Tips on how to use it, so you don’t lose it

I’ve been a learner of several second languages over the years, and I think I can speak from experience that the term ‘use it or lose it!’ rings true. Language attrition has had some focus in the field of Second Language Acquisition for a few decades, and theories abound about what it is, how it occurs, and why it occurs. Still, its not a well-understood phenomenon, despite being a major pain for many second language learners.

This post is directed to the teachers, like myself, who have taught a language other than their native tongue, and struggle to find the time and resources to maintain or improve their proficiency in their Target Language (TL). I present some of my own ideas, and invite you to share your own ideas and experiences.

Whenever and however you can, use the target language at home
This is much easier than it was when I first started teaching, when friends in Japan would record my favourite quiz shows on VHS and then send them in the post for me to view several weeks later! (Now I feel old!)

*Watch movies, TV, listen to music, listen to radio programs and podcasts, all of which are becoming more and more accessible online
*Change the language settings on your phone/camera/Operating System/Social network page – annoying but effective!
*Change the language of your voice assistant (e.g. Siri) and control your phone in the TL (open applications, make calls, send Tweets, select music etc).
*Write to-do lists and shopping lists in the TL
*Read! Magazines, children’s books, novels, anything you can get hold of
*Get your news from TL online newspapers first
*Get connected to native speakers on your social networks, and engage with them in the target language
*^Ask them to correct your mistakes
*Open your home whenever you can to visiting friends (this will also come in handy when you need a place to stay, # see further below)

Find opportunities to use the language in the community

Social networking can help facilitate this, and it’s amazing how diverse even seemingly homogenous communities can be. I found a Japanese mother’s group in my local community in regional Australia and was connected to about 20 Japanese-speaking parents and their bilingual bubs.

*Find out if there are any social groups in your area that meet and speak in the TL
*Get involved in community events that might involve the language and culture (e.g. Oktoberfest, Multicultural festivals)
*Find a local restaurant with TL speaker staff and converse with them
*Get together with other teachers of the language and socialize in the TL
*Offer your time as an ESL (or other language) tutor in exchange for TL tutoring – libraries are a great place to start

Use the language in the classroom as much as possible
Many of us are time-poor, but we are in classrooms most days of the week. This is a perfect opportunity to speak as much of the TL language as you can, and not worry too much about students picking up on our mistakes (and good on them if they do!). As non-native speakers, we are role-models for our students. We can show them what can be achieved through hard work and determination. If we don’t show off our skills, how can we expect our students to emulate? Using high levels of target language, alongside delivering the content of your lesson, gives students a sense of the flow and rhythm of the language, gives them opportunities to use their problem solving skills and utilise Language Learning Strategies, and also encourages a sense of empathy in being in a situation where they do not understand everything.

*Set personal targets for how much of the lesson will be delivered in the target language (see this blog post about my 100% TL challenge)
*Get students to set targets for your (and their) target language input, and set classes to compete against each other
*Get native speaker assistants or community members in to assist

This is not an easy nor a cheap option in most cases but it is a great way to be fully immersed in the language, to meet new people and to collect new resources for your language learning journey.

*Look out for scholarships for teachers to develop their proficiency in-country (e.g. Endeavour scholarships in Australia)
*Consider attending a conference while abroad and see your accountant because some of your trip may be tax deductible
*Organise a student trip and make sure you are first on the list to go with them
*Use online comparison sites to find great deals, and # homestay with friends where possible (also great for language)

Structured learning
Learning a language isn’t easy, and maintaining one is just as difficult. Sometimes a more structured approach to learning is appropriate. These approaches generally take more time, but the commitment involved have the potential to bring a great return for investment.

*Enrol in a language course
*Self-study with course books or textbooks
*Register and sit for a proficiency examination


*Have you suffered from language attrition?
*What do you do to maintain your desired level of proficiency?
*Have you successfully improved your language skills while living outside of the target country?

Add to the discussion in the comments below,
or in our Facebook comments.


Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s