“Why are you in Spain?” somebody asked me recently, their face exploding with indignation. “Don’t you already claim to speak Spanish?”
Like every question that eventually turns into a blogpost, it was difficult one to answer. Yes, I speak Spanish. I started studying by myself when I was 15, I impressed a teacher at school who let me join her class. I took it as one of my three A-Levels and it turned out to be my highest mark. At one point, I was even seriously considering taking it with Russian at university instead of German.
However, that was all a few years ago. After I stopped studying it at school, it became a language I hardly used. I could still read it and when I had to I could still speak it, but it had started to hurt.
After my video with the BBC came out in February 2012, I remember talking to one of the year abroad co-ordinators in Russia who’d come up to the provinces from Moscow for the day to see if we were all still alive. After getting the formalities of ‘all my colleagues hate you’ out the way, she asked me another good question:
“How do you keep it all going, though?” she said. “I studied French and Russian at university and I’m already forgetting all my French.”
Back then, I didn’t really have an answer. “I don’t know,” I told her. “I just sort of do.”
And in all honesty, I think I did. At that time I’d barely spent 20 years on this earth, and everything was much fresher in my mind. I’d had less time to forget it all. My life had had fewer changes and disruptions, and keeping my languages ticking over never felt like a huge challenge.
What’s also changed is that in my second year at university the highest level in any language I spoke would probably just about be a C1 in German – on a good day. I spoke all the languages I ‘claimed’ to, in that I was conversational in them. The A-Level I had in two of them is equivalent to a B2. But as I would discover, there was a long way to go before I’d even see what the peak of a C2 level in any of them looked like. And the process of getting there would also push some weaker languages out the picture.
So yes. I’m in Spain to improve my Spanish – a language I already speak, a language I have a top grade in from school, and a language that (compared to Hungarian) few would call difficult. Because despite all of that, my Spanish needs a defrost.
Signs your language is frozen
Language frost is a part of life. If you haven’t experienced it yet, at some point you definitely will.
You remember what it was like when it used to flow. You remember times and places where you used those languages fluently. You still clearly remember that ‘click’ moment when you pinched yourself and said “Hey! I really can speak this!”
But when you try to use it now, it looks a bit like this:
The most important thing to remember is that you’re not alone. This can and does happen to anyone, and don’t worry – your language is frozen, not gone. And the good news I’m going to show you how to get it back.
But if you’re reading this and thinking “What is Alex talking about… I’ve never experienced this ever!” then I suggest you read on. Your languages could be freezing over right now without you even realising it.
Here are some warnings signs to look for to spot language freezing early:
- You can’t remember the last time you spoke it.
- The last time you spoke in that language was a disaster.
- It’s been months since you even looked at a language book.
- When you recently read/heard your language you thought “Oh, I remember this word!”
- You caught yourself telling someone “Well of course I speak completely fluent [language]…”
See? The signs are subtle. That what makes this so dangerous. 90% of Frozen Language Syndrome (FLS) patients don’t even realise they’ve got it.
Let’s talk about 4 and 5 for a second. These are the most worrying symptoms that normally flummox people the most.
Sometimes coming across a word and remembering can feel like a good feeling. You can be misled into thinking: “See! I’ve still got this…” or “Wow I have such a large vocabulary that I even recognised the word ‘removal’ straight away!” But actually, the reverse is true. If you really have “still got this”, you would have read over them without even blinking. They would have been a part of your active vocabulary, and you would be using them naturally in conversation. ‘Remembering’ shouldn’t get a look in – you own this language. ‘Remembering’ is a sure sign that frost is building.
Equally, anybody who speaks a language at a C2 level knows that the three words you never use together are ‘speak’ ‘language’ ‘fluently’. You know that language learning never stops, that no matter how much you learn there is still more to learn, that every day words are being added to the language far quicker than you could ever hope to learn them. Having a C2 level is about knowing you’re not a native speaker, that vocabulary will always be a bit of an obstacle sometimes, and being extremely humble about the whole thing. Saying you’re ‘fluent’ means you’re sitting on your laurels. And sitting on your laurels means the frost is already falling.
If you’re now panicking, don’t. Yes, you could be in a late stage of FLS, but don’t worry – there’s a cure.
How to defrost your languages
Languages are about comfort zones. There are things you’re comfortable doing, and things that you’re not.
When languages freeze, these comfort zones begin to shrink. Gradually you feel less happy doing things you used to do without blinking. This comes mainly from getting out of habits you used to be in when your language prowess was at its peak.
Fight to get those habits back.
If (like me) the reason why your Spanish used to be so good was because you spoke it four hours a week but now you don’t, start building that back up. Depending on how frozen your language is, start with just 30 mins and increase it slowly. Sites like italki are great because you can mix and match teachers to get some variety too rather than spending hours talking to one person each week, and running out of things to talk about.
Once those habits are back in place and that language is back to being a part of your life, it’s time to start forging new areas to work on. For me, I used to be able to talk about current affairs like the environment and the EU in Spanish until the cows came home. But I didn’t know how to walk into a shop and ask them to explain to me in detail all of the differences between their 1000s of broadband packages. I was also always really bad at understanding people from outside of Spain, as my teacher was from Madrid. But as I was to find out, call centres in Spain tend to have lots of South Americans working there, who (apart from dropping all formalities to sound more direct and “Spanish”) don’t make many allowances in their pronunciation.
It hasn’t taken too long to get back into my comfort zones in Spanish. But without forging out new ones and setting myself fresh challenges, there will always be a real danger that the frost will come right back. By continuing to push ahead, I at least know that I’ve made some more ground before that happens.
Can you prevent language frost?
Yes. Generally speaking, language frost is a symptom of one larger problem: not using your language.
To pre-emptively stop this from happening, choose your languages very carefully. Make sure you pick languages that you know you’ll be able to practise regularly and like that, you won’t have this problem.
If you’re a ‘to do list’ person, then set yourself manageable tasks each week to keep your languages fresh. Listen to one podcast, read one chapter, one article, have one conversation, watch one TV show. Like with everything with languages, it’s frequency not quantity that counts.
Oh, and I nearly forgot!
Want new ways to practise your languages?
I’m organising a meetup this month in Madrid! Come along and spend the afternoon chatting with me and other language lovers from Spain and elsewhere on Sunday 29th November. It’s totally free, and all languages and all levels are completely welcome.
Otherwise, that’s it for today. Remember to keep your languages warm, and as always, let me know how it goes.
Want to find out more about how I learn languages?
Come to one of my live events! Richard Simcott and I will teach you:
- the fundamental techniques required for learning any language
- how to take your languages to an advanced level
- how to understand the real language native speakers read in books, watch on TV, and use in conversations
- how to deal with motivation issues and set realistic goals for your success
Our next event will be in:
Valencia, Spain | 30th January 2016
London, UK | 27th and 28th February 2016
Or… Join us online! Programme starts 4th January 2016
Places are limited, so book now to secure your ticket! Once we’ve sold out, we can’t make any exceptions.
Can’t make any of those events? Don’t worry, we’ll be planning a new one near you very soon!
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