Language and Memory: How to Maintain What We’ve Learned has been transcribed from Steve’s YouTube channel.  Original video was published on July 13, 2013


Hi there, Steve Kaufmann. First of all, I apologize. I’m not going to do this video in Portuguese; although, I had said that I would. That leads me to the subject of my discussion, which is how to maintain your languages. Many people, even if they’ve only learned one foreign language, may only visit the country once a year, once every few years, so the problem they have is how to maintain those language skills or even improve them when they’re away from the environment where the language can be used.


In my case, I claim to have 13 languages. It becomes even more difficult to maintain these languages, so this becomes a real issue now when I say I’m going to do a video in Portuguese. I did have the intention of doing a video in Portuguese. This past week I’ve been doing a number of Portuguese lessons at LingQ, such as Café Brazil and so forth doing a lot of listening. Last night it just so happens that I was with some Portuguese people here in Vancouver (had a dinner) and in trying to speak Portuguese I realized that my Portuguese is just not quite up to the task.


Now, to be honest, I still get compliments. People are very encouraging. They say you’re doing fine, much like what happened when I visited Berlin some while ago. I was very much aware of the deficiencies of my German and people said oh, no, no, you’re doing fine. So I do think, 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?


Now, 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, I lived in Japan for nine years. So there’s absolutely no question that the more you have spoken a language, the better you can speak it. I mean I say this again and again. Even though I am a proponent of input-based learning to build up your vocabulary, build up your comprehension and build up your potential to speak well, in order to speak well you ultimately have to speak a lot.


Obviously, I have spoken French a lot. I’ve spoken Japanese a lot. My next language, which I can probably turn on, although I’m aware of slipping in the language, is Mandarin Chinese. But I have spoken a lot of Mandarin Chinese over the years and when, for example, in Vancouver I was invited to participate on television programs in Mandarin, I would typically spend a few hours that day listening to Mandarin CDs to kind of refresh my memory, something that 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 have listened to audio books in French or in Japanese, it definitely elevates my language skills. So listening to interesting material is always a way of refreshing yourself in languages, especially in languages that you already speak well. The same would be true of Mandarin, but in Mandarin I would say that my vocabulary is not as broad as it is in French of 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 up to a level where I can have a conversation comfortably.


In Russian, for example, when I participated in that language conference in Moscow, I spent a good three weeks going over my lessons at LingQ, working with material from Ekho Moskvy, going through there looking up words and, this is where I’m coming to, I had lots of online discussions with our tutors at LingQ, with ______ and with _______ in particular, two of our Russian tutors at LingQ. Therefore, when I came to make my presentation I had kind of revved myself up. In the case of Romanian I was starting from scratch, but I had the advantage of having all of this vocabulary from other romance languages.


So now I go to Portuguese and, basically, I know 90% of the vocabulary because it’s so similar to Spanish. If not 90, I know a high percentage of the vocabulary and so I thought I’d just listen a bit and then I should be able to speak. Well, I went to this dinner and I had a lot of trouble. I had a lot of trouble with some basic verb endings, searching for words and just stumbling to say stuff that I know I should be able to say because I can understand it very clearly when I listen to it.


So I decided I would delay making my Portuguese video and I’ve now lined up a lot of discussions with our tutors at LingQ. So I’m going to try to get in maybe four or five hours of online Skype discussion in Portuguese and at the end of each of these I will get my report with all the phrases and words that I didn’t use correctly and I will myself become aware of where my gaps are so I can kind of look at them. Also, when I get back to Portuguese I’ll review the verb endings and stuff like that, but when you go to speak you can’t really use it. To get good at speaking, you have to speak. You have to speak.


Now, if you don’t have the vocabulary, if you haven’t exposed yourself to a lot of the language, then just speaking isn’t going to get you there because you won’t understand what people are saying. You have no words to use. But given the fact that I have, call it a potential base in Portuguese, before I make my video in Portuguese I want to spend some time talking in Portuguese. The other thing I’ve decided to do, whereas in the past a lot of my listening has been in European Portuguese because I had not found good podcasts from Brazil, whereas I had found those excellent podcasts from ________.


In terms of building up your vocabulary and getting used to the language, I believe it doesn’t matter what accent you listen to. However, I now have to make a decision. If I make my presentation, my natural inclination is to speak with a Spanish accent because that’s the sort of closest language that I speak the best. I have found myself even physiologically resisting moving towards the more Portuguese pronunciation and hanging back in that Spanish pronunciation because it’s more comfortable. I feel more sure of myself speaking in that way. I don’t feel quite comfortable imitating that Portuguese accent because I think I’ll sound silly and this is one of the things I talk about a lot.


A lot of the reasons we have trouble as adults pronouncing like native speakers or getting closer to their pronunciation is that we’re afraid to sound silly imitating their way of speaking so we hang back in something that’s more comfortable to us, which might be our native language. Or, in my case, going from Spanish to Portuguese, the Spanish feels more secure than the Portuguese, but then the second issue becomes which form of Portuguese. Most of my listening has been in European Portuguese, but because I am planning to go to Brazil sometime next year and because the friends here locally are Brazilians I decided that I should move away from that, even though most of my listening has been in European Portuguese.


So, again, this wonderful world that we live in, you know, I just went on the web. I said I’ve got to find some good podcasts. There must be some good podcasts. Globo is the big newspaper I think in Rio or São Paulo, so I just went Globo podcasts and I found a bunch of podcasts. In fact, I found another site as well. So I’ve now found two Brazilian podcast sites with programs on health, on how to use the language, on news, and I’ve only started looking. So I’m going to be listening to a lot of those podcasts, together with Café Brazil, over the next little while and I’m going to spend one week dedicated to Brazilian Portuguese.

Here you can read: The best way to learn a new language


I’ve made my decision in terms of the way I would like to pronounce the language. I’m going to have to take that leap and instead of saying _______ it’s _______, as they say in Portuguese. I feel a bit silly at first because it’s ________ in Spanish. In Spanish everything is kind of clear, whereas in Brazilian it’s ________, so I’ve got to get used to doing that. Initially, I’m going to sound silly doing that, to myself, but that’s the commitment that I’ve made.


Oh, I was going to say, the world we live in. If I were a language learner in Germany 200 years ago who wanted to learn Portuguese, it would be difficult. Where do I find a Portuguese speaker? Where do I find material? Whereas today, I just go to the Internet. I can find podcasts. I can find grammar resources. I can find people to talk to. I can just do whatever I want.


Getting back to sort of the theme here, how do we warm up a language? Well, all right. It depends on how firm a grasp you have on the language. If I have to do a video now in Czech or in Russian, I’m going to spend at least two weeks with heavy listening devoted to those languages and with a good five hours or so of online discussions with native speakers to get myself up to a level and I’ll focus on one at a time. So the big thing I think to refresh yourself is the more you have spoken in the language in the past, the less you need to practice speaking.


There’s really only, I guess, French and Japanese where I have lived in the environment for any length of time and so where I haven’t spoken these languages a lot, to get myself up to a level where I can speak comfortably and do a video I have to speak a lot. But the speaking is in itself not enough. Speaking is a good practice, but it also points out your gaps. Then you can go back and in your listening and reading you can deliberately try to notice those areas where you have a weakness and try to get your brain to notice them so that when you next go to speak you try to do better. It might be in the conditional or in the future, 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 just turn that language on just like that, especially if they haven’t had the opportunity of living in the 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, using the resources that are available on the Internet within a couple of weeks you can bring your level up at least to where it was before and I think beyond where it was before. 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 taking the language up yet another level.


So that is certainly how I am going about warming up my language for my Portuguese video and, I promise, I won’t cop out again. Next week at this time I will do my video in Portuguese. I will be putting a lot of effort into not only my input activities, but a good five hours, I hope, of online discussion with native speakers from Brazil.


Thank you for listening, bye for now.