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.

Watch The Tim Ferriss Experiment, the new #1-rated TV show with "the world's best human guinea pig" (Newsweek), Tim Ferriss. It's Mythbusters meets Jackass. Shot and edited by the Emmy-award winning team behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Here's the trailer.

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

  1. as usual, interesting method.
    You’re using German as example, but what about language that are totally different from your mother tongue, I’ll take Japanese for example as you spent some time in Japan (and as I’m currently in japan myself). Do you think you could catch up on your japanese in just 4 weeks? Would’nt it be easier to read the latest One Piece/Bleach in Japanese every time they release one?

    By the way, it takes 3/5 week to get your book from T_T so looooong


  2. Thanks for the tips, Tim! I was worried about losing my grasp of Italian after visiting next year. Now I won’t be so intimidated by catch-up!

    Also, I’m using Rosetta Stone 1-2 hours daily to learn Italian, and I’m loving the program so far. What other language learning methods would you recommend?


  3. I’m a work-at-home marketer and have outsourced web development / technology projects, copywriting, and other projects to various places: Eastern Europe, India, Asia, etc.. I’ve used Elance, Craigslist, and referrals to find people. I’d love a chance to be on the CBS Early Show and discuss my experiences. :)


  4. Ok, but if you’ve got friends in the country where the example language is spoken, wouldn’t speaking to them on the phone for an hour or so a week easily be enough to keep up your fluency, and I can’t see you picking up any bad habits that way, know what I mean?


  5. Living in Canada I speak two languages most days. If I go back to visit my family for a week (speaking only one language) then I very quickly forget how to speak the other. I maintain 2 blogs, one in each language to at least keep my writing up to par. My kids speak one language at home and go to school in the other so I get to help with homework in the other language.
    Mais, j’ai des jours quand je ne me souviens pas quelle langue je devrais parler!


  6. Excellent post! My second language is Chinese and after returning to the states a little over 13 years ago I have definitely seen a drop off in my language skills. I’ll take your tips and use them to resurrect my language abilities before my next trip to Asia.


  7. I use the TV newscasts on Spanish language stations to reactivate before heading to South America. Their pronunciation is flawless and there is the added benefit of having pictures to cue you as to the content.



  8. Tim,

    If you find yourself in Edinburgh and you’re looking for a brief, brutal, effective workout drop me a line and i’ll introduce you to Kettlebells if you’ve not tried them already. As a grappler take to this type of training very quickly.

    Have a great trip

    Rannoch Donald RKC


  9. Here is a unique twist that I use on personal outsourcing. I am an economics teacher in the suburbs of New York City. My colleagues and I have developed a simulation for teaching what was once a very boring course for high school seniors.

    Since I cannot outsource things like lesson plans and the actual mechanics of teaching a high school class, I outsource the administrative duties for classroom management to my economics students. This includes things like taking attendance, greeting students at the door, passing out graded work to students, etc. There is room for about 30 jobs.

    I don’t outsource these activities out of laziness. I outsource to provide students the opportunity to earn a “paycheck” in class. Students are paid once per week for their labor and can then use the money to pay bills for seat rentals, taxes and other fees that we create in the simulation. Any disposable income is then used to purchase extra points on tests, on the average, term paper extensions, etc.

    Using a common currency for each class allows me to create teachable moments within the field of economics. Students parlay the money earned through jobs into private business like banks and insurance companies in class. Interest rates become something they have to deal with rather than listen to in a passive state.

    Outsourcing proves to be mutually beneficial. I can focus on the curriculum rather than paperwork and the students get paid and benefit from their labor. Economics has become one of the most popular classes in our school because of this simulation.


  10. I’ve been reading your book and I find it very inspiring. I didn’t know there were other people out there with job and hobby ADD. Thanks so much for your writing and your blog! I’m 23, a 1 year college grad with a job I should love but don’t, and like you I just can’t understand why everyone in the real world does things the retarded way.

    Thanks… that’s all.


  11. Tim,

    Thanks for re-posting this useful bit of advice (for those that don’t know, it’s also in the reader resources and was published on vagablogging a while ago). I was wondering if you had plans on completing your 3 part series on “How to Learn Any Language in 3 Months” ?




  12. I would say this, given that I work for the company, but Champs-Elysées audio magazines are a great way of bringing your language skills out of cold storage – Schau ins Land might be useful to you before your next trip Tim…


  13. Once you get to your destination, nothing beats living with the natives. If you have to ask in German where the bathroom is in the middle of the night when you’re sleepwalking, pretty soon it will get in there!

    Plus you get to understand the WHY and HOW behind all the cultural practices that seem so strange. Well, OK, maybe not understand, but at least hear their version of the story (will ice-cold liquids really burst one’s stomach? hmmm… So that’s why the beer is warm!)


  14. This is the only I have learned 3 languages – Italian as well as Sicilan, Spanish, and Dutch- being the hardest. That and just getting out there and opening my mouth.

    To Rannoch- Kettle Bells Rock!!! I’m taking it where I train, Fighthouse, in NYC.

    Keep on keeping on Tim. You’re changing the world one person at a time.