zomHey there! Long time no see. My previous health issues did not vanish as quickly and as thoroughly as I had hoped they would, so I’ve been unfortunately neglecting my duties as a language blogger. For that I apologize and hope (sincerely) that we can let bygones be bygones and continue our journey together down the ever challenging (but also ever rewarding) path of language learning bliss. In other words, I’ve been sick (really sick) and haven’t been able to update this blog in awhile, but I’m getting better and hope to keep this up on a regular basis again.

tldr; I was sick, I’m back.

Introducing the Language Zombies

Today’s post is about reviving languages that you had previously learned to a decent level and have since neglected. For me, I will be using these techniques to revive my German and my Chinese (Mandarin). Now, since these two languages have completely different starting and ending points for me personally (and as such will require slightly different techniques), I’ll quickly recap my levels and length of time neglected. I now present to you the Language Zombies:

German: My first true language love. I started learning German in January of 2012 and studied it exclusively for two years. At my peak, I was a solid B2 (pushing C1) and could carry on a conversation with relative ease as well as read just about anything. Through the first quarter of 2014 I was maintaining my German with 20-30 minutes of reading per day and occasional German meet-up groups for conversation practice. Unfortunately, after about March, my German pretty much went by the wayside. Now, I can notice a pretty steep decline in my comprehension and an even steeper decline in my speaking abilities. I feel like about an A2 at this point.

Chinese: I started Chinese In March after I got out of the hospital the first time and shortly thereafter, I was on disability for 4 months or so and spent about 8-10 hours a day studying Chinese. I got pretty far and would probably put myself at a decent B1 level in speaking and listening (I did not attempt reading or writing). Since August, I have not really done anything with Chinese and would be generous in calling myself a legit A1 at this point.

Preventing the Language Apocalypse

Ok, so we know the players. How do we fix them? I’m going to review the methods that I’m using and have used successfully in the past with other Zombie languages. Obviously different methods work differently for different people, so feel free to pick and choose whatever you think will work best for you.

Technique #1 – Extensive listening. With German, my first step has been to listen to a few hours of German audio. I will start this step with Chinese once I’m a few steps further in German, as I want some “separation” between the two languages to avoid interference. Now, as this is “extensive” listening, I don’t worry about understanding everything and the pause button is off limits. I elected to use four hours from an audio book that I had previously listened to, but you could use anything like talk radio, Assimil, music, YouTube videos, etc. This exercise is to get my ear re-accustomed to the sound and the rhythm of the language. After about 4 hours of this (I spread it out to 2 half-hour a day sessions), I feel more comfortable. The more I listen, the less “foreign” it sounds and the familiarity begins to come back to me. This is very exciting, but it’s only the first step.

Technique #2 – 1 week course review. Next on my list will be to work through one of the beginner courses that I have, but at a very accelerated pace. I am going to choose Assimil, but I could just as easily use Teach Yourself, Living Language, Hugo, or one of the other half dozen courses on my shelf. My goal is to work through it in one week (7 days). As I’m not starting from scratch by any means, it should be no problem to race through 15 lessons per day as I will be working through most lessons just one time. I’m counting on there being very little vocabulary that doesn’t come back to me, but I will be jotting down super useful words or phrases that don’t “stick” the first time through. The key element at play here is refreshing your vocabulary and grammar in a quick and stress free review style. I know I won’t know everything and I’m okay not remembering every single word or pattern after a quick breeze through the course. All I’m looking for out of this exercise is exposure. Exposure to words and phrases and grammar that is still locked inside my brain, but just needs a friendly jolt to bring back to the surface. Now, because my level was lower with Chinese, and is substantially lower now, I will probably do this same technique with Chinese, but in 2 or 3 weeks rather than just one.

Technique #3 – Shadowing. I have not found anything that helps with prosody and muscle memory as much as the Shadowing technique. I have mentioned it before in previous posts, but it bears repeating here. This technique was originally coined by Professor Alexander Arguelles. Basically, you listen to target language audio and talk aloud to it as closely as you can, trying to speak as soon as you register the sound from the audio. Another part of this technique is to be active while doing it. I recommend walking outside as a brisk pace. For the purpose of battling Language Zombies, I recommend “blind” shadowing only. This technique can be frustrating. It can be about as fun as mowing the lawn or flossing, but it works. Stick to it. Make sure you don’t pause the audio. If you get messed up, start back up with the next sentence. My goal is 6 hours of shadowing over seven days for German. For Chinese, I will probably do more like 10 hours over 2 weeks. Anything you use for extensive listening can be used for shadowing. I prefer audio books, but Assimil or some other type of extended audio would work as well. For more information on this technique, a quick Google search for “language shadowing” will give you more information on the technique than you could possibly want to know.

Technique #4 – Extensive Reading. Another method I’ve mentioned in a previous post that bear repeating here. Extensive reading is when you read a text with the goal of not necessarily understanding every word, but to maintain a “flow” or momentum through the text. The ultimate goal of extensive reading is quantity over quality. Pure exposure to as much volume as possible is the goal here. Comprehension is still a factor, but FULL comprehension of every word is not a requirement. Extensive reading is also often accompanied by audio (extensive listening) as well. For German I will be reading Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen (I have read it before, so I’m starting with some familiarity with the style and the storyline). My goal is 6 hours of extensive reading in 7 days. With Chinese, I will obviously skip this technique as I have not even attempted to learn to read or write in it yet.

Technique #5 – Language Practice on Skype. At this point, I should be pretty comfortably back into the swing of the language. Time for some honest to goodness conversation. Although there are many (too many) language exchange websites that the budding language learner can use to find free partners to chat with, my preference is iTalki.com. The prices are right and because I’m paying for the time, the conversation can go whatever direction I want and I won’t feel bad if it turns into an impromptu grammar lesson. With my German, 3 or 4 half-hour sessions should be plenty to get me back up to speed. With Chinese, well, I’ll figure that out when I get there.

Honorable mentions – There are certainly other techniques you could employ, like watching target language TV shows/movies, intensive reading, ANKI reviews, extensive writing, etc. In fact, I may just use some of these additional techniques myself before it’s all said and done. Choose what you think will work best for you and do what you can to keep it fun but productive.

If you have any additional advice, feel free to leave a comment below. I’d love to hear your feedback!

4 thoughts on “Raising the Dead- Reviving a Once Fluent Language

  1. Glad to see you back in business, Bill. I didn’t know you were having health issues! I hope everything is okay now.

    I think “zombie” is a good image for what happens to languages once we stop using them actively. They never truly die out inside our minds, but they can reach truly dreadful states of decay when they’re not used for too long…

    • Thanks Sis, it’s good to be back.

      I thought the Zombie analogy made a lot of sense to me, so it’s good to know that I’m not the only one.

  2. As someone currently learning Chinese, the idea of learning it without learning how to read it baffles me. There are so many homophemes (even after you filter away the tones, and consider zuo4 to be separate from zuo3) and learning the individual characters for them has helped greatly. The characters allow me to tie them down to something and keep everything separate.

    I, unfortunately, cannot write many Chinese characters, but that’s not a problem at all (at the moment) since I’m communicating through Chinese keyboard settings that make use of pinyin. But using Plebo, my awesome dictionary and flashcard organizer, I’ve been able to add maybe 500 characters/words during the last 2 months. I’m sure you could do even better since you seem to have more experience already.

    Good luck with your Zombie languages 朋友 🙂

    • The homophones can definitely be an issue, but when speaking and listening, there are no characters. I have found it to be quite enjoyable and fairly easy to put the reading and writing on the backburner and concentrate solely on verbal communication. To each his own, right? Thanks for reading!

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