“Learning is like rowing upstream. If you stop rowing, you’ll start floating backwards.” —Chinese proverb
Every translator knows that continuous study is key to remaining fluent in a second language. But how much effort do you put into maintaining your working language(s)?
I’m a lifelong learner of languages—Spanish, French, Mandarin, American Sign Language, Korean, and currently studying Cantonese. While I run a language services agency, my previous life was as a freelance Spanish>English and French>English translator.
Before I launch into my favorite tools and strategies for learning and maintaining languages, I’ll make sure you’re convinced this is a worthwhile pursuit.
Working on Your Source Language
As a translator, your source language is most likely not your native language. You probably spent many years studying and perfecting it until the day you decided you knew enough to take the leap and become a translator. But after that, did you keep studying?
As translation work (hopefully) starts to pile up and life inevitably gets in the way, you could be forgiven for making your studies a low priority. After all, you’re a translator! You’re already fluent, right?
But don’t forget: language is constantly changing. It takes work to stay ahead of the latest slang, terminology, styles, and contexts that will affect the accuracy of your translation work. Furthermore, the ability to use language is a skill that takes familiarity and practice. As that year abroad in Madrid drifts further into the past, are you able to retrieve vocabulary as fast as you once did? Does it take a little longer to remember the most elegant solution for that tricky Japanese grammar structure? If so, you might want to consider working on maintaining your source language.
Working on Your Target Language
How about your target language? The language you translate into is usually your native language. Does it really need any extra work?
It used to seem crazy to me that someone might actually need to expend effort studying their own native language. I couldn’t believe that my ability to gracefully produce sentence upon sentence of well-crafted American English could deteriorate with time. But it has become shockingly clear just how fast language changes and that I need to make a real effort to keep up.
This is even more the case if you’re living in a country where your native language is not spoken. I’ve been living outside the U.S. (in Korea and China) for most of the past decade. Every time I go back to the U.S., there’s new slang. Even new grammar! Yes, most of that new slang will not show up in the texts my company receives for translation, but there’s always emerging terminology to be learned. How about the term herd immunity? A few months ago, I wouldn’t have known what that referred to. But if you keep up with English-language news, you’ll unfortunately know that term quite well.
In addition to staying up to date with changes in terminology, I need to make sure that the languages that surround me here in Asia don’t start affecting the natural fluency of my native English. The other day, I went to write a sentence in an email and started to second guess myself. (“I would say that in Chinese, but would I really say it this way in English?”) I had to check it with a friend.
To maintain my writing ability, I make it a point to surround myself with the best possible versions of written English. In addition to reading every day, I listen to podcasts produced throughout the Anglophone world. This is especially important for me because even though my immediate English-speaking world (my husband and my parents via Zoom) is primarily in North American English, I still need to stay equally familiar with British and Australian vocabulary and phrasing.
Do Translators Really Need to “Speak” Their Source Language?
After all, translators work with written text, so how important is it for them to improve their speaking and listening abilities in the source language? This really depends on the translator and their personal goals. It’s definitely the case that you can be an excellent translator without being able to speak your source language. Comprehension is a very different muscle.
However, the more ways you can access any given language, the more information you can access and the better translator you can become. Why wouldn’t you give yourself the best possible opportunity to access that information? For this reason, I recommend that translators continue to work on their speaking abilities in their source language.
My Credentials as a Language Learner
At this point, you might want to know a bit more about me. I’ve always loved the challenge of learning a new language, although I got started a bit late.
I began learning my first second language (Spanish) in high school. Even though I struggled (it took me about six years to become fluent in Spanish), I became enamored with the process of learning languages. Over the next 10 years I studied French, Chinese, Arabic, Russian, and Korean. I ended up majoring in linguistics to better understand how languages are structured and acquired in the human brain.
As much as I love learning new languages, I also know how quickly I can forget them (sorry, Russian and Arabic!). For this reason, I’ve learned to integrate language maintenance into my schedule. Over the past decade I’ve tried what feels like every app, tool, and strategy to learn a language. Now, I can tell you what works.
The key to learning or maintaining a language is to attack each separate element of the language using a tool that targets that particular element, as opposed to trying a one-size-fits-all approach. That’s why just using an online learning platform like Duolingo isn’t going to get you very far. (I’ll talk later about how Duolingo can be helpful!)
|The Elements of Language|
|Linguistic Term||Plain English|
|Grammar and Syntax||Conjugations, Word Order, etc.|
|Phonology, Phonetics, and Prosody||Pronunciation|
|Motivation||Staying Productive and Accountable to Your Language Goals|
So, here are the tools and strategies I use to target each element.
Memrise is a great app for studying vocabulary. It won’t teach you grammar or pronunciation, but it uses spaced repetition algorithms to show you flashcards in sequences that are optimized for long-term memory. You can create your own flashcard packs in Memrise, but I’m usually able to find specialized packs that already exist (e.g., a pack that’s just for studying the vocabulary from a specific Korean textbook).
Drops is a similar to Memrise. While its features are less extensive, the platform is much more aesthetically pleasing (which helps get you hooked!). It also offers lessons for learning new scripts (e.g., Arabic or Japanese). I also use Drops to strengthen specialized vocabulary (e.g., computing and politics).
Pronunciation is definitely the most physical part of speaking a language. And guess what? Your tongue is a muscle. Or rather, it’s a conglomeration of several muscles, as is your throat.
Therefore, to properly pronounce a language, the best thing you can do is train your muscles to move naturally in a new way, in much the same way you would train to play a sport. And to do that, I really like Glossika.
Glossika is a browser-based app that curates lists of hundreds of sentences to maximize various grammatical structures and pronunciation patterns. You listen to those sentences and repeat so you can let your muscle memory take over when you speak. Warning: this is really tedious. But it’s also really effective in improving both your pronunciation and ability to quickly recall grammatical structures.
Grammar and Syntax
Duolingo can actually be very effective for learning the grammar of European languages. This is because the focus of Duolingo really is on grammar, and the gamification of the app makes grammar much more fun than usual. Currently, I’m trying to reactivate my dead Russian abilities, so I’ve been using Duolingo for the grammar.
If you’re learning Asian languages, Lingodeer is a similar but much more effective alternative to Duolingo.
This is a platform to match language students with virtual teachers. It also streamlines payment, scheduling, and accountability because students and teachers review each other’s work after every lesson. Over the past five years, I’ve taken hundreds of lessons on italki and found it to be the single most effective tool for learning or maintaining a language. I take three to five lessons per week, depending on my language goals at that moment.
Studying for Proficiency Tests
Another great way to keep your grammar up to date is to study for proficiency tests. I don’t necessarily recommend this method for learning to speak a language, but signing up for a test is a great way to stay accountable to your goal of increasing your knowledge of grammar. Here are some tests that are available for a variety of languages.
- For English: Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL)
- For French: Diplôme d’études en langue française (Diploma of French-Language Studies, or DELF)
- For Chinese: Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (Chinese Proficiency Test, or HSK)
- For German: Zertifikat Deutsch (ZD)
- For Korean: Test of Proficiency in Korean (TOPIK)
- For Spanish: The Diplomas de Español como Lengua Extranjera (Spanish Diploma, or DELE)
Motivation and Inspiration
The most important part of learning or maintaining a language is motivation. Motivation can be tricky to maintain, especially if you’re busy with translation work. Making incremental advances in your language abilities is never going to be more important than the day’s urgent tasks, right? So, how do we make it a priority? If you aren’t motivated, then none of the tools or strategies I’ve listed here will make any difference in your language-learning journey. For me, one of the most effective ways to stay inspired is to connect with communities of language learners.
There are lots of language learners and polyglots on YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter who post about their own habits and struggles. Watching them succeed is hugely inspiring to me. How do you find them? Look for hashtags such as #polyglots or #languagelearning, or a hashtag relevant to the language you want to learn. Follow the hashtags so that this media will end up in your social media feed.
If you would like to follow me, I post often about my adventures in language learning. Give me a follow and let me know about your challenges! I love to help my colleagues on their language-learning journeys. Two of the places you can find me are my blog (misslinguistic.com) and on Twitter (mslinguistic). Happy learning!
Sara Maria Hasbun is the founder and managing director of Meridian Linguistics, an agency providing specialized language services to technology companies. An avid language learner, she also blogs about her linguistic adventures at https://misslinguistic.com. firstname.lastname@example.org
Remember, if you have any ideas and/or suggestions regarding helpful resources or tools you would like to see featured, please e-mail Jost Zetzsche at email@example.com.