Reactivating languages: my 3 top tips

reactivating languages

Reactivating languages: my 3 top tips

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Welcome to the 5-Week Linguist Show. This week, I wanted to talk about how to review and to reactivate languages. So, oftentimes I hear from people, “Ugh, I forgot everything that I learned,” and I think that this can apply to so many different language scenarios. Maybe you took a language at school and you were out of it for years, or you took a language class last year and you had a few months off, anytime that there’s a break. Or you’re a polyglot, right?

I think that so many of us who speak languages, we can relate to this issue. We love our languages, and a lot of times we get to a certain point, we’ve hit our goal, and we’re racing to the next. We really want to learn all of our languages, all of our bucket list languages, for whatever reason. Then we find ourselves later on, “Ooh, okay. Can I still speak…” Fill in the blank. We know we can, but we know that we need to do a little bit of work in order to sort of get back to that level. But the first thing that I want to tell you is that not everything is lost. Please never think that. It might feel that way, but the learning that maybe you did for a while and then you stopped for whatever reason is not lost, and it’s really quite simple to reactivate it.

So I want to talk about some really practical ways to do that. I’ve done this both as a learner myself, directing my own learning, as well as as a teacher, as an instructor of languages where I know the students have had a break. It can be really scary and really intimidating for learners to come back because they feel like they’ve lost everything. But, again, don’t fret. I think the most important thing here, the thing that I would suggest, I’m going to share with you three tips, three things that I do that have worked to reactivate languages.

The very first step is to assess where you think you were. Don’t worry about where you are now. Don’t think, “Oh, I can’t remember anything.” Just do a really simple estimation of what level you think you were at. So I have one really simple assessment. It’s ridiculously simple. So it’s just your hand, right? So a closed fist means you can’t say any words, you can’t recall any words, you know absolutely nothing. If you’ve studied a language before, most of us, it would be really rare that that would actually be the case. Something will come to mind. Then as you go through the hand, right, you’ve got words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and a fully open hand would be that fluent language.

So I would just do a quick self-assessment, “Where am I?” Think about where you were when you last studied. So if you feel like, for example, you can think of a bunch of words and phrases. Okay. Well, maybe that’s where you were before. That’s where I would start. I would pick then, for where I was, a review task. So for example, if I was at words and phrases, or somewhere between there, words, phrases, I can think of some phrases, I would pull out something, one of the materials that I used before, and review it.

So let’s say that you did a book, a phrasebook, or some sort of study book, maybe one of the 10 minutes a day books. I would go through and review it. You’ll be surprised at how quickly that you would understand, the material won’t be new, that you could actually reactivate it. You feel pretty confident. I tend to go back to, if I’m at the word and phrase level and I’ve taken a break… Or my go-to material for word and phrase level is Pimsleur because it fits so beautifully into my life and it’s highly effective. I love other things and variety is important. So I don’t only preach Pimsleur, but I think it’s really powerful. So I would go back to that material.

If I was a bit above, if I found myself, “Okay, when I last spoke language X, I could make my own sentences,” I would definitely go back to the materials that I was using before or one that’s suitable for an intermediate or a B-level learner. So for example, Yabla. If a language you study, Yabla, or there are authentic videos that are made comprehensible for learners, and they’ve got tons of games that go with them. But, at the end of the day, I would focus on some kind of input because it can be really intimidating to try to produce that output. Go ahead and review some input that you’ve already had. You’ll learn it even better, and you’ll be surprised at how quickly you learn.

So for many years I always organized my review, my language reviews, myself, as well as for the classes that I teach, in five weeks. It’s not scientific. It just happens to be a time period that fits really beautifully into my life. When I would teach a new course, I would essentially review the old course for about five weeks. It gives you enough time to do a thorough review. Now, as a teacher, I can design things that I know are reviewing the old materials, but they feel like they’re new. So we feel like we’re progressing, but at the same time reviewing those basic concepts. So it feels fresh, but it’s also a review at the same time. But you can just pull out something that you’ve already done. Again, you can focus on input, right? Focus on trying to understand what you did before.

As you move along, you’ll find very quickly as you review that, maybe a book you did, or a book you read, or a film you watched… Again, depending on the level, right? Are you A, B, or C? Are you novice, intermediate, or advanced? Do you speak in words and phrases, sentences or paragraphs, or beyond? Something that’s going to reactivate that stuff that you learned. And you’ll be like, “I know that. I know that. I know that,” and you won’t have the pressure of putting in output. Then you should always be problem-solving, right? Once you’re ready to get back into that learning, right, that moving forward, get into something that’s L+1, that’s Dr. Stephen Krashen, that’s language that gives you a little bit of problem-solving to do, right, so that you’re moving forward. You’re learning. You’re getting new input. You’re having to really think about it. So focus on input. I wouldn’t put any pressure on myself to get into the output.

The second thing that I would do would be to review tasks, and I’ll link my task workbook for you. It works in any language. Starting at the very beginning, I would go through, “What can I do?” So for example, some of the beginning level tasks that you’ll see would be something really simple. Understanding all the days of the week. You can name all the days of the week. Go through and test yourself, “What can I do?” Right? You’re going to work through that list, and you’re going to hit a point that’s going to be your ceiling, right, where things are going to start getting harder.

So going through all the tasks, going through in order, “I can do this. I can do that. I can do this. I can do that.” You’re going to start finding some gaps and you’re going to start getting a pretty good idea of where your level is, right? So you will have reviewed whatever you’ve done before, right? The things that you know really solidly you’re going to be moving through quickly. Then it’s going to get a little bit slower where you’re going to kind of hit your learning zone.

A lot of times, I just do these in my brain, or I also like to record them. So for example, I can count to 20, let’s say, in the target language. You can get your voice memos and record, or a notebook and write these things down, or definitely have a notebook handy because then when you start hitting the stuff that you don’t know, you can start using it to write down. There’s no pressure in communication. I think that’s the biggest intimidation for reactivating languages for people is, “What’s going to happen if I don’t know something?” I can tell you from my own personal experience, polyglots feel this way too.

Let’s say it’s been five years since a person’s spoken German, they just need to reactivate it first. I would really focus on input and then producing output, but on my own somehow, or in a way that’s not intimidating. That’s really important. If you’re comfortable getting on italki, I think that’s a great thing, particularly question and answer, sort of preparing questions and answers for italki. What’s great about that is it gives you practice speaking, and that native speaker’s going to speak back to you, and you’re going to get probably pretty rich answers from the native speaker, which is great input for you. So definitely, if you want to even, you kind of can whiz through the task part of production, that’s great, and then get back into speaking to native speakers. That’s a really fast way.

You might even want to start with that, starting having conversations with native speakers early on with italki. I think that is the fastest way. I think, whether they realize or not, it’s research-based so you’re producing, right, whether it’s memorized, you’re making a really concerted effort on the learning side, right? Learning Acquisition Theory, Dr. Stephen Krashen. And what you’re getting back is input from the speaker. And so then you’re acquiring more language, and that’s the key to fast fluency.

But if you’re intimidated, go ahead and just give yourself some input, some comprehensible input, and then get into the tasks. I say this with students, I really like to do fun activities. It really lowers the affect. So when I review with students, because realistically, they’re not going to take the same approach that I, a language professional, are going to take, that just wouldn’t be realistic, they’re not going to know, “Okay, I should sit down and really just let myself look through my old textbook and see what I know. Let me look through my old notes. Let me do an app. Let me repeat some things on an app that I’ve done. Let me do the task notebook.” They’re not going to do that. I design activities that are going to provide them with that comprehensible input and those tasks, those performing, producing those tasks and those communicative activities that they’re going to do.

So, start there. So the three steps, assess where you were, right, and really invest in some input. Think about that language level that’s just one a little bit above as well. So review what you did. You’ll be surprised at how quickly it goes, and then start aiming for something that’s a little bit harder, not too hard. That’s called submersion, and you won’t learn anything. But for example, if you can speak in sentences, listening to things that’s in paragraphs. If you can speak in paragraphs, listening to that really fast native level speech, some kind of input that does that. Reading is fabulous for this because you can pause, right, and you can underline, you can look up all the vocabulary. Then get into tasks, right? Get into producing language. Again, you can do this on your own or do this with an italki tutor.

So I’ll leave some resource links for you in the show notes here, in the transcript. Let me know, do you have any questions? Do you have any ways that you reactivate language as a learner and as a teacher? I can’t wait to hear from you. Until next time, bye.

Thank you for listening to the 5-Week Linguist Show with Janina Klimas. Join us each week here, and visit us at for more resources for learning and teaching languages.

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