We’ve just entered a new year, and many of us have resolved to learn or relearn a language. Assuming you can stick to your resolution and study that language long enough for it to become a habit, you’ll want to watch out for the leaky bucket effect.
The leaky bucket effect started its life as a marketing theory. The theory states that companies constantly lose customers and must gain new ones proportionately to retain their market share. The same is true of languages; the only exception is that languages require real estate in your brain instead of customers.
Your brain is a highly effective cleaning machine – it throws out anything it considers unnecessary. If you don’t use a language, you lose it. Let’s visualize a bucket of sand to illustrate this forgetting process.
Each grain of sand in the bucket represents an aspect of the language. These aspects could be a word, a grammatical rule, the pronunciation of a word, etc. The more often you review an aspect, the larger its corresponding grain of sand gets. Over time, this bucket fills up with all aspects of the language, and you become fluent. There is only one problem, the bucket leaks.
Levels of fluency
Let’s use an old wooden bucket with metal bands as our bucket. The sides of this are marked with three letters starting with A at the bottom, B in the middle, and C at the top. These are the letters used by the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR), which is a useful guide for indicating your level of fluency in a language.
As you study, you add handfuls of sand to the bucket, gradually filling it. Then, as you do other things, the forgetting curve lets the sand flows out of the bucket like the top half of an hourglass. This effect compounds, flowing in and out faster as it fills.
If you already speak more than one language, you have likely encountered this effect. Once you built your trunk in a language, you got more efficient at learning it. Once fluent, you could keep your bucket full by periodically speeching or using the language.
Then, if you lost your reason or opportunity to use that language. After not speaking it for a while, you probably noticed that finding the words you needed was harder and started making more grammatical errors. Life happens, but luckily, there are things you can do to help maintain your language.
Make your particles bigger.
As mentioned above, the more you use an aspect of the language, the less likely you will forget it. When familiarizing yourself with new items, you have two options: rote memorization and spaced repetition.
Rote memorization is repeating the new vocabulary until it feels unforgettable, then repeating it some more. This is an ineffective method for learning a language. Unfortunately, it is most likely the method you learned in school.
The better alternative is to use spaced repetition with physical cards or apps such as Anki. When you review your cards, you improve the accessibility of that language and upgrade the pathways from a path through the forest to the roads in a city.
The power of spaced repetition is to catch the grains of sand falling out of the bucket. The more you can catch, the fuller your bucket remains, allowing you to maintain the language. To go one step further, you must live the language.
Live the language
Keep filling your bucket by experiencing life in that language. These experiences can be through conversation, books, journaling, watching television or any activity which makes you think about the language.
We live in a time when many materials are translated into your target language. This can be useful as it offers you familiar material in a new language. When learning German, I would watch a Harry Potter movie and then read the corresponding Harry Potter book. The movie made it easier to understand the book, which helped me acquire new vocabulary.
While translated material is good, native material is better. Translation gives you the words, but origin gives you the culture. When learning a new language, you create a new version of yourself that can interact with a different culture.
This interaction is why you are learning the language, so be sure to interact with some native material. This native material will give you behind-the-scenes access to this new culture and help you pick up quirks not found elsewhere.
Keep filling your bucket.
Learning a language is a never-ending story, don’t make the same mistake as me. Growing up in french speaking household, I had a thick french accent when I spoke English as a child, then almost lost my french as an adult.
As I grew up and left home, french had an ever-decreasing role in my life, and it became difficult to have a french conversation. But as it is my first language, I didn’t want to lose it. So, I had to be more proactive to preserve my french. I brought it back into my life by seeking out French conversations and content, turning the tide from forgetting to learning.
You can do the same; whether learning a new language or reviving an old one, you can keep filling the bucket faster than it is emptying by integrating that language as part of your life. If you want help figuring out how to do this, book a session with me, and we can discuss your language possibilities.
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