Language maintenance is just as important as second language acquisition (SLA), and yet, while the latter is hammered into us in school and many of us pursue it in our free time, a lot more attention could stand to be given to the former. Maintaining linguistic knowledge is a skill, and like any other skill, it can be learned and taught. Like any other ability, we’re born with a certain (possibly very small) natural talent at it, and like any other ability, if we leave it untrained, it’ll never improve. In the U.S., most four-year degree holders have enjoyed a semester or two of Spanish, French, German or whatever, but how many have had a semester in the art of remembering what they’ve learned?

The best way to maintain any sort of rote memorized material is through the modern technology of the spaced repetition system (SRS). An SRS is a flashcard program with a twist: after you enter your flashcards, when you review them, you rate them based on how easily you remembered. The program then uses your answers to optimize the order in which cards are displayed to you. When you remember something better, it should show up less often. When something is troubling you, you’ll benefit by reviewing it more often. The old-school technique to do this was to weed cards out of your flashdeck, but the whole problem with preserving learned knowledge is that however well you know it now, when it slips out of your reality, it’ll eventually fade. With the new technology, a card is never completely removed, it just gets “spaced” out more and more.

The biggest problem when it comes to keeping vocabulary from the Spanish class you took years ago, is time. You’re a busy person and you have so many better things to study your old textbook every day– or even every week! But this is where the beauty of spacing really comes in. As long as you aren’t actively trying to expand your knowledge on a given subject, the amount of time investment you need to invest to keep what you’ve already got, becomes smaller as you do more reviews. Flashcards which are easy, rapidly get thinned to the point where they barely ever appear– I’ve got cards in my deck which won’t show up for almost a full year. Even flashcards which are hard, eventually get easier as you gradually, patiently wear them into the caverns of long term memory. In time, the difficult item becomes easier, and then it starts showing up less and less often.

In order to make Spaced Repetition work to maintain a language you’ve studied once but aren’t running into in your daily life, at first you’ll need to make a habit of daily review. The SRS software will take care of all the paperwork and organization (once you’ve added your cards), but it’s up to you to actually do the review. As you continue to grind the information into longterm memory, and rate your flashcard performance accordingly, the daily review will automatically shrink, until you can transition to doing reviews only on the weekdays, and then eventually only MWF, and eventually, if you’re never adding new material, in time you can do just one review a week. Provided you don’t cheat yourself when you rate your performance on the cards, less and less work will be needed, and yet with so little work you’ll keep your linguistic treasures as sparkly and shiny as the day you walked home with that “A” in Greek 101.

LangMaint is a skill, and like any other skill, you can train it and upgrade it. You may be born with some innate knack for keeping stuff in long term ROM– or maybe not– but you can always raise that ability. It’s not static. Train it like you’d train a muscle. Put it to use against light hurdles, and work your way up. A good way to get some light training is to give yourself a crash course in Esperanto, an artificial tongue designed specifically to be really freaking easy to learn. People report becoming fluent in this conlang in a couple months or even faster. You can use it as a “dumbell”, learn it and then maintain it, thereby increasing your LangMaint power so when you study something harder, it’ll be a little easier to keep it stored up in the ol’ noggin.

I wish I had known about the power of SRS when I took Spanish in junior college. I was very enthusiastic then, and I learned with gusto. But now, almost everything I learned in those accelerated 8-hour weekend classes, is gone. I’ve retained a heightened intuition about Latin derivatives in general, and even about my own English grammar, but this is all subconscious, and consciously I can remember very few concrete facts or concrete vocabulary words.

You don’t have to dish out tons of cash for SRS technology. In fact, the best two programs are absolutely free: Anki and Mnemosyne. You can read my compare-and-contrast between the two here.

Mnemosyne and Anki (and other programs) aren’t just for lang maintainers, either. They’re also great for people continuing to actively learn some new lexicon– or anything at all which requires lots of memorization, for that matter.

FURTHER READING

Spaced Repetition Systems
Anki vs. Mnemosyne
Multiple SRS Decks