Maintaining Foreign Language Skill: A Never Ending Journey to Maintain My Mandarin

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Picture from www.chinadialogue.net

Learning a foreign language is not an easy task. When you finally master it, to maintain it becomes a new challenge. In this article, our columnist Astrid shares her tips on how to maintain your foreign language skills on the same level (or even improve it!) upon completing your language program.

So you have finally mastered a foreign language. Congratulations!

But after all the sweat, tears (and money!) shed to learn a foreign language, it would honestly be extremely regrettable if later on we end up forgetting the very language. Yep, mastering a foreign language is an amazing feat in itself, but the journey (unfortunately) does not end there. Language is a behavioral habit. We master a language when we have formed the habit of using it. The expression in Bahasa is much more succinct; ‘bisa karena biasa‘ (‘I can because it is done out of habit’). Fluency in a foreign language, therefore, requires constant exposure and immersion. One simply will not be able to master a foreign language (and retain one’s fluency) when there is no longer persistence in the language-learning process.

Now, this is exactly what I’ve been experiencing the past couple of years. When I arrived back in Indonesia in 2016 after my language studies in China, I was quite confident about my Mandarin. I had lived for a year in Beijing, spent days and nights learning and communicating in Mandarin with native Chinese speakers. Simply put, Mandarin had really become a substantial part of my daily routine. But things changed. My environment changed. I no longer live in China and consequently, the pressing need to use Mandarin in my everyday life has simply subsided.

But there is no excuse of not maintaining my Mandarin (or any foreign language that you have finally mastered for that matter). Imagine all that hard work. None of us wants to see it go to waste, do we?

So how to maintain our foreign language skill? Below are some ideas worth considering:

1. Books, music, and movies
This might be cliché but still true nonetheless. Find books/magazines/comics that you enjoy reading and read them in the foreign language that you want to maintain. The same goes for music and movies. Not only will you be able to maintain your fluency, but you will also gain exposure to a richer, more natural lexicon. I myself am a history fan, so I have been enjoying movies on the history of China (particularly the Cultural Revolution era) as well as looking for biographies of China’s famous figures.

Picture from www.iqilu.com
Picture from www.iqilu.com

2. Using different language in your leisure activities
What are your hobbies? What are the activities that you usually do to kill time? Perhaps you like reading newspapers or watching talk shows. In my case, I enjoy reading fashion and finance articles (both topics seem mutually exclusive I know) and often I find myself flipping through articles on the latest fashion trends and writings on financial management and investment during my spare time. Recently, I have started to read articles on such topics in Mandarin.

Additionally, one can also web-surf in a foreign language one is seeking to maintain. For instance, I sometimes use Baidu (a Mandarin-using search engine) in addition to the widely popular Google. Sure conducting research via a different search engine would need some getting used to and I have to admit, most of the time I still find myself going back to Google. Nevertheless, carrying out research via a foreign language search engine, and actually succeeding in finding the information you are looking for in that platform would at least give some sense of accomplishment.

3. Peer groups
Language is essentially a means of communication. So what better way to practice your acquired language skill than by actually using it in your conversations? Find like-minded friends and start a meet-up group. Join meetings to practice your foreign language skill (I usually look for one through Meetup.com). However, if you prefer a private discussion to a large group setting, finding a language partner can always be a great alternative (I recommend mylanguageexchange.com).

Picture from www.hanban.org
Picture from www.hanban.org

4. Language programs
If you are willing to spend some cash, enrolling in a foreign language program can always be an option. One of the special perks of going to language programs is that you can receive a more comprehensive and accurate language (and even cultural) training.

5. Work-related activities
In my opinion, the most ideal scenario to maintain your foreign language skill would be having a profession that demands fluency in a foreign language. This would create a sense of urgency to not only maintain but also improve our foreign language skills. In my case, being a lawyer, I am very grateful and blessed to be able to interact and work with native Chinese speakers as my clients. Additionally, I also receive requests for freelance Mandarin translations from time to time. These work experiences have made me realize that there is still so much to work on, so much room to improve and enrich my Mandarin vocabulary. In the end, it has prevented me from getting complacent with my Mandarin skill.

Lastly, it is one thing to be proficient in a foreign language, but another to be able to actually maintain that proficiency. I hope the above post can give you some helpful ideas for maintaining your foreign language skill. Let me know of other tricks that you may have!