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Use it or lose it

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Use it or lose it

If you've ever taken a break, you know how quickly you lose your language skills.

Immersion really is key to fast language acquisition. But only when you keep using it afterwards!

A recent (planned) week-long stay in hospital showed that I can, in general, function in German. I did study a bit harder leading up to this stay, as I knew it would stretch my abilities. I did not know some of the ‘nicer’ expressions for bodily functions, which made the doctors and nurses giggle. But in general, even the hospital forms were understandable.

Talking to all the nurses, doctors, and patients really pushed me. So much so, that when an Irish nurse spoke to me in English, I found it hard to switch back from German! My neighbour in our shared room commented that I had improved noticeably in one week. I really would not have wanted to spend a week in hospital a few years back, when I had more rudimentary language skills. It would have been quite scary.

Since I arrived home, I’ve spent all my time back in English. It was hard to focus and follow conversations in German at a recent family dinner, and not just because of the local dialect.

It really is a case of use it or lose it.

My plan of action

  • Read more in German, starting with Harry Potter, Deutsche Welle news, and a few cooking blogs.
  • Keep working through my grammar exercises – the ‘why’ is very important, or I’ll forget the words and grammar structures.
  • Listen to one podcast per day – currently the Gedankentanken is my current favourite.
  • Occasionally watch die Anstalt, political commentary/comedy. Although I will skip those episodes with predominantly Bavarian guests – that dialect is beyond me, at this point.

Immersive actions when you can’t live in your target language


  • Listen to music or simple podcasts in your target language throughout the day, you’ll get used to sounds of the language and start picking up words here and there.
  • Watch TV, movies or YouTube videos in your target language. At first with native language subtitles, and then bonus points when you switch to target language subs.
  • Find a language tandem partner and chat, exchange emails, and/or Skype.
  • Put post-it notes on everything in your house or at work, until you can remember the words without help. Start with nouns, then move to adjectives describing the items, and even verbs.
  • Talk to yourself in your target language, at first just name things you see and actions you do. Yes, you may look silly, but it helps enormously!
  • Read kids’ books and simple comics in your target language.
  • Play simple word games – word find puzzles, simple crosswords, shiritori.


  • Read in your target language – simple news and novels, blog posts, cookbooks, and any topic area you are interested in.
  • Switch your electronics to use the target language. It may be harder for the first few days, but you’ll soon get used to the words used regularly.
  • Keep talking to yourself, but try to use full sentences, like in a real conversation.
  • Find some more difficult podcasts to listen to daily, on topics that interest you.
  • Start gaming in your target language – switch the language of RPG games. Oblivion and Skyrim really helped me!
  • Learn the lyrics to your favourite songs, translate them so you can understand then, and then sing along.
  • Join a conversation course, either at a local language school, or online.
  • Play more word games – Scrabble, cryptic crosswords, rhyming words, synonyms and antonyms, anagrams.
  • Learn and start using idioms, slang and sayings.
  • Write your todo lists and reminders in your target language.


  • Write in your target language, a lot – blog posts, a journal, emails, poetry, chats with friends.
  • Game online (MMORPGs) and offline with others in your target language – you’ll pick up a lot of slang not found in dictionaries, textbooks and in normal novels. Bonus points for playing a complex board or card game, and translating the rules from your target language to your native language for friends.
  • Watch or listen to stand up – these entertainers typically talk fast, in dialect, and and use a lot slang and in-jokes.
  • Watch movies and TV shows without subtitles.
  • Join your local Toastmasters group, do presentations and network in your target language.
  • Translate things for fun – think of the fansubs of Japanese anime and manga.

Categories | LEARNING
Tags | language learning
25 Mar 2015