How to Resurrect Your High School Spanish… or Any Language (Plus: Be on the CBS Early Show!)


Oktoberfest is good for reactivating German but bad for livers. ((c) Dave77459)

How can you possibly maintain fluency in two foreign languages — let alone five or six — if the opportunities to use them are months or years apart?

In 20 minutes, I leave from JFK for Iceland, then Scotland, and then a circle in Europe that will include Oktoberfest in Munich. Germany is strategic, as I want to “reactivate” my German before the media tour there.

Few topics provoke more anxiety and depression in language lovers than the prospect of forgetting a hard-earned language. After you return to your English-dominated homeland, how do you maintain your newfound skills, which seem to have yogurt-like expiration dates? Having juggled close to a dozen languages — keeping some and losing others — and having suffered the interference that goes it all, my answer now is simple: you don’t.

It is easier, and much more time-efficient, to catch up versus keep up.

Why struggle to maintain a foreign tongue in the US, for example, when you most often gain nothing more than bad habits? If you acquire the language in a native environment and attain an intermediate or advanced level of fluency, you can reactivate your language skills in four weeks or less when approached methodically. Would you rather spend four hours per week on your new language, only to see it get sick and bloated with a distinctly foreign-sounding twang, or spend two hours per day for 1-3 weeks and be right back at your fluency level from years prior?

I began reactivation of irretrievable German just over a week ago and can already hold a decent conversation. This is not a testament to my ability, but to the efficacy of a process that begins with massive passive exposure and avoids time-consuming review from square one:

1. Days 1-7: German films with English subtitles for at least two hours each evening for one week.

2. Days 3+: 10-20 pages of dialogue-rich manga (Japanese comics, here translated into German, that can be ordered in most languages from comic stores in your target country) for 30 minutes each morning and prior to bed. I’m a big fan of One Piece.

3. On the plane:
Read a phrasebook in its entirety for active recall practice of common phrases (45 minutes of study alternated with 15 minutes of rest — this takes advantage of what is called the “primacy and recency” effect).

4. Upon arrival: Continue with manga and grammar reference checks as needed, using an electronic dictionary to reactivate vocabulary from conversation that is familiar but not understood.

5. Weeks 2-3: Thirty to sixty Vis-Ed flashcards daily. This seems like a lot, but most will have been covered in steps 1-3 using active recall (English to German). Vis-Ed compiles its sets of flashcards from word frequency lists and includes sample phrases for usage. I begin flashcards after three or four days in-country.

The sooner you decide to reactivate languages when needed, instead of maintaining them for an unspecified time in the future, the more leisure time you will have and the less diluted your language abilities will be when you need them.

Don’t fear losing languages if you’ve attained real fluency. They’re just in temporary storage with the covers pulled over them.


Odds and Ends: Please vote for me, and be on the CBS Early Show!

There are only 24 hours left… if you haven’t, please vote for my panel at the SXSW conference! It takes about 30 seconds and will allow me to pull together some of the best entrepreneurial minds in the world. Check out all of the panels and vote here.

ASAP: Would you like to be on the CBS Early Show? They are doing a segment on personal outsourcing and are looking for fun case studies in New York City (or people willing to travel there). If you are in/near NYC and have a good success story of using personal outsourcing, please share them in the comments here and I’ll pass your e-mail address to the producers!

Posted on: September 20, 2007.

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 )

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s

Comment Rules: Remember what Fonzie was like? Cool. That’s how we’re gonna be — cool. Critical is fine, but if you’re rude, we’ll delete your stuff. Please do not put your URL in the comment text and please use your PERSONAL name or initials and not your business name, as the latter comes off like spam. Have fun and thanks for adding to the conversation! (Thanks to Brian Oberkirch for the inspiration)

80 comments on “How to Resurrect Your High School Spanish… or Any Language (Plus: Be on the CBS Early Show!)

  1. Hi there,

    Love the book especially the chapter on mini-retirements! I would like to know if you have a list of the foriegn language schools you have used and recommend from the places you’ve gone and studied around the world. Can you post this list on your resources page? I would like to brush up on my spanish and would like to go back to Costa Rica for a mini-retirement: spanish language study, scuba and lot’s of eco-hiking and touring!

    Thanks very much!

    Laura Halik


  2. Tim your book has been transformational and just the kick in the butt needed. I am planning on taking my family (w/2 children 12 & 13) to Argentina for a month or two this summer as our fist mini-retirement (and test run w/kids abroadl before going for longer periods). We want to take Spanish lessons and wondering if you would share any recommendations for schools/teachers and resources for housing. We were looking at Madrid, but w/dollar down and always wanting to visit Argentia, seems like the perfect opportunity.

    Thank you for the innovative and insightful information in your book and your blog, keep up the excellent work!


  3. I was a Spanish teacher once (until I realized I would end up living with my parents for the rest of my life, since I wasn’t paid enough for the rents in my area). I studied for a few weeks at a wonderful language school in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Amerispan is a travel company that specializes in language travel, and places students in homestays that let you get to know the people, and their lifestyles, instead of staying in a boring hotel. They offer volunteer work vacations, internships and daily language instruction, and will customize your stay (i.e., they will pair you with a conversation partner, customize the spanish you learn for medical or law enforcement if that’s what you need, arrange arts and crafts lessons – whatever you ask if you know what you want ahead of time.) Although they started out partnering just with language schools in Latin America, they now have programs in many different languages in countries all over the world, Arabic to Chinese and Japanese. You can stay for as little as one week, or extend your stay for several weeks or months, it’s up to you, since unlike a tour package, there are no set start dates. The volunteer opportunities would be a great way to spend a “mini-retirement” too, if you already grasp enough of the language to get by.

    I just read the 4HWW book today, after waiting for weeks for the library to hand it over to me (it was already on hold for about 15 other people, so I had to wait a long time!). I wish I had found this book in 2001, after the dotcom I worked for went bust, my hours were cut, and my wages were frozen. I am nearly 40 now, and make only a little over $11 an hour, and am going back to graduate school (again!) to get an MBA degree to make myself more marketable (I hope). I wish I knew where to start to make this 4HWW work for me. I only wish I understood to begin with how someone who has worked as hard as I have, never takes a vacation, has several college degrees, and is a law-abiding, tax-paying homeowner, could get so hopelessly stuck!! My initial reaction after reading the book was depression, since I don’t know how I could possibly make this plan work for me.


  4. Hi Tim,

    What’s your opinion of the Rosetta Stone method? I want to resurrect my Spanish skills for a trip to Mexico. I also want to start teaching my kids; neither have much exposure to the language? My wife speaks Spanish related to her professional life in healthcare.

    Thanks, another Tim


  5. So I have been living in Switzerland for a 5 weeks now… 6 days ago I decided I would take the leap and learn the local language which is a German Dialect. I have never been able to speak German in my whole life….

    The first day I looked at what situations I would be in, Shops, restaurants, hotels etc..
    I also downloaded and translated the top 100 spoken words and cut them into groups….. I am also using the flash card method…. and using the phrase I have learned that day as much as I can ….

    So over the last 5 days… I learn before sleep & recap after as suggested…

    And it sticks…. I cant believe the amount of German I can speak already…..

    I have also taught myself to really listen when people speak too…. Someone mention the other day that listening is key… a baby listens for a long time before attempting to speak…

    So by trying to get the gist of what the person is saying you learn to pick out words which teahces you to recognise the words you have learned…..

    I’ll keep you posted, but by New Years Eve…. I shall be speaking German.

    Nice one Tim!


  6. Tim…what do you think about the Pimsleur Method? I have found great success in the spoken area of it. A bit repetitive but you remember it!..

    cheers, arigato, danke, grazie, spaseeba, cam ong, gracias…….


  7. @John:

    I can’t speak for Tim but I can quote him on a comparison between Pimsleur and MT: “MT is Pimsleur on steroids.” Which basically means both are good but Pimsleur is rather slow.


  8. Interesting idea.

    I agree though. Focussed effort is what gets results. Not 1 hour every other week.

    Thanks for the great tip. I learned a couple of languages and been trying to find time to “maintain” my level, however i agree with you that this would probably be a waste of time. When i need them, i can recover them quite quickly…


  9. I don’t worry much in general and even less about forgetting things I know. When you learned something once you can learn/remember it again when you need it.

    My way of keeping my language knowledge intact is, to either read a few fiction books in that language or to watch a movie per month.
    That way I don’t forget what I know and even learn a few new words and usages, while enjoying the process.

    It would be even better to regularly write a little .. a few sentences here and there, grocery lists, to-do lists, etc.

    It is also useful to include a few foreign songs into your music playlist. Song lyrics usually replay in your head again and again ( .. and again) helping with memorization and pronunciation.

    Nothing is better than learning something without noticing :)


  10. I still can’t get away from the desirability of maintaining a language. I mean, instead of it having to be some time intensive laborious task, couldn’t we find some easier ways to “maintain”? For instance, your idea about watching the movies with English subtitles. Wouldn’t that be a good thing to do on a regular basis, and perhaps even an enjoyable thing to do on a regular basis? On top of that, hearing the foreign language spoken in the movie should keep your pronunciation tuned up instead of allowing it to go bad as you say.

    I’ve just gotta think that there are more passive ways to keep up your language skills, but, my foreign language is Spanish, and I guess that there are much more resources for Spanish speakers in the United States than there are for other languages.

    Also, I just wanted to point out, I tried to click through on that link you posted for the Vis-Ed flashcards, but apparently, it’s now a bad link for some reason.


  11. To learn Mandarin grammar and vocab rapidly, I used the free podcast by Serge Melnyk available via iTunes.

    Try it out. I think you’ll like it.


  12. Hello all,

    I strongly believe that in order to be successful (no matter what the field is), you have to keep doing the continuous effort, and without it there is no success in practical field, and yeah few hours a week isn’t much to fulfill your dreams, it requires much more than that.


  13. Hey Tim,

    Great article. We’ve just re-tweeted it and Facebooked it to all our Expanish Spanish School students in Buenos Aires. We get hundreds of Spanish students coming from all over the world to study in Argentina and many of them come thinking they’ll remember what they learnt back home. And the reality is they’ve forgotten it. It’s painful thinking of all those wasted years of learning it, just to have to re-learn!



  14. Hi Tim,

    Do your language reactivation tips apply for first languages mostly forgotten, also? I spoke French as my only language until I was about 5, then moved to the States from Montreal, Quebec. I currently speak just enough French to get myself into trouble, but can’t really hold a conversation. Would your standard of reactivating “fluency” apply here, even though I’m now 26? Thanks so much.



  15. @Courtney,

    The same tips apply, but the longer it has been since you spoke a language, the more re-exposure it will take to bring it back. But since French was indeed your first language, it is still in you (just buried under many years of English).

    With regard to comments above about spending time maintaining languages, I don’t find that to be very practical. When I began learning Mandarin, I simply did not have the time or desire to keep reviewing Japanese as well. But I have found that despite being away from Japan for 7 years, it still comes back to me quite quickly when needed. I have noticed that it takes my mouth a few days of actively speaking Japanese to get back up to speed, but my comprehension and fluency (both oral and written) remain intact despite barely using the language the past 5 years.


  16. Just a quick one – the link to the Vis-Ed cards is now broken. I’ve visited the site but there are a number of different options:

    -Vocabulary cards
    -Conversation cards
    -Grammar cards
    -Verb cards

    I was wondering which one if was you were recommending?

    Many thanks Tim,



  17. Well let me tell you something. I finished H.S. Spanish I never really forgot what I learned. I would not say that I was fluent, but I remember most of the concepts that I learned, so that when I picked it up 7 years I did not have to relearn those basic concepts. To me speaking suffers as you don’t have the opportunity to speak much especially if it not a language that is present where you live. And those who know that might perfer speaking in English out of cortuesy.


  18. Thanks. You’ve relieved my mind greatly. I am living in Ukraine and learning the language, but wish I could still speak the Spanish I learned in high school. Now I know it’s okay to just leave it alone until I am actually planning a trip to Spain.