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Restarting a Language After Taking Time Off? Impossible!

So after studying long and hard to make progress in your favorite foreign language, you dropped the ball and stopped studying for a few weeks, months, or years? GIVE UP NOW, THERE IS NO HOPE OF RECOVERY! You will be forever linguistically neutered.

Well, at least that`s how most of us feel after slacking on our studies for a while. The truth, though,  is that you can restart your language study fairly easily. The thing is, just like getting back to the gym after being away for awhile, you should expect a bit of a shock to your system the first few days back.

In this post I will talk about how to dive back into your studies in a way that gets you back up to speed in the shortest amount of time possible.

Back when I studied my first foreign language as an adult (I was studying Hebrew), I skipped out on studying for a few weeks because I was busy with university exams and some other drama. When I decided to reboot my studies, I started right back at page 1 in my textbook in order to re-learn everything because nothing was fresh in my mind anymore. As a result I wasted a lot of time studying things I had already learned. It`s not necessary to go back to square one, unless you never really got far beyond square one in the first place. A better way would be to do a quick review of what you`ve previously studied, and then focus in on the areas that diminish the most when you are inactive.

Skim your study materials

Go back to the main textbook that you had previously been using and spend a little while skimming through the chapters you`ve completed. Don`t read everything like it`s the first time, just skim the grammar explanations, vocabulary and example sentences, and when you reach the exercises do them out loud  and then move onto the next section. Also skim through your notebooks that you`ve used to write down exercise answers, example sentences, journal entries, grammar explanations, and so on. The goal here is simply to start re-accessing those neural pathways that have been left inactive for a while, and let your brain start re-connecting the dots. Most of what you learned is still inside you, you just have to give your brain a chance to find some of the elements and synthesize them once again.

Focus on reviewing vocabulary, because it`s the first thing to go. 

Unlike language flashcardspronunciation or grammar which are systems of interconnected elements, vocabulary consists of a huge number of elements which largely have no direct connection to each other. To truly internalize a vocabulary word longterm, you need to use it over and over until it sticks. When you take a hiatus from your studies, there will be a certain bedrock of vocabulary that sticks because you have used it a lot. But any vocabulary that you have just newly learned will evaporate from your lexicon, and any vocabulary word that you have learned and reinforced only to a moderate extent, will likely become inaccessible and difficult to recall, even though it`s still in there somewhere. In order to get your vocabulary back to where it was, you need to review the vocabulary that has become hard to access and completely relearn the vocabulary that never had a chance to reinforce the first time around.


anki egyptian arabic flashcard iphone screenshotHopefully you kept track of your vocabulary so that you can easily review!
If you`re an old fashioned learner, maybe you have sets of flashcards to drill, and if you`re a 21st century learner then maybe (hopefully) you have Anki flashcard decks that you can drill on your tablet or smartphone. Put in some time to drill those words and phrases and bring them back into your active vocabulary, because a lot of the drop in fluency you notice after a hiatus is due to having a limited set of accessible vocabulary words to choose from.

Hopefully you also have a vocabulary notebook with example sentences of new words that you can read through. This will help you recall some of the connections you made the first time around (learning vocabulary in context is super important, and reviewing your old example sentences brings back old contexts and the meaning connected with them). Go ahead and make some additional new example sentences as well, to reinforce your contextual understanding of the words, and to get back into producing the language.

Get back into speaking right away

When you don`t use a language for an extended period of time, your receptive skills (ie. listening and reading) usually remain much more stable than your productive skills (ie. speaking and writing) which diminish more quickly, and I would say this is true moreso for speaking and listening. So your first priority should be to jump back into speaking the language rather than hearing it.  For example, if you have the choice between watching the news in your target language or chatting with a friend on Skype in your target language, you should chat on Skype because that will force you to produce the language.

If you don`t have any immediate opportunities to speak to anyone in the target language, talk to yourself. Grab your textbook and read some of the example sentences out loud , create similar sentences out loud by substituting words, and have imagined conversations in the target language (yes, you can imagine what the other person is saying to you, and verbally respond to them). These are ways to practice speaking anywhere anytime when you don`t have any real person to communicate with in your target language, but they are no substitute. Try to find a speaking partner, whether that`s a friend, a tutor, or a Skype teacher you meet through Italki, and jump right back into conversation. Depending on how long of a hiatus you took and the level you were at before you took it, you may have a rough transition back into speaking. But who cares – embrace the challenge and treat it like a bungee jump.

If you don`t know where to start, just start anywhere

The task of getting back to where you were before taking a break may seem daunting, and you may have studied so much material that you don`t know what to review first, but screw it – don`t worry about it. Just pick something (something you enjoy studying or something of interest to you) and start with that. Learning a language is not a sequential linear process. You learn something, then you branch off and learn other things that are connected to it, you skip around, and you synthesize all the different elements you learn. When it comes to learning languages, taking action is the single most important thing you can do, and it trumps any specific approach.

Don`t panic, you haven`t lost everything you`ve learned, not even close. Some of what you`ve learned has just been moved to the back of the warehouse because you hadn`t been using it. You therefore need to go a bit deeper inside to find it and bring it back to the entrance way. Other things you`ve learned, especially things you learned soon before taking your hiatus, may have been thrown in the trash and become unretrievable, but that means you that you`d never really learned them in the first place. Treat those things like brand new learning rather than things to review.

You can get back into your old studying groove, but as you make the effort to do so you should remind yourself that consistency is king and that in the future you should try to stick to your study routine until you achieve your goals.

Good luck!