I am sure everyone is familiar with the feeling of forgetting a common word – it’s at the tip of your tongue, just out of reach, and it’s putting a massive roadblock in your sentence. Now imagine that feeling, but with two, or even three languages. On top of that, add on the fact that you don’t regularly speak those languages in your daily environment. This is an experience that is very common amongst bilingual or multilingual individuals, and one that I have encountered myself in my first semester of college. It is difficult to describe the panic that you feel when it starts to look like you are forgetting the mother tongue that you have been speaking for the past 18 years. I grew quite upset with myself and delved into the internet (and my mother’s wisdom) to try and fix this problem. Listed below are some of the solutions that I found, and I hope that they can be helpful to someone else that is struggling with maintaining their family language, or is trying to preserve a new language they recently learned.
First, I would strongly recommend calling home at least once a week (if you are on good terms with your family, of course). Chances are, you converse with your parents in your mother tongue. If not, I would urge you to make an effort to do so. Your parents will be thrilled to hear from you, and it will serve as a good means of practice for you. As a cherry on top, your parents will easily be able to correct your grammar mistakes as you speak, which will maintain the quality of your speech. While we are on this topic, I would also like to encourage you to repeat the corrections that your parents made. It helps your brain remember them better, and your parents will be pleased to see that you are taking their advice seriously.
If you do not have your family available to you, another option could be to join a cultural or language club. College campuses (especially big ones) tend to have an enormous amount of cultural groups and clubs due to the large international population that is a characteristic of universities. If the language that you speak is common enough (such as Spanish, Italian, French, Arabic, etc.), you will likely find a group dedicated to it. While you might not necessarily find the cultural aspects of that group relevant to you, it’s an excellent place to meet a chat buddy that you can use to practice. Many international students find it to be an enormous relief to speak in their mother tongue every once in a while, even if their English is near perfect, and will be happy to chat with you and help you improve or practice.
As a supplementation to verbal communication, reading and writing are both crucial instruments to maintaining your language. Reading allows you to absorb new vocabulary and develop a smoother flow to your sentences while writing forces you to use your active vocabulary. An active vocabulary is a set of words that you use frequently and know how to integrate into speech, even if it isn’t on a regular basis. A passive vocabulary is a set of words that you understand but rarely say out loud. Most children that are born into a non-English speaking household but don’t speak the language have a passive vocabulary. They understand what their parents say in the mother tongue, but they cannot say the words themselves. An active vocabulary takes practice, as you need to train the muscles of your mouth and throat to produce the sounds correctly and maintain that muscle memory afterwards.
Finally, I would urge you to consume media that is in your language of choice. Be it movies, radio shows, music, Netflix series or YouTube videos, or even stalking the Insta pages of celebrities. Do your best to delve into the casual conversation and social interactions of your mother tongue on a near daily basis. For example, I found a Russian blog on a subject that interests me, and I try to read a little bit from it every day as a form of relaxation. The majority of my favorite YouTubers are currently Russian, and I watch their videos and look at their social media pages regularly.
The combination of speech, reading, and writing has been the most efficient way for me to maintain my mother tongue. I have found that my vocabulary has not diminished, but I do notice that speaking in Russian has become slightly more tiring to me than before, like my brain has to work just a little harder to put together the sentences. I hope that as I lean more into the suggestions I brought up earlier, my fluency will be restored and that I will be able to freely switch languages once more. If you speak two or more languages, I would like to implore you to maintain them as best as you can. Being multilingual is a blessing that not everyone is lucky enough to possess, and I believe that once you have learned a language, it would be a true shame to lose it due to lack of effort. So, read, write, listen and talk and keep up your language – many don’t realize how precious their gift was until it was gone.