Maintaining and re-awakening languages

There is a species of language learner who, on the chat boards, has come to be known as the YouTube polyglot. You’ve seen these people. They make videos of themselves saying a handful on phrases in 20 languages and encourage everyone to sign up for their course. But the truth of the matter is, language is hard. Really using a language requires that you know enough to fill up a life, or at least an afternoon, of talk time. Realistically, if you aren’t speaking a language every day, in a way that makes you think, every day, your fluency is going to shrink.

While it’s not realistic for most people to maintain fluency in eight or ten languages, there are two bits of good news: 1) You don’t need to! If life doesn’t force you to use a language often enough to maintain it, why would you spend a lot of brain power doing so? 2) When you’ve built neural connections learning a language, they don’t just go away overnight. For a long time, what you’ve learned of a language will lurk in the shadows of your memory, waiting to be brought back to light.

My core languages have always been French, Spanish and Italian with a side of German. Lately, I’ve been reading through Margarita Madrigal’s Magic Key to Spanish, Magic Key to German, and Invitation to Italian, reading three or four pages a night. There’s nothing to learn, but it keeps the languages floating around in my mind and my German articles really need work. But recently, I got a request to tutor Ecclesiastical Latin. I did a year of Latin way back in high school and used it intermittently in grad school. But it had been quite some time since I’d worked through Scanlon and Scanlon’s Latin Grammar: Grammar Vocabularies, and Exercises in Preparation for the Reading of the Missal and Breviary. No matter, I dusted in off, read through the first two chapters and scanned a copy of the Ordinary of the Mass. It comes back quickly. But… you have to find a familiar path. Working with the same text book, I immediately recognized the exercises. And reading through the Mass goes nicely with listening to a setting of the Mass like Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli – audio with visual.

The point here is that if you’ve lost a language, that doesn’t mean it’s gone. Relearning will come far more quickly than the first learning, and if there are passages that are familiar to you, either from literature or from the exercise books, your brain will latch onto them, even if you no longer have full understanding. So rather than being a YouTube polyglot who knows 20 phrases in 20 languages, why not learn languages when you need them or when, for whatever reason, they will bring you joy? Not only will your experience of them live with you forever, but when life brings them back to you after a time away, you will find they are not so lost as you might have thought.

Side note: I tutor English speakers for beginning French, Spanish, Italian and Latin, and I provide coaching for non-native speakers of English who need to polish their communication style as they move up the corporate ladder. You can set up a free consultation at

About G Barto

Geoffrey Barto has been teaching language and culture for more than twenty years. His focus is helping people use language to achieve their goals, both for personal growth and in building their careers. The right words can make all the difference in the world!
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