How to maintain our languages whilst living abroad

Living abroad is a great opportunity to learn and immerse ourselves in a new culture and language! For those who do this for a few years, this can be a refreshing and inspiring experience. It allows them to discover new facets of their own culture and language.

When we live abroad for a longer period and the local language is not one we use(d) at home or regularly before moving there, it can become challenging to maintain our proficiency in those languages. Many of us experience some kind of language attrition at some point. This can be a frustrating and scary experience!

Here are some tips on how to maintain all (!) our languages whilst living abroad:

Speak your languages with a variety of speakers! We can learn from everyone who speaks the target language. The broader and diverse (in terms of language use) the community of speakers, the better. We can find social media groups or local organizations (eg. Internations, Meet Up) with people searching for sparring partners to learn or improve languages a bit everywhere in the world.

Speaking our languages with people who use them in different social settings – formal and informal, colloquial, slang etc. – and talk about various topics, helps us improve and consolidate our vocabulary and metalinguistic skills. Furthermore, speaking with interlocutors of various age groups and provenience allow us to develop our vocabulary and overall language skills.

Reading books, newspapers, magazines, comics etc. in our languages will help us keep up with news and literature from the country (or countries). Reading helps us to maintain our language skills, learn new terms in context and makes it easier to keep connected to the culture and current events. Audiobooks and podcasts are a great resource too! 

Watching TV shows movies in our languages help us maintain our language skills and keep us up to date with popular culture. It will help us understand cultural references, metaphors that are used in everyday conversations, and we might be able to understand “insider” jokes in the target languages.

Practicing regularly seems easy, but it’s not. Setting aside time each day to practice our language skills is not something we think needs any planning. But after a while, when we realize that we use our language less and less, that we struggle with finding words, we should start taking this language attrition a bit more seriously. Practice includes speaking, writing, or listening exercises. If we choose topics we are interested in, that we find compelling, it will be much easier to be consistent!

Using language-learning apps and websites are not only for language learners! There are many language-learning apps and websites available that can help us practice and improve our skills also at higher levels. They can be a great supplement to other methods of language maintenance.

We can maintain our language skills whilst living abroad even for a longer period

I personally managed – and still manage! – to maintain my languages, although I don’t live in the respective countries since almost 20 years (I talk about this in some of the interviews).

Consistency and curiosity are key! I try to listen to and use my languages on a regular basis. During designated times per week where I immerse myself fully into a language:  I watch a show, listen to a podcast or a recorded article. I made it a habit to read in any of my languages. Whether it is a news article or a novel, a scientific article or a poem, reading helps me foster at least my receptive vocabulary. The more I read a new term, the higher the chance that I will use it when I speak.

I try to speak at least my 5 most dominant languages – English, German, Italian, French and Dutch – on a weekly basis. I not always get the chance to meet people speaking them all. But I try to at least meet people online who share them with me.

It is very natural that some of my languages move to the background whilst others shift to the foreground every now and then. But whenever I notice that I struggle in one of my languages, I try to “nurture” it a bit more, until I feel more confident again.
In this video I share a model that allows us to visualize our language use:

I use some of my languages mainly for personal purposes, whereas others for professional ones.

  • How is it with your languages?
  • What languages would you like to foster more?
  • What strategies are effective for you to maintain your languages?

Please let me know in the comments.

Posted in Expats/Internationals, Family Language Planning, Heritage Language Maintenance, Intercultural Communication, International Life, Language Development, Language learning, Maintaining Multiple Languages, Multilingual, Multilingual Families, Multilingual Parenting Tips, Raising Multilinguals, Relocating, Third Culture Kid and tagged , .


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