I’ve been learning languages for over two decades. In that time, I’ve reached fluency and beyond in over a dozen of them.
Naturally, this means that the question I get the most is:
“Luca, how is it possible to learn all of those languages?”
Surprisingly, learning languages is the easy part. You learn one. And then another. And another. And it gets easier as you go.
Difficulty at this stage in the game does not come from learning one more language. It comes from maintaining all of the ones I’ve already learned.
The thing is, it’s important to me that once I’ve reached fluency in a language, I stay fluent. And that takes work. That work is called language maintenance.
Language maintenance is the act of continually learning, using, and improving a language so that your skills do not decrease over time. Without language maintenance, you can watch years of hard work go down the drain in a relatively short amount of time.
With more languages, comes more need for maintenance. Each language added to my repertoire takes time and energy away from the other ones. Years ago, maintaining two, three, and four languages was challenge enough. Now, I have to deal with maintaining ten or more at any one time.
How do I do it?
Sit back, relax, and let me break it down for you, for every one of my thirteen languages.
Italian was my first language. It is the language of my family, my city, and my native country.
Now, if you already know that about me, you may think it odd that I include it in a list of maintenance languages.
But believe me when I tell you: Your native language needs maintenance, too.
A native language, just like any foreign language, will get rusty and decay through lack of use. You might not ever forget it, sure, but if you don’t use it regularly, you’ll find that your speech patterns will become less complex, and you’ll start to occasionally forget words that you know you’ve heard hundreds, even thousands of times.
It’s a slow process, but it happens.
It happened to me nearly a decade ago, when I lived in France.
At the time, my life was nearly 100% in French. I had a French girlfriend, I lived with a French family, my university courses were all in French. This once-foreign language became an essential part of nearly every minute of my waking life.
When I would come home to Italy to visit friends or family, I would find that I was suddenly less eloquent in my native language than I once was. My vocabulary got simpler. My Italian fluency had actually decreased just enough to the point where it took me by surprise. When I tried to think of certain Italian words, only French would fill my mind.
Even nowadays, when, despite living in the heart of Rome, I spend most of my days speaking English, French, and Spanish, I feel my Italian fluency fluctuate.
To avoid that, I take very specific steps.
For one, I’ve made it a habit to buy a copy of La Repubblica, Italy’s leading newspaper, every morning, and read it from cover to cover by day’s end. This keeps me up-to-date with high-level, more complex forms of Italian that are the easiest to forget otherwise.
Furthermore, I make a point of visiting my parents a few times a week as well. Since my family only speaks Italian, spending time with them gives me a comfortable, instantly familiar atmosphere to re-engage with the language, and rekindle the years of my youth when the only language I spoke was Italian.
Lastly, I maintain my written Italian by keeping a daily journal. I use this journal to record my thoughts, musings, and internal dialogue on the experiences that I live each and every day. It’s a simple exercise that allows me to simultaneously unclutter my mind, and keep my Italian as native and as natural as possible.
English was the first foreign language I ever attempted to learn. When I first picked up a book for English learners over twenty years ago, I never expected it to nearly completely supplant Italian as the main language of my everyday life.
I speak English almost constantly. I speak it with my flatmates, colleagues, students, and many of my friends. I use it to write articles, blog posts, courses, and books. When it comes time to relax at the end of a hard day, I most often turn to educational YouTube videos, blog posts, Reddit threads, movies, music, and television series.
English is practically everywhere in both my micro and macro environments, so I hardly have to give any thought to maintaining it at all. I simply use it, and keep using it, in every aspect of my life.
The only drawback is that since English is so prevalent, I need to make sure I avoid the risk of overusing it to the detriment of my other languages.
I manage that in a number of different ways, all of which we will explore in the rest of my languages.
French, like English before it, is another of my earliest foreign languages, and one that has made a similarly deep impact on my life. Learning and maintaining French has taken many different forms over the near 20 years I’ve actively used the language.
Early on, I would spend every evening watching and dissecting movies that came in on the TV channel France 2. During the day had regular French class at school, so I had frequent exposure to the classics of French literature, ranging from Pascal to Camus.
My French learning went into overdrive years later, when I met a French girl in Prague and fell in love. For years, we would have lengthy telephone chats in French, so maintenance was easy. It became even easier when I moved to France to study for three years, from 2010 to 2013. Between my education, my relationship, and my various friendships, everything was in French.
Now that I live in Italy, I’ve had to work a little harder to get French maintenance in. While preparing my daily lunch, for example, I have a regular habit of listening to France 24 radio, streaming from my laptop. To wind down in the evenings, I watch the occasional movie in French, or read a book written in the language.
I also maintain the language socially and professionally, as I often meet French speakers on jaunts through my home city, and have even coached a few French speakers who wish to learn other languages.
Being European, I’m fortunate to find and interact with a lot of speakers of Romance languages here in Rome. So, just as often as I meet French speakers, I also have opportunities to befriend Spanish speakers, too.
From a maintenance perspective, most of my Spanish practice comes at home. I currently have a Spanish-speaking flatmate, Nico from Uruguay. Nico and I hang out frequently, both at home and out on the town. Frequently, we’ll also hang out with other Spanish speakers, either friends of his, or ones I’ve made myself.
I also use Spanish for work. As a language coach, I come into contact with a lot of English speakers who need to learn Spanish. So I use my Spanish skills to help them.
German is one of my all-time favorite languages. I get most of my exposure from reading and listening, and do so daily.
For reading, I read copies of Der Spiegel that I buy from kiosks around the city (and on top of that I often read articles on-line). For listening, I prefer the daily podcast Echo des Tages, and frequently listen to news programs and documentaries on the ARD television network or on YouTube.
I’m fortunate that my work also frequently brings me to Berlin, Germany’s capital city. Every time I’m there, I use my German skills as often as possible—and even bring home a book or two!
I began learning Dutch as a “spur of the moment” decision more than 17 years ago. Despite that, it has evolved into one of my favorite languages to learn and use.
Dutch maintenance is easiest when I happen to be living with Dutch people. This has happened various times throughout my life, and most recently two years ago. At the time, I had a Dutch girl living in my apartment, so we would often help each other learn and maintain our respective native languages.
When I’m not currently living with Dutch people, I keep in touch with my Dutch (or Flemish-speaking Belgian) friends via texting. I also maintain my Dutch through occasional reading of De Volkskrant and watching shows on YouTube like Pauw & Witteman.
Even in times when I can’t maintain my Dutch at the level I would like, I’ve found that it benefits through maintenance of closely-related languages, like German.
I love how Swedish sounds as it flows from my mouth. That’s why you’ll often find me speaking to myself for practice—even when there are no Swedes around!
Swedish gets less maintenance than some of my other languages, but I have found that it’s useful when communicating with people from the other Scandinavian countries, Norway and Denmark.
I also watch the occasional Swedish movie, and have several Swedish books on my bookshelf. In fact, I quite like original novels in Swedish, especially thrillers by authors like Stieg Larsson and Lars Kepler.
Russian is another language I have a complex history with. I’ve only been learning it for ten years, but in that time I’ve dated a Russian girl, visited Russia, and lived with Russian speakers.
Maintaining Russian was easiest, of course, for the three years I dated a native speaker. We would text and talk regularly. She would occasionally visit, and then we’d go on all sorts of trips and adventures. For my Russian maintenance, this changed everything. Russian was no longer just a hobby, but instead a tool to understand a different world, mentality, and people.
I don’t have a Russian girlfriend anymore, but I maintain my connection with the language through daily exposure to video and print media. Of course, I also use my Russian whenever I meet a native speaker here in Rome.
Portuguese is not a language I practice often. I don’t meet many speakers from Portugal out and about, and I’ve found that Brazilians find my Iberian-accented Portuguese to be not too attractive.
I have, however, maintained my Portuguese through occasional trips to Portugal. I love the sweet, melancholic atmosphere of cities like Porto and Lisbon, and even just thinking of the time I spent there motivates me to listen and speak the great Portuguese language once more.
I began learning Mandarin Chinese in 2008, and my love for it burned like fire. Though I started slowly, I eventually ramped my daily learning up to more than two or three hours per day. I got a lot of exposure and practice to the language during a two-year timespan.
Since then, however, I haven’t had too much contact with Mandarin Chinese. I try to use it at Chinese restaurants, or with other language lovers, but don’t get anywhere near as much practice as I would like.
My level has decreased quite a lot from what it once was. Once, I hosted a Chinese couchsurfer in my apartment, and was dismayed to find that I was regularly forgetting even basic words.
I’m not too worried, though. Those first two years of intensive Mandarin study helped me build a strong language core. This core of knowledge is what will make reviving my Mandarin quick and easy once the time comes.
I struggle with Japanese. Although I find the language quite fascinating, I find it equally difficult—to understand, speak, and practice.
Despite that, I’ve kept at it for about three years now. I don’t use it a lot, but I’ve made sure to keep up weekly language exchanges with my dear friend Saeko. I’m holding off on anything more intense until I have a chance to travel to Japan and use the language where it is natively spoken.
So, even though I’ve put Japanese on the back burner for now, I’m certain I will return to it, despite how difficult it is for me. I often think of Japanese, and remember the expression: never bitter, always better. I know I’ll improve my Japanese and reach a high level sometime in the not-too-distant future.
Polish is another of my languages that gets maintained a lot through travel. I visit Poland quite often, and even have a book that’s been published in the language.
When I’m there, I get to practice the language often— with friends, in shops, making videos and even on Polish national television!
I even practice Polish occasionally at home. Over the past few years, I’ve had various Polish language exchanges, and even host Polish people in my apartment from time to time.
Hungarian is my most recent language, and my current language of active study. This language, unlike the majority of the others, doesn’t receive maintenance, but instead it gets at least 30 minutes of active study every single day.
As you can see, maintaining my thirteen languages takes a whole host of different strategies, activities, and lifestyle choices.
Not all languages receive the same quantity and quality of attention. Some get daily practice, while others I keep in a type of “planned dormancy”, not using them until the time I’ve scheduled to revive them. Most are in-between these two extremes.
With all that maintenance, I still have time to learn more languages. Generally, I stick to one “new” language at a time, and then organize the rest of my time so that I can tend to the others as appropriate.
If you wish to maintain languages as I do, the key is to know which maintenance languages are a priority for you, and to rotate them in and out from time to time. I find that timescales from six months to one year work best, and keep most language skills from getting too rusty.
At the end of the day, language maintenance is about good habits. I’ve built mine over years, and thus hardly have to devote much mental energy to my language maintenance at all. Whether in my apartment, out in the city, or traveling, my languages are not just a part of my life—I live through my languages.