Paul began learning Chinese at DLI in 1967. He spent an immersion in Taiwan 1984-1985 improving Mandarin listening, speaking, and reading.
Proficiency in Foreign Languages
During my life, I became proficient at times in Chinese Mandarin, Taiwanese, and Thai. All of these languages weren't easy to learn for communication, and God only knows how much time I spent developing listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills. I wasn't proficient in Mandarin and Taiwanese until I spent time living in Taiwan and doing immersion training with the State Department. My Thai proficiency didn't improve until I lived and worked in Thailand with the government.
Since being retired and living in Thailand, my Mandarin, Taiwanese, and Thai proficiencies have all decreased. This is especially true for Mandarin and Taiwanese because I seldom use these languages today. Even my Thai proficiency has gone south because I can use English to satisfy most of my needs.
In this article, I examine the keys to maintaining foreign language proficiency and suggest different ways of maintaining foreign language communication skills.
Keys to Maintaining Foreign Language Proficiency
Almost all of my colleagues who at one time learned and communicated in a foreign language have lost their proficiency. I, too, have seen my proficiency in Mandarin, Taiwanese, and Thai drop for three main reasons: lack of motivation; an unwillingness to embrace foreign culture; and being in an incorrect immersion environment.
Motivation is the most important factor in learning, developing, and maintaining foreign language proficiency. When I started to study Chinese Mandarin, Taiwanese, and Thai, I was very motivated to learn these languages for personal and job-related reasons. My ex-wife was Taiwanese and lived in Taiwan when I met her. My present wife is Thai and has never been to the United States. Mandarin was learned so that I could do my Navy job, and I needed to use it during my long career with the federal government.
Now that I am retired, there isn't any motivation to maintain my Mandarin skills for job performance. I am no longer with my ex-wife and have been away from life in Taiwan for many years. Although I live in Thailand, communication with my wife in English is possible, and I don't need a knowledge of very much Thai to satisfy my daily needs.
2. A Willingness to Embrace Foreign Culture
A passion for both culture and language is essential when learning languages. However, an unwillingness to embrace Thainess and immerse in Thai culture has caused my Thai language proficiency to stagnate at a beginning level. Now that I am living in Thailand, I also see no need to be enthusiastic about Taiwanese and Chinese culture as I was when living in Taiwan in the 1970s.
3. Being in a Correct Immersion Environment
Most Chinese, Taiwanese, and Thai immigrants will not experience atrophy of English proficiency once entering the United States. That is because unless these immigrants live in one of their countries' ghettos, they will interact very much in English to satisfy their personal and job needs. Expats like me and others in different countries see our foreign language skills go downhill because we are not forced to use the language of our adopted country to satisfy personal needs.
Suggested Ways to Maintain Foreign Language Skills
1. Enroll in Local College or Language School Classes
Before the advent of the Internet, enrolling in local college or language school classes was the main way to acquire or maintain foreign language skills. If you live in a provincial city like me in Thailand, most of the language courses for ex-pats are limited and only offered by private language schools. For example, Inlingua offers both individual and group classes in beginning Thai, but no intermediate or advanced classes, The AUA Language Center in Udonthani where I live also only has beginning classes in Thai. No schools offer Mandarin or Taiwanese classes. By living in Bangkok, however, I would be able to find more language schools offering instruction in all levels of Mandarin and Thai. I would also be able to enroll in language classes at large universities.
2. Enrolling in Online Self-Paced Courses
Not being able to enroll in any suitable local college or language school classes, I examined online self-paced language courses. Surprisingly, there are a lot of free courses, however, if you want to get the full benefit of the classes, you have to pay for most of them.
Within the past three years, I have taken language refresher classes on Alison and Duolingo. These classes have been in Chinese Mandarin and German respectively.
I took my first online self-paced language course on Alison. After completing an 18-hour refresher class in conversational Mandarin Chinese, I was awarded a diploma from Alison. I could not, however, receive the diploma without paying a fee. This Chinese course was very intensive, and its main drawback is that students don't get enough practice material. To complete the course, it is necessary to score at least 80 on unit tests.
Within the past year, I have taken a refresher in German on Duolingo. I had forgotten most of the German which I first learned in college 50 years ago. Duolingo has a lot of practice material and presents language in a direct method with pictures. It tries to approximate how we learn our native language. A student has not mastered a lesson until he or she has answered correctly at least 80 percent of the practice questions.
There are also many other online self-paced language classes on sites such as Busuu and freelanguage.org which I intend to examine.
3. Online Self-Study Materials
If you can not find an appropriate online self-paced language class, there is a wealth of online self-study materials on the Internet. The U.S. State Department's Foreign Service Institute has free online materials in many languages around the world. I have also recently discovered SCOLA which is a non-profit educational organization. It receives and re-transmits foreign TV programming from around the world. SCOLA also provides language resources and language materials in numerous languages.
4. Language Exchanges
Another way to maintain and strengthen foreign language communication skills is through direct language exchanges with native speakers. This can be done by finding foreign nationals in your community or by going online and finding a foreign language partner. In some cases, you trade lessons in English for refresher lessons in a foreign language.
Language School Students
With motivation, interest in a foreign language and its culture, and the correct immersion environment, it is easier to maintain language skills than in the past. The Internet has opened up a great future for language learning and maintenance.
Maintaining Foreign Language Skills
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2016 Paul Richard Kuehn
Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on April 05, 2020:
Thanks for reading and commenting, Monte. I am glad you liked this article. I will definitely check out Easy German on Youtube. I appreciate the tip.
Monte George on April 04, 2020:
Great article, Paul. informative and very professionel. I have been working to improve my German for some time. One app I found to be helpful is „Easy German“ on YouTube. it is natural, conversational German. it is somewhat hard to understand those under 30 os so. Their speech is much faster and more clipped than the older folks. there are similar programs in other languages. Also, there are apps for mobile phones for access to radio programs world wide.
Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on July 18, 2016:
Thanks for the explanations. If I had gone to a Jesuit high school, I would have learned both Greek and Latin.
DreamerMeg from Northern Ireland on July 17, 2016:
I never learnt Ancient Greek but I understand that it had "breathings" and maybe 5 accents. Modern Greek has one accent, which shows where the emphasis goes in a word.
Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on July 17, 2016:
Now I understand, Is modern Greek much different from the ancient Greek?
DreamerMeg from Northern Ireland on July 17, 2016:
My niece married a Greek and I learnt modern Greek in order to be able to communicate with the new relatives. I used it extensively on a couple of visits to Greece but it is gradually disappearing now. :(
Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on July 16, 2016:
Thank you very much for your comments, Meg! May I ask why you have such a special interest in Greek? Is it more for academic than tourist reasons?
DreamerMeg from Northern Ireland on July 16, 2016:
This is very true. I learnt French in school and probably remember about 80% of it. I learnt Greek about 15 years ago and used language tapes while driving to work to learn it. I calculated I spent as many hours on it as in 5 years of school French but have forgotten most of it, even though I was able to get by in it all those years ago. The internet is very useful. I am trying to pick up Greek reading skills gradually. Immersion is definitely the best way.