How to maintain a foreign language

Language learning is a sport. And like any sport, if you stop playing for too long, you’ll lose your professional status, and end up as an amateur.

Yet you don’t always want to play like a professional, at an intense level. Sometimes you just want to take it slow for a while. Sometimes all you need is a break. But how to take a break when you don’t want to lose your language skills? How to approach it without wasting all the time you already put in absorbing your target language?

Simple: You get into maintenance mode.


Maintenance mode

I consider two levels of maintenance: Low maintenance, and high maintenance. Low maintenance is like a couch potato. You don’t want to lose your language completely, but you’re not willing to put in much effort either. And high maintenance is when you keep learning, but not that much.

You can also decide to let it go completely. Because you won’t travel again for a while. Because you can’t take it anymore. Because your spouse left you (that Swedish rap was getting on his nerves somehow!). And that’s fine. Your life, your choices. If you ever decide to start learning again, you won’t start from zero. You will forget a lot, but you’ll be able to pick it up fast.

I didn’t write this post to convince you to maintain your language ’til the end of time. This article is here to show you how to maintain a foreign language, should you choose to accept it. Learning a foreign language can be exhausting. It can be frustrating. It can be harmful to your spouse’s ears. But maintaining a foreign language doesn’t take much. 5-10 minute a day per language is all you need.

My current routine involves watching a YouTube video in each one of my languages almost everyday. That’s the couch potato approach. Sometimes I listen to music instead. It’s not optimal, but it does the job. Meaning: I’m not really learning, but I’m not forgetting my languages either. I know I can do way more before traveling to improve my communication skills.


The couch potato, or low maintenance.

Find a daily (or weekly) activity that doesn’t take too much time, or involve too much brain power. A few ideas:

  • watching a 5-minute video everyday,
  • watching a movie once a week,
  • listening to a 10-minute podcast everyday,
  • having a 15-minute conversation once a week.

The principle here is still audio and repetition.


Low-key learning, or high maintenance.

The idea is to keep discovering new words without doing too much. You’re not in warrior mode anymore. When you initially absorb a new language with songs, you find yourself in a lot of uncomfortable situations where you don’t understand anything. Sometimes it even feels like you’re going nowhere. But high maintenance is not this kind of experience. Think chill and relax. The high-maintenance mode is absorbing and chelax.

High-maintenance activities:

  • having a 15-minute conversation everyday,
  • singing a few songs you already know everyday,
  • watching a movie every other day (or binge-watching videos on YouTube).


You absorb a foreign language to open new horizons, not to be stressed out by the activity itself or your results. You absorb a foreign language to meet new people, not to feel self-conscious about judgemental people and haters. If you ever feel overwhelmed, go into maintenance mode for a few days. Keep it simple. Relax, and absorb.

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