is review, you’ll move through it quickly enough that it won’t delay you learning new features of the language you’re studying. In fact, it may make learning more difficult grammar points or more advanced vocabulary easier because your foundation in the language is that much stronger.
Lastly, review is great because it provides you with the opportunity to fine tune aspects of the language you may have glazed over on the first go. A fresh look at a language after a break may give you the opportunity to devote time to things you ignored the first time around.
If your break has been a long one, like mine, a total refresh can go a long way. It might even make you ability in that language stronger.
Study a Lot
If you want to get back to the level you were at previously, then the best way to do a refresh is to study a lot.
And don’t worry, you likely won’t be overwhelmed since a lot of it, as mentioned earlier, will be review.
As long as you’re playing catchup though, you’ll want to be sure that you fit in as much study time as possible so that you get back to where you were quickly. Hence, studying a lot as a tactic to effectively refreshing a language.
Find a Good Conversation Partner and Start Speaking Right Away
If you really want to refresh a language (or even learn a new one), one of the quickest ways to improve is by speaking with native speakers. Not only will you get real time feedback, but you’ll create a great environment in which you can really focus in on your speaking and comprehension skills.
My favorite apps for connecting with my fellow language learners around the world are iTalki and HelloTalk, but there are other options out there.
This is taking the previous step, finding a good conversation partner, to the next level. Chatting with native speakers is great (especially for tuning your ear to the language based on the different vocabulary and language use we as individuals possess), but studying with a teacher is even better.
But it costs money!
You’re right, it does, but anything worth doing is worth investing into, too. If you really want to improve your skill in a language and succeed as a language learner, then you need to be willing to put money down on it.
A Conversation Partner is Great, But a Teacher is Better
A good teacher has the qualifications necessary to really help you learn the more complex aspects of a language. They also provide you with a structure that can’t really exist in a language exchange. I mean, who asks their language partner for homework?
Besides, finding a good language exchange partner is often more time consuming than finding a good teacher, and sometimes, it’s worth spending a little money to save time (often our most valuable resource).
It’s also easy to fall into the trap of becoming someone else’s free, volunteer teacher when you engage in language exchanges because their target language (your native language) is stronger than your ability in your target language (their native language). Once you set a precedent for the dominant language, it becomes really hard to change later on. I could elaborate on this further, but Olly over at I Will Teach You a Language already covered the differences between taking lessons and participating in language exchanges, so I will just send you over to him. And if his post isn’t enough, I also recommend this article from A Polyglot World.
Even If Your Review Moves Quickly, Don’t Rush It
Rushing through your studies can actually do more damage than good. If you find yourself growing bored while reviewing with a specific resource, try switching up the resource rather than skipping ahead in the book (or podcast) you’re using. Doing this may actually result in you missing something critical.
Rushing can also lead to you developing bad study habits. You’ll re-learn the language you’re trying to refresh (or even new languages) much more quickly if you’re not trying work against bad study habits.
So when you feel yourself growing bored or frustrated with a particular learning tool, try using another. Once you feel re-energized (or have had enough of that second resource), try switching back to the first to see if you feel the same way. If you do, maybe that tool isn’t right for you. If you don’t, then keep on reviewing!
See the Break as an Opportunity to Start with a Fresh Slate
When we go back to a language after a long break, there will be a lot of things that will be new to us – again. Use this as an opportunity to look at them from a new perspective. You’ll no doubt have time and experience to use to your advantage after a break, so be sure to apply them to your study!
I Wish I Hadn’t Taken a Break to Begin With
Don’t worry about it. Sometimes breaks are actually quite good for us (as long as they don’t last too long). It gives our brains the opportunity to process and file away some of the information we’ve been learning. Even spaced repetition is based on breaks – the space between repetitions is technically a kind of break.
Breaks also provide you with the opportunity to rediscover your motivation and approach your language learning with a refreshed study strategy. In a way, you can compare it to writing a blog post or an essay for school. Taking a day or two away from it after it’s written can provide you with some clarity and a more objective viewpoint on its quality.
A break can do the same for your language learning. When we study every day, it’s hard to see our progress and the areas in which we need to improve. A break can provide you with the chance to step away from the language long enough to give you a fresh perspective on your level and what you need to do to improve. Naturally, the skills we’re strong in will stick with us and the aspects of the language we struggled to stay afloat with will become obvious.
Once You’ve Spent the Time Doing a Refresh, Try Not to Keep Taking Breaks
Once you’ve spent the time doing a language refresh, don’t keep taking breaks or you’ll have to start over again in the future. It’s better to spend a little time every few days maintaining your pasts languages than it is to start over completely ever few months.
If you need some motivation, I definitely recommend checking out this guest post on Benny Lewis’ blog Fluent in 3 Months on why you need to stop quitting a language. And if you don’t want to ever find yourself in a situation where you need to start over with a language, I also recommend his post on how to never forget a language.
To answer a frequently asked question:
How long of a break do I need between languages?
Technically, none. Your brain is capable of incredible things. A break can actually hinder your learning the next language because you lose the momentum of studying your previous language.
But if life gets in the way, as it sometimes happens, don’t be afraid to take a break if you need it. Olly excellently covers why you might need to take a break here in this article.
Have you ever come back to a language after a long break? If you have, I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments!
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My name is Shannon Kennedy and I'm the language lover, traveler, and foodie behind Eurolinguiste. I'm also the Resident Polyglot at Drops and the Head Coach of the Fluent in 3 Months Challenge.