How To Avoid Language Attrition - The Linguist on Language

How to Avoid Language Attrition

Many people, even if they’ve only learned one foreign language, may only visit the country where the language is spoken once a year or once every few years, so it can be hard to maintain or improve those language skills. Not being able to maintain a language can lead to something many multilingual people fear: language attrition, or the weakening or loss of a language. In my case, I claim to have 16 languages, and so language attrition is a concern.

The last time I visited Berlin some while ago, I was very much aware of the deficiencies of my German and yet people said no, you’re doing fine. So to some extent we tend to be more aware of our own shortcomings, whereas other people, especially native speakers listening to us, are more inclined to give us credit for what we can do. They’re less aware of the fact that we’re frustrated because we can’t do as well as we would like to do. However, the issue then is how do you maintain your languages and avoid language attrition?

In my own case with French and Japanese, I can turn them on whenever I want and I really don’t miss a beat. That’s because I lived in France for three years and Japan for nine years. There’s absolutely no question that the more you have spoken a language, the better you can speak it. I say this again and again, even though I am a proponent of input-based learning to build up your vocabulary you should also build up your comprehension and potential to speak well. In order to speak well, you ultimately have to speak a lot and so I obviously have spoken French and Japanese a lot.

The other language I can probably turn on, although I am aware of slipping in the language, is Mandarin Chinese; a language I’ve spoken a lot of over the years. For example, in Vancouver when I was invited to participate in television programs in Mandarin, I would typically spend a few hours that day listening to audio to kind of refresh my memory, something I wouldn’t have to do in French or Japanese. That’s not to say that I couldn’t improve in French and Japanese – I would love to. When I’ve listened to audio books in French or Japanese it definitely elevates my language skills, so listening to interesting material is always a way of refreshing yourself in languages, especially languages you already speak well. The same would be true of Mandarin, but in Mandarin I would say my vocabulary is not as broad as it is in French or Japanese.

Spanish I can still probably turn on, but again it wouldn’t be quite as easy. Swedish, German kind of more or less with gaps and more problems, but once I reach further down into Italian, Portuguese, not to mention the languages that I’ve learnt more recently, then it’s just not that easy to get myself to a level where I can have a conversation comfortably. In Russian, for example, before I participated in a language conference in Moscow, I spent a good three weeks going over my lessons on LingQ, working with material from Ekho Moskvy, looking up words. I had lots of online discussions with our tutors too, so when I came to make my presentation I had kind of revved myself up.

If I have to do a video now in Czech or in Russian, I’m going to spend at least two weeks listening heavily in those languages with a good five hours or so of online discussions with native speakers. I think the big thing to refresh yourself is the more you have spoken in the language in the past, the less you need to practice speaking.

Speaking is a good practice and it also points out your gaps so in your listening you can deliberately try to notice those areas where you have a weakness so that when you next go to speak you try to do better. It might be in the conditional or in the third person plural future, whatever it might be. You start to identify where those problems are and then you need to practice them in speaking.

It’s not realistic to expect that people who speak even one other language or more can turn that language on just like that, especially if they haven’t had the opportunity to live in a country where the language is spoken. So if you are going to be in a situation where you want to do well in the language, you can use online resources like LingQ and within a couple of weeks you can bring your level up. Even if it subsequently falls off, you’ve taken it up another level and every time you have one of these spurts of concentration, you’re progressing in that language.

So that is how I go about warming up my languages to speak in them, whether it be for a video on my YouTube channel, a webinar or an event. I’m interested to hear what you do to maintain your languages and look forward to discussion in the comments.   


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3 comments on “How to Avoid Language Attrition


The easiest route to avoiding language attrition is if languages become a part of your life. I didn’t didn’t design it this way, but Mandarin and Cantonese are a regular part of my personal and professionl life so I don’t have to worry as much. Vietnamese requires extra work because I don’t have people I see that often that I speak to, so I have to seek out opportunities.

I can’t imagine having 16 languages to worry about keeping up with. I would be overwhelmed.


I realize that I have to do something every day, or at least weekly, in each of the seven languages that I currently study. It is not easy, I am quite lazy, and I don’t really get the work done like I should. I would really like to take on additional languages, but I fear that I won’t be able to fit them in. I want to, but attending to the languages that I’m working on now, takes a lot of time. I habitually join language challenges at LingQ in order to keep myself on track. So far, the challenges have been encouraging. Yet what is the point if forgetting and recalling is a constant battle? Shouldn’t one be able to glide through the languages that one claims to know? And is there such a thing as “too many languages”?

    Forgetting and relearning is essential to learning. Rediscovering a language is always and delightful return to something I enjoyed. I don’t worry about slippages. Cheers.

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