Maintain Your Language Even When You Don’t Live in a Country Where It Is Spoken

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maintain your languages even if you don't live in a country where they are spoken

By Andrew
Photo credit: coureagextoxlive

Maintaining our languages can be relatively easy to do (compared to learning them in the first place) but only if we have the time to do it. We have our day-to-day routine (work, errands, school, conversing with local friends, etc.) which takes up much of our time and which also takes place in the community language. How, then, can we find the time to practice our additional languages?

There are several things that come to mind, but all of them center around simply replacing the things that we already do in our current primary language (English if you’re in the U.S., Japanese in Japan, etc.) with those same things but conducted in the target language that you want to maintain.

Here’s where we run into that ever present problem: discipline. This is especially tough if you’re trying to get your whole family to do it and you’re trying to convince small children to switch from a language they’re comfortable with and used to over to one they’re not.  As with many things, the beginning is the tough part and if you can just get this habit started, after a week or two it’ll have its own momentum and it won’t seem like work quite so much anymore.

Here are some tips that I recommend:

1. Watch movies and TV shows in your target language

This is a very easy one to do, especially if you’re already fairly fluent in the language in question because then you can watch a lot of shows online in your target language. If you already watch movies and TV, then instead of watching them in English or whatever language you normally do, watch them in your target language.  Amazon has a fantastic selection of foreign language films, over 10,000 just in Spanish alone, just go to the page I just linked to and choose your target language from the menu on the left.  Pick a couple of movies for you and/or your family to watch.

For TV shows, if you’re in the U.S. and your target language is Spanish, you’ve probably got a couple of Spanish-language channels like Univision and Telemundo available on your TV.  If that’s not the case, I highly recommend you go online and search for terms like “watch TV online” but search for them in your target language, e.g. “ver televisión online” for Spanish, that should bring up plenty of sites where you can watch various shows in your target language.  This particular method is one of my favorites for teaching beginners, which I discuss in greater detail in my post for Multilingual Living about learning a language with The Telenovela Method, except I really emphasize the fact that you need to use movies that have subtitles in your target language so that you can look up words you don’t know.  If you’re doing this to maintain a language you’re already fairly competent in, then this particular aspect isn’t necessary for you.

2. Commit to using the language a certain amount of time each day

A nifty trick I teach beginners is to get a dictionary (preferably electronic, it’s much faster) for their target language and to go about their daily lives but to not allowing themselves to do anything until they know how to say it in their target language, e.g. in order to open the door you have to be able to say “I’m opening the door” in Spanish, or at least know how to say “door”, in order to make a ham sandwich you’ll need to know the words for refrigerator, ham, bread, cheese, coke, mayonnaise, mustard, open, close, knife, cutting board…you get the picture.

Make yourself do this for a certain amount of time every day (an hour, two hours, whatever).  This will be much easier if you and/or your family are already fairly competent in the language and therefore you’re not constantly having to look things up – just set aside a certain amount of time that all conversations will be done in the target language, no English (or whatever your normal language is) is allowed.

Oh, and be sure to actually do something in this time period that requires speaking (eating dinner, playing some type of game, etc.). Don’t let the kids get away with just sitting it out and watching TV (though you could do this if the only TV they were allowed to watch was in the target language and if you made a point of talking about what it was you were watching).

3. Read in your target language

Simple, obvious, and very effective, it just takes a bit of discipline to tell yourself that you’re going to read some predefined amount (pages, amount of time, etc.) every day in your target language.  It’s very easy to find books in nearly any language you want, just go to the “Libros en Español” section of for Spanish, or to Amazon’s International page for other languages. For the kids, there are tons of children’s books and comics they can read, which is actually a technique I originally came up with for adults to learn Spanish with children’s books.  If the kids are a bit older, try comics (I still love comics–did you know that the comics section is, by far, the most-read part of the newspaper?).

Here’s a list of websites where you can read thousands of comics online for free (I focus on Spanish and French here):

The easiest way to find comics in other languages is to just google “[language name] comics”, or go to this Wikipedia page that lists all comics by country and then search for the names of the ones you find listed under the country where your target language is spoken.

4. Language Exchanges

This is probably the best one overall since it requires speaking and direct participation. Plus, if you’ve got kids, they’ll be exposed to people from another country and the amount they’ll learn about another culture will be tremendous.

If you don’t know what a language exchange is, it’s very simple: it’s a sort of social networking site where people who speak different languages go to find native speakers of the language that they want to learn, and vice-versa, and then people whose target and native languages match up will talk to each other via Skype or a similar service and spend half of the call in one language and half in the other.

For example, let’s say that you are a native English speaker who is looking to learn/practice Spanish. You will get onto a language exchange and look for people who are native Spanish speakers looking to learn/practice English, then you’ll schedule a Skype call (and/or correspond by e-mail–it’s also a good way to get a pen pal to practice reading/writing) during which you’ll spend half of the time in Spanish and the other half in English.  Here’s a short list of my favorite language exchanges (all free):


I really hope that’s helped you. And like I said: the basic idea is to replace some of the things you would normally do every day (watching movies, reading, talking to people, etc.) in your primary language with the same activity but now done in your target language. It is very simple but not necessarily easy: it’s all about discipline and habits!

Please let me know what you think in the comments, and feel free to post any questions, I’ll be delighted to respond to all of them.


Make sure to also read Andrew’s famous post The Telenovela Method of Learning Spanish (or any other language) – you won’t regret it!

I’ve been passionate about learning languages since I was 12 and have previously worked on (primarily on my own) French, Russian, and Swedish, and am currently teaching myself Spanish and Japanese.

I run a site on how to learn spanish where I share the various techniques and resources I’ve discovered over the years that you can use to learn Spanish on your own. The idea behind the site is to help people who want to teach themselves the language entirely on their own from home without resorting to formal classes and to focus on using resources that are available online for free. Please come by and check it out.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Maria Rita Castaldi April 2, 2012 at 9:06 am

Very very useful, thank you so much!


2 Andrew April 2, 2012 at 6:02 pm

You’re welcome, Maria!



3 Allan Ngo April 2, 2012 at 9:08 am

Hi Andrew,

I really like your piece. Personally, I have gone to China for a semester to study Mandarin Chinese and am constantly on the lookout for ways to improve my Chinese even back home.

I think though other than maintaining your target language, you really must make it as a part of your life. If you approach it this way, it wouldn’t feel much of a task but as a part of your daily routine.

Listening to your target language’s music or dialogue over the radio or an mp3 player would also be a good way to use your idle time (i.e. waiting at the airport, driving through traffic etc)

Again, great post Andrew!




4 Andrew April 2, 2012 at 6:06 pm

Thanks Allan, I’m glad you liked it. I completely agree about integrating it into your life. I try to use Spanish around the house while I’m doing things whenever I can, that is I’ll talk to myself about what I’m doing IN SPANISH…as odd as that sounds, it really helps, especially when it comes to learning useful day-to-day vocabulary.



5 Alex April 2, 2012 at 5:50 pm

I really like how tip #3 and #4 are so effective! Sometimes incorporating our languages is so much simpler then we make it out to be.


6 Andrew April 2, 2012 at 6:07 pm

Thanks Alex, I appreciate that.



7 audrey April 4, 2012 at 3:21 am

I’m going to try activities in spanish with the kids today


8 Andrew April 9, 2012 at 7:25 pm

Fantastic, how did it go?



9 shahrooz April 6, 2012 at 1:03 pm

That was a good reminder. I speak French to my kids when we are home, but I realize it is always about eating, cleaning and getting dressed. I should start narrating what I do, and that may add more verbs to their vocabulary! The movies end up frustrating them, and the baby cartoons they can understand bores them. But crazy mom walking around to herself, sounds like fun! Thanks!


10 Andrew April 9, 2012 at 7:27 pm

You’re more than welcome.



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